Clippings: State your identity, state your piece

I don’t spend all that much time reading and writing comments on newspaper websites, but make a few exceptions for boston.com baseball coverage, Charlie Pierce blogs and Chad Finn columns; for Burlington Free Press articles on high school field hockey and football; and, only rarely, for an occasional Entertainment Weekly article at ewonline.com. In case anyone else out there reads the same stuff, I don’t mind outing myself as vermontk (boston.com) or Vermont K (BFP).Of course, I’m used to having people know who I am when I write stuff. And I’m used to having people disagree, sometimes vehemently. One phone caller took exception to my Clippings column a couple years back questioning our maturity as a nation. The conversation didn’t end well, in part also because of a decision I had made as a landlord the caller didn’t like either. But I knew who called, and I respected his right to disagree — and his willingness to identify himself.We get anonymous calls and letters at the Independent, of course. A few are anonymous for good reasons — some people may believe they have something to fear if they are identified as the source of information, for example. But many hide their identities and complain about something we’ve said or done, or not said and done, or make wild allegations about third parties. Some of those complaints and accusations even rise to the level of cheap shots, and these anonymous communications are often beneath contempt. Many, especially letters with no return addresses, are particularly frustrating because we have no way of answering them.I guess this stuff just goes with the newspaper territory, though, but it’s worth mentioning that readers who want to be taken seriously probably should tell us who they are. You know who we are, it’s only fair.Meanwhile, it’s no secret the whole question of anonymity pops up in Internet comment boards. The problem is people say things anonymously online they almost certainly would not say to someone’s face. Here are three disgraceful examples, in chronological order:• On the Independent website, a profile of a local candidate for the November election prompted posted comments that insulted the candidate’s family and termed the candidate a “pig.”• On the BFP discussion of final football rankings, a poster with the charming name of “BFAalwayschokes” blamed BFA-St. Albans’ 33-0 loss in the Division I football final on the coaching staff. The poster accused the teen athletes of playing like “deer in the headlights,” which he blamed on the coaches; accused the head coach of also “coughing up” the D-I baseball final; and said the school would never win championships “until it gets coaches who can manage a big game.” • In an ewonline.com discussion of the new Harry Potter movie (I’m a fan), one poster repeatedly complained the magazine spent too much time covering the Potter movies and the TV show “Glee.” Another poster finally said why post in a Harry Potter discussion if that’s your complaint, why not instead send an email to the magazine? The first poster responded with a rude suggestion that is not anatomically possible for a male human.So what to make of all this?It would be easy to hop on the high horse and lecture people about not writing anything you wouldn’t say directly to another person. But that’s not going to happen.It is true that ultimately, newspapers do have the right to set some guidelines and remove offensive comments. My editor removed the post that called the candidate a pig, for example, but left many others. And I see evidence of posts removed every now and then from boston.com; given some of the stuff that slips through, I can only imagine what had to be taken out.But while I was sitting there steamed by the “alwayschokes” post, I remembered the seminar I took a few years back on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That’s the one that guarantees free speech. After a lengthy discussion, the conclusion we all reached at that seminar was the way to combat unwelcome speech was by better speech. Ultimately, that solution works best. And for the record, that was me responding to “alwayschokes” that it was sad to see someone on the sidelines ripping coaches, who are essentially volunteers working with kids, in a “gutless anonymous post,” and concluding, “Congratulations from Middlebury to BFA, their coaches, players, parents and fans on a fine season.”Seemed like the best thing to do.<em>Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].</em>

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