Depending on whom we speak with in the course of a week Lamorinda Patch has either, a.) created a valid, vetted and worthwhile forum for discussion of neighborhood issues, or, b.) single-handedly reversed the ideals of the Founding Fathers and set the concept of Free Speech back 100 years.
We prefer the former description, of course, but have been accused of the latter more than we can count. Some of our readers seem to think the First Amendment gives them the protection to say whatever they wish, as often as they wish, and with as much venom as they wish. Many others tell us they are tired of this salty few, and that their invective keeps less confrontational or thick-skinned users off the site.
, we do not wish to be placed in the role of censor here at Lamorinda Patch -- having other things to do and trusting our readership (an educated bunch if ever there was one) to play nice. As it turns out, that may have been a naive notion on our part and now, it seems, others are getting ready to take the fight against cyber intimidation a step further.
A new bill passed recently in Arizona would send those who "annoy or offend" neighbors in online comment threads to jail for as much as six months. House Bill 2549, which enjoyed bipartisan support, passed in the state's legislature and is awaiting one final vote on a minor "technical change" before it goes to Gov. Jan Brewer.
The language of HB 2549 immediately sent the eyebrows of First Amendment advocates into high arch.
It states that, if passed, it would be a class one misdemeanor for anyone to "terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend" through electronic and digital devices. Precise definitions of what would be considered annoying or offensive were not included, though Patch readers have submitted examples of their own in the recent past.
Free Speech advocates are requesting that Gov. Brewer take another pass at the legislation, but Arizona Rep. Steve Farley, who co-sponsored HB2549, said its intention is not to stifle free speech, but to protect victims of stalking and cyber-bullying.
"It doesn't mean that the person is instantly going to be fined or put away," Farley told ABC News. "But if the judge determines it relates to other circumstances in the case then they can use this as another tool to make that decision."
To date, 38 states have enacted legislation against electronic bullying, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center.
"I'm a defender of the Constitution like anyone else, but the First Amendment doesn't give you the right to harass or terrorize someone," said Justin Patchin, the center's co-director.
It's a fine line Lamorinda Patch would prefer not to walk, but it appears that most communities have their share of firebrands happy to touch off enmity and spite between neighbors and, while the vast majority of comments are well-written and well received, Lamorinda is not exempt.
Despite admonitions and warnings and, in extreme cases, actual deletion of and found to be so by Patch, it also appears that some users feel compelled to keep slinging mud despite our use of the DELETE key.
What do you think, Oh Gentle Patch Reader? Should Patch forums be left alone, with some posters free to engage others in a no-holds-barred form of cyber mud-wrestling? Should we run the risk of being criticized for playing cyber-sheriff and take even more steps to keep our active comments boards free of invective? Or should we follow Arizona's pending model... with a real-world pillory ready and waiting for those who cannot -- or will not -- conduct themselves civilly on the Internet?