COLUMBIA — Hickman High School students made free speech and anonymous speech on the Internet their focus at the final Speak Your Mind forum Wednesday evening.
Four speakers with expertise in ethics, free speech and the law fielded students’ questions about the Internet. Most of the issues raised by students centered on balancing freedom of speech with protection of individuals from harm.
Richard Geenen, a philosophy professor at Westminster College in Fulton, said freedom of speech is necessary for a free society but should not always be absolute.
“In terms of where to draw the line on the Internet, I’m honestly not very sure,” Geenen said. “At some point, when you’re talking about a line about violence against another person, you’re talking about harm.”
Dennis Crouch, a law professor at MU, said one advantage of the Internet is its ability to regulate itself.
He said it took him two minutes to start his own blog and start posting. This form of communication makes it easier for people to respond to what he calls “bad speech,” or speech that an individual does not agree with.
“My first response to bad speech is usually more speech,” he said. “The beauty of today’s electronic age is that I can make it public.”
The panelists also answered questions about how to keep the Internet anonymous while holding users accountable for what they publish in cyberspace. Crouch thinks the ability to post anonymously is necessary to keep the Internet an open forum for free speech.
“The ability to speak anonymously encourages some people to speak,” he said. “On my site, I allow anonymous posting to encourage speech.”
But Crouch also acknowledged that anonymous speech could lead to abuse and harassment.
“The problem is, if people don’t know who we are, we aren’t always on our best behavior,” he said. “There are people who are able to be mean face to face. The number of people who can do this through e-mail is much, much greater.”
Detective Tracy Perkins of the Mid-Missouri Internet Crimes Task Force said people aren’t really as anonymous on the Internet as they think.
“A lot of people are misled,” she said. “Internet servers have the information of who connects to what site when on their databases.”
John Coffman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, stressed the need to maintain free speech on the Internet as a matter of principle.
“In my opinion, free speech is our most paramount right,” Coffman said. “It underpins all our other rights.”
The event was co-sponsored by the Speak Your Mind Steering Committee, Hickman’s Amnesty International chapter and the Hickman student government.