How cyber bullies stifle free speech

"The price of freedom of religion, or of speech, or of the press, is that we must put up with a good deal of rubbish." - Robert H. Jackson, U.S. Supreme Court 1941-54

Over the past eight years, I have written 75 columns for this space. During that time, I have had my share of both positive and negative responses. And that's okay. After all, I've put my name and face out there. Folks have applauded or taken issue with my politics, my career choice and my character in letters and phone calls to the editor and to my home. Even to my place of work.

In addition, I've also taken an increasing number of hits on the Nevada Appeal's Web site. Those responses however, tend to be much more heated and hateful. And the anonymity of the Web gives those writers cover.

It doesn't seem to matter whether I have written something political or personal, I am frequently astounded (shocked, saddened) by the comments from the inhabitants of the Appeal's Web site. I imagine them sitting at their computers, reading the paper (for free) and getting angry. Then, rather than yelling at the screen or kicking the dog, they fire off a comment. Others, probably just love stoking the flames, experiencing the rush of adrenaline brought on by the verbal sparring, without ever having to interact with a real human. They spread their hate anonymously, without fear of retribution or real-life consequences.

Do they act like that in the real world? If so, who are their friends, their co-workers, their spouses? Where are the mediating influences, like common courtesy and decency?

But it's not just the Appeal. The whole Internet is like the Wild West. The gunfighters feel duty-bound to inflict damage on their target du jour, dueling on the dusty main streets and back alleys of the cyber village. Luckily, the posters are very small in number - about 1 percent of the Appeal's daily online readership of 8,000. Moreover, after a few shots at the article or author, they mostly argue amongst themselves, calling names and hurling insults. They remind me of children shouting, "You're an idiot!" "No, you are!" "You are!" Only the posters' language is much worse. Not exactly raising the level of public discourse.

So if their numbers are so small, what am I so worried about? Because, rather than promoting free speech, I believe these cyber bullies actually stifle it.

Kirk Caraway, Web editor for the Nevada Appeal says, "We tried an experiment last fall with unmoderated comments, and ran into problems. Even with some very restrictive word filters to strip out the profanity, the comments spiraled out of control with vicious, racist attacks. We had a lot of complaints about these comments, but the final straw was when we saw traffic to these pages drop. That was a clear indication that the readers had had enough." (Nevada Appeal, March 13, 2007)

Back to the image of the Wild West, some citizens stand on the sidewalks and watch because they have no desire to engage in such a nasty battle. Other brave souls step in to calm the situation, but get shot down. More avoid that street entirely.

Kirk also tells me that currently, the "system posts comments immediately without moderation (other than a 'dirty word' filter). It also has the feature that lets users report abusive posts ... once a post is reported, it automatically comes off the site until I review it to determine if it is abusive ... in a sense, the readers have become the editors of the comments and I think that will eventually help create a better policed community." Let's hope so.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the media tends to present issues in the simplest terms possible. After all, conflict creates interest and sells papers. I believe many of us are guilty as well. We blame the other guy for everything that we see that is wrong with America. Whose fault is it anyway? The Democrats or the Republicans? The rich or the poor? Big business or the government? Phonics or whole language? Comedy Central or Fox News? Those are false choices. They depict complex issues as a matter of "either/or" when the real answers usually lie in "both/and." Sadly, that middle ground is largely unexplored territory.

Each of us bears some responsibility. Until we stop blaming each other, we will never find common ground. Never. Until we start working on solutions together, nothing will change for the better. Nothing.

We can't let the few anonymous cyber gunfighters set the tone. We must step in and raise the level of discourse. And even though someone out there will take issue with it, I'll end with Gandhi. "Be the change you want to see in the world."

• Fresh Ideas: Starting conversations by sharing personal perspectives on issues both timely and timeless. Lorie Schaefer is retired. She invites you to browse on over to, where citizens put faces to their opinions and allow you to register your support or opposition. Cool.


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