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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Respect, constructive debate are cornerstones of comment policy

By Tom Warhover
October 20, 2011 | 10:46 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

The rules concerning comments on ColumbiaMissourian.com are pretty simple: Use your real name. Don’t make personal attacks or attacks on race, creed or religion. Nudity, profanity and illegal material aren’t allowed.

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We invite you to report comments you think violate that policy. The staff doesn’t remove the offending comment automatically, though. Judgment comes into play.

Often, Missourian editors see and remove a troublesome comment before it is in circulation very long, whether it gets flagged as inappropriate or not.

There were more than 900 comments on ColumbiaMissourian.com in the first 19 days of October, and 22 of those were removed.

In recent weeks, some of our most frequent commenters have said editors are overly sensitive and uneven in judgment. I’ll take up a few of the criticisms here. 

Criticism No. 1: Editors are too quick to take offense. The Missourian mentality is more Family Circus comic panel rather than "South Park" lampoon.

Bring up a commenter’s background, and you’re likely to get yanked. Say, “Warhover is stupid,” and watch out for the hook. But you can say, “Warhover’s policy is stupid” all day long. Criticize ideas, not individual people. Polite is in at ColumbiaMissourian.com. Respect is, too.

Tit for tat, by the way, isn’t the right way to report a personal attack. Let us know instead. When one comment gets back at another, we end up reading this kind of race to the gutter. That just leads to more comments being removed.

Criticism No. 2: It wasn’t this way before. Does the interpretation of personal attack depend on the editor on duty? Sure, in the same way that one baseball umpire might tend to call low strikes and another high. The basic definition of the strike zone is the same, but humans make the calls.

In our newsroom, a handful of editors make the calls on comments; it’s not a single person. Some of those editors weren’t working in our newsroom six months ago, and we’re in constant conversation about what’s allowable. Usually, comments are discussed with other editors before being removed. The decisions aren’t arbitrary.

Criticism No. 3: They pick on certain people.  There’s no list and no political agenda. But those who get flagged often tend to get more of our attention.

Criticism No. 4: You’re impinging on our right of free speech. Well, yeah – if you think your rights allow you to say anything, anywhere, anytime. That’s just not the case.

If you want to set up a website, which most anyone can do these days, then you can establish your own rules for who can comment. You can even set no rules at all and arbitrarily remove anyone’s comments because they displease you.

That First Amendment prevents the government from establishing laws “abridging the freedom of speech.” The government can’t stop you, most of the time. (Decades of legal precedent show that the right of free speech isn’t absolute anyway. Another letter for another day.)

But ColumbiaMissourian.com is not the government.

I’m grateful to the group of citizens from two years ago who took the time every month to meet with me and with other staff. The Readers Board often talked about comments. They represented many people who don’t write but who read and who care deeply.

Then and now, they helped me think about our policies. I know I’ll need to keep them in mind as I read the online comments on this letter.

For those who take up the pen and argue with the policy, or with my views on it, please give us your recommendations. The community outreach team is reviewing policies at newspapers, talking with people here in Columbia and coming up with proposals for changes. 

But no personal attacks, please.