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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Vestal: Why defend an anonymous troll’s right to insult?

Shawn Vestal (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A judge has ordered this newspaper to turn over information about a person who made a potentially libelous comment under an assumed name on the website.

This, of course, will have a chilling effect on free speech. A chilling effect is what we in the free-speech business always warn about. We do not want to chill speech; we want it hot and loose.

This speech, though? This anonymous lobbing of insults?

Chill it. Give it frostbite, even.

It feels traitorous to say so. My training and background and beliefs lead me to certain articles of faith: More speech is always better; protecting the identity of sources is noble; anonymous information is often an important tool for getting at the truth; journalistic organizations must stand against government efforts to usurp newsgathering for their purposes.

But what has emerged in the era of online commenting is, about three-quarters of the time, a sewer of stupidity and insults and shallowness. The visions of a digital public square, with less gatekeeping and more democratic forums for discourse, seem quaint and comical in the light of what has actually come to pass.

I have mostly stopped reading the comment threads on the newspaper’s website, because it is almost always infuriating and pointless. It is especially so when I have persuaded someone to share their story – only to see them mocked for their painful experiences or physical appearance. Which is common.

The idea that the newspaper has to spend time and treasure defending this nonsense – not protecting a whistleblower; not battling the government for access to public records – is repulsive. It’s a perversion of what, in other circumstances, is a valuable journalistic relationship: helping to get at the truth by protecting people for whom it’s dangerous to speak the truth. That relationship has been distorted and demented on Internet bulletin boards, and now the monkeys who are in there throwing poop want to be treated like Karen Silkwood.

So go ahead and chill it.

In this case, someone writing on the S-R’s Huckleberries Online blog under the name “almostinnocentbystander” alleged that Kootenai County’s GOP chairwoman may have stolen $10,000. A couple of other pseudonymous wags weighed in. An S-R staffer noticed the comments a couple hours later and took them down.

The GOP chairwoman, Tina Jacobson, subpoenaed the newspaper for the identities of the commenters; a judge ordered the S-R to turn over some information that may help identify the initial commenter, but not the two who responded.

The story became national news, bounced around the interwebs by a link on the Drudge Report. The problems and benefits of online anonymity is a much-pondered subject, and this is one ramification of it. For many, what “almostinnocentbystander” did is simple Internet troll work, the kind of thing that’s easy to dismiss and not such a big deal. For others, the nature of these forums is a lot harder to take.

On the S-R website the morning after the story about the ruling appeared in the newspaper, there were 60 comments by 11:15 a.m. A fairly heavy load. Of those, one used an apparently real name.

The others bickered and bantered and joked, occasionally offering their legal expertise about libel under names like DazeeTrader1980 and RedCedar and PROFINTOX. Some asked good questions or raised interesting points. Many offered the considered opinion that Tina Jacobsen was just being too sensitive: Why couldn’t she handle the heat as a public official? A little joke. A little free speech. Toughen up, Tina. These people cloaked their identities in names too silly for SpongeBob Squarepants: BlondeSquawker, Plan B, Truthhurts, MrBloggy …

Of course, many of these folks worried about the effect of the ruling on free speech. Because there is no speech that is quite so gloriously free as things no one knows you said. Speech that you do not have to own at all. Frail, cowardly insults, tossed out from behind an opaque veil, with the paid legal protection of an actual journalistic organization.

I hate the idea of turning over the identities of people to a court. But in this case, I hate the idea that we would protect them even more.

Real journalists sometimes use anonymous sources, of course. Many crucial stories would never come to light without them. But no one but the weakest hack quotes anonymous sources making cheap shots – let alone cheap shots alleging a crime. And there are much more important journalistic principles that assert the value and importance of identifying where information comes from, of verifying and confirming facts, of being responsible for what you say.

Freedom of speech is like all other freedoms. It has borders and boundaries, and those form at the point where your freedom affects others. We don’t have the right not to be offended, but we do have the right not to be lied about – even public officials, who have an appropriately low level of protection from libel in order to encourage free speech, cannot be maliciously or recklessly lied about.

Does that dampen free speech? Will people be discouraged from going online and hurling unsubstantiated allegations of criminal behavior, knowing that a newspaper might not treat them like the Daniel Ellsberg of the digital age? Will a chill set in?

If so, that’s cool.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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