Trolls ruin comments for rest

Published 10:01 pm Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I haven’t been at The Clanton Advertiser for long … only about three weeks.

But one thing I’ve been impressed with in my short tenure is the activity on our Web site,

The Advertiser’s online counterpart receives 100,000 unique visitors every month—more than many larger papers that have more subscribers.

I’ve been amazed by our visitors and their fervor for commenting and blogging about stories. Almost everything we post gets dozens of comments from users, wanting to give their say about the report, offer new information or even critiquing what we are doing.

That’s all great, and something I enjoy reading as much as everyone. I think it adds much to our Web site, especially the interaction between and among our readers.

Most of our comments bring color to our coverage or offer ways we can improve, but there are occasional instances when the comments get out of hand, and that’s why I’m writing this column.

When comments take a turn for the worse, we have to play referee … never a role that would win a popularity contest.

Yet, the bottom line is we can’t allow comments on our stories that are untruthful, make accusations that are unfounded, contain obscenities or other questionable language, or attack people in our stories or other bloggers.

Sometimes, we have to remove a comment or even disable bloggers from being able to discuss a story. Then the very bloggers who make these restrictions necessary complain about their freedom of speech being taken away.

Freedom of speech, as guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, never intended to allow people to say whatever they want to.

The Constitution protects citizens from the government taking away citizens’ right to assembly, peacefully protest, to give opinions … even for our staff to publish this newspaper and Web site, but it doesn’t afford people the God-given right to spew lies and hate, much less use a feature on

The situation often quoted is you can’t go into a crowded theater and yell, “Fire.” You might think that is your right, but it’s not … you can even face criminal charges for doing so.

Similarly, bloggers on our site and others all over the Internet should know that they, the person who writes the comment, are legally responsible for its content.

In extreme cases at some newspapers in the United States, police have been brought in to investigate comments. Other newspapers have been subpoenaed for and turned over users’ information like e-mail addresses and IP addresses when asked for it by courts and lawyers.

These few renegade users might think what they write won’t ever have any consequences for them, but they might be surprised to learn it can.

With that said, I hope legitimate, meaningful and, yes even spirited and controversial discussion and debate, continues and even expands on our Web site, and these few trolls, as they are often called, won’t spoil the experience for everyone else.