Free Speech? Or Merely Picking Fights Online? What Should Be Done?

Lamorinda Patch has grown increasingly concerned by the level of vituperation expressed on its pages and taken steps to dampen it. Some feel we've gone too far, others feel we haven't gone far enough...


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?

Amy Chu April 05, 2012 at 03:56 PM
Haha! I agree with MN that some of the comments from people can really be over the top and I found myself tuning those out. Also agree with him or her about the anti police ones which were repetitive and silly but it was the same one or two people making those posts and they have moved on or been moved on :-} All in all Patch is a good local forum, I read the articles too, and if I felt intimidated or threatened I wouldn't be here! I'm also enjoying hearing what everyone else thinks about this. Good topic!!!!
terri oconnor April 05, 2012 at 03:57 PM
I'll agree that to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass is not acceptable but to annoy or offend? I love my neighbors but have often felt annoyed without losing my affection for them. I enjoy the sharing of ideas and learning from others perspective. For this to work, its my duty to try not to offend but also my duty to work to not take offense.
Fritz 'Congodog' Stoop April 05, 2012 at 05:09 PM
Recently I went off on a philosophical tangent. It was a sort of mini-treatise on societal evolution, specifically how many of us today are more on/off, in/out/ I/O, yes/no in our ideas and how we express them. I went on to say that life is more nuanced than that, that the subjective influences are sometimes as, or more, important than the raw facts. It was apparently seen as an person attack and not the general observation it was meant to be and dismissed out of hand into the ether. Oh well. Once and for all, everyone has the right to an opinion, right or wrong is what discussion is for.
Kendra loveless April 05, 2012 at 05:14 PM
I have been away from the patch lately partly because o the level of invective. So glad the headline of this post was a subject line in my inbox. I'll freely admit to being one of the less thick-skinned, and that I have refrained from commenting on issues I care about because I feared being flamed by the trolls. Maybe I need to work on my courage, but at the same time, intimidation, be it online or in the real world, is not constitutionally protected. Free speach is one thing, smack downs are another.
Bailey Lee April 05, 2012 at 05:22 PM
If you can see/hear it on a "R" rated movie (MPAA: "CONTAINS SOME ADULT MATERIAL. PARENTS ARE URGED TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE MOTION PICTURE BEFORE TAKING THEIR YOUNGER CHILDREN WITH THEM.") why should it be censored on any general public discussion site? Everyone in this blog has seen dozens of these and so have their children, probably from the age of 13 and up, if not younger. Censorship is like trying to grade various degrees of virginity. Except for pornography, obscenity, etc. (and even then, it's difficult) where anyone draws the line is totally arbitrary.
DanglingParticiple April 05, 2012 at 05:28 PM
Thankfully, we're also not as hairy as the great apes.
Born and Raised April 05, 2012 at 05:33 PM
So your bottom line is, anything goes with the exception of certain profanity? I've seen what happens with "open" type forums and it's always the same result; it devolves into lesser and lesser civlility. It seems to me that this site is more in line with a newspaper's "comment" section and any large circulated newspaper would never allow a lot of the comments I've witnissed here ever make it to print.
DanglingParticiple April 05, 2012 at 05:36 PM
I think PG-13 would be a better target. The line between R and NC-17 is so easily blurred. Signed, Midnight Cowboy.
DanglingParticiple April 05, 2012 at 05:42 PM
Sometimes, though, the site really needs an off-topic comment to simply tone down the rhetoric a bit. I humbly accept that challenging role. No remuneration required.
X April 05, 2012 at 06:01 PM
Well, in honor of our resident "Breakfast at Tiffany's" commenter (who we could really use more of - please start a "Breakfast at Tiffany's" themed blog), here's what I say. If the Patch comments get to you, do what I do when that happens. "...Jump in a cab and go to Tiffany's. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there. If I could find a real-life place that'd make me feel like Tiffany's, then - then I'd" probably stop tripping little old ladies at Safeway and pushing kids out of swings at Orinda park.
terri oconnor April 05, 2012 at 06:42 PM
JD, Yes, me. I do exist although not related.
Bailey Lee April 05, 2012 at 07:47 PM
@ born and raised. You may be surprised at what passes for "acceptable" here that would not be acceptable elsewhere in this very country and vice versa, despite the legendary and undeserved reputation for diversity and freedom of expression that the SF area has. If you want a nice polite conversation about the day's events, that can be done; if you want to hear what people outside your comfort zone have to say, then don't expect to be comfortable listening or reading. Freedom of speech is just that. It doesn't mean freedom from being uncomfortable or offended. Even the ACLU defended the Nazis' use of the swastika in Skokie under the first amendment; I wasn't happy about that one, personally. So if the editor wants to make this a discussion forum with certain rules limiting what and how ideas and opinions can be communicated, that's his right, I suppose, but don't assume that speech here is free; it's not. BTW, PG-13 is fine.
Born and Raised April 05, 2012 at 08:45 PM
Bailey, I don't exactly follow your reasoning. You bounce back and forth between agreeing with me and then trying to give me a lesson in the First Ammendment which I still don't think applies to this site in the truest sense. Can you at least agree (which you stated already) that JD has the right to run this show if he chooses? Oh and I never assumed any freedom in this country came free, you really don't need to remind me of that.
Bailey Lee April 05, 2012 at 10:46 PM
@B and R. I wasn't really responding to any question per se, just expounding a little bit on the futility of censorship and the shifty sands on which any given censor stands. Yes I agree that JD has the right to censor this website any way he chooses at this time. But I submit that if the LP is to become more of a journalistic endeavor rather than a neighborhood blog, then his personal biases/beliefs need to stand back a little in favor of more "objective" principles of free speech, truthfulness (unlike, say, NBC recently), and neutrality in reporting. This is not to imply significant deficiencies in these things now.
natalie johns April 05, 2012 at 11:11 PM
That says a lot right there.
natalie johns April 05, 2012 at 11:12 PM
Robin Goodman April 05, 2012 at 11:29 PM
Holly and Cat send their greetings to you, Kenny! You know what they say, "Happiness comes in a little blue box!"
Fritz 'Congodog' Stoop April 06, 2012 at 02:43 AM
That point, JD, was generated out of a bit of frustration I sometimes feel when folks seem to me a bit narrow-minded and then tend to get a little repetitive. I am certainly not saying, "they just don't agree with me!". Rather, occasionally I like to encourage an adjustment in perspective that represents maybe a little different way of looking at a subject that might shed a new, evocative light on things. When representing a point of view, one operates using a set of underlying assumptions as the foundation for their opinion. Questioning or challenging an assumption is not really going 'off topic', and one should not get vaporized for what amounts to putting a finer point on an issue. Sometimes I don the 'devil's advocate' hat when things seem a bit one-sided, as well. Aside from churches and bars (and dog parks) there are not a lot of social meeting places in contemporary society which accounts for the roaring success of Facebook and Youtube, etc. The Patch discussions are akin to the bench in front of the barbershop. We are getting far to insular and mechanisms like Patch.com are filling a very valuable social need. I love it when someone says, "strange as it may seem, I actually can agree with you on this one!" We are, when it gets right down to it, basically all in the same boat.
Eileen April 06, 2012 at 06:24 AM
In the online universe, Patch's purpose seems to be to carve out small communities of people to provide them "hyper-local" content (i.e., news + commentary) so as to support "hyper-local" (plus some well-targeted national brand) advertising to that local audience. If I were an advertiser on a Patch site, I would want to see some assurance that the audience "present" as readers and/or commentators on a local Patch site were, in fact, real local people, resident in that local Patch advertising market. Likewise, as an individual who can spend her time browsing whatever local/regional/national/global website or blog for news, commentary, etc., what draws me to our Lamorinda Patch site is the implied promise that all commentators are, themselves, Lamorindans (or at least invested in Lamorinda, as current business owners or former residents). I am interested to hear what "Real Name Joe" in North Orinda thinks about the proposed changes to downtown Orinda zoning regs, but don't frankly give-a-damn what Gary from Peoria, IL who happens to work for the master-developer (e.g., Pulte) wants. (A hypothetical.) I would encourage JD to require that anyone posting on the Lamorinda Patch site include a verifiable name and hometown. Transparency would create a level playing field and the discourse would improve greatly. Those who enjoy a "bully position" as anonymous contributors would need to ID themselves, which would, I believe, encourage shy "lurkers" to contribute publicly.
Mike D. April 06, 2012 at 12:53 PM
Eileen, a quick google search can bring up ones address if a taxpayer(a public record), a satellite or street view photo of the same home, meanwhile facebook and other social media outlets are tracking our clicks to figure out how to best market to us....to name just a few ways our privacy can be invaded. This is why I will never use my full or real name on a blog, too much downside with little upside. If a blog required a real name and hometown I certainly wouldnt leave comments and may not use it altogether.
Eileen April 06, 2012 at 03:00 PM
And yet a letter to the editor of a traditional newspaper or a public comment at a city council meeting would require the same disclosure. I just think that for the discourse to grow and have more meaning, it needs to have greater transparency.
William H. Thompson April 07, 2012 at 11:23 AM
Not every bar has a bouncer, but those that do find it a prudent necessity. Any online forum is a sort of privilege - the opportunity to voice one's thoughts and receive the thoughts of others. Just as patrons of bars set the "persona" of the place, so do the patrons of online forums. They can establish the "brand" of their online community, and that clearly influences participation and following. So just as people avoid certain watering holes, that can happen to online forums - abandoning them to "ruffians" and boisterous zealots. JD has proven himself to be an unwilling but at-the-ready bouncer, a job we could hope would be unneeded in the civil Lamorinda communities - but one done here in a way this writer appreciates, especially knowing this "bouncer's" professionalism and objectivity.
Jose April 08, 2012 at 03:43 AM
Well said.
Fritz 'Congodog' Stoop April 08, 2012 at 03:54 PM
Hey JD, this is related. I got chased out of anonymity by an angry crowd that demanded my identity. To your credit, you made no such demand. Can we add the subject of "noms de guerre or pseudonyms when commenting" to this discussion or should it stand alone? Sometimes it is easier to express yourself if you are free of repercussions, but on the other hand a check is worthless without a proper signature! Just a thought. Congodog
Fritz 'Congodog' Stoop April 08, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Perhaps a condition for posting is a true name in the profile. Then all it takes is a quick click and the doer is exposed. Anyway, thanks for the clear and thoughtful answer. Enjoy the day! Congodog
Sue Haas April 10, 2012 at 04:01 PM
I take it this is the kind of thing you're seeing?: Seeb keeb 7:10 pm on Monday, April 9, 2012 Hang him, like I said before u deleted my comment. I thought this was the internet.
DanglingParticiple April 10, 2012 at 04:45 PM
Why are you not a "people"? Whenever you leave a comment, it doesn't show in the new "What People are Saying" box. It doesn't seem very nice not to count you as a "people". Well, I, for one, support your peopleness.
Fritz 'Congodog' Stoop April 10, 2012 at 04:47 PM
As King Narcissus used to say, "Its nice to be nice."
Fritz 'Congodog' Stoop April 10, 2012 at 05:21 PM
King Narcisse (sic) was a real character and a piece of East Bay historical esoterica, Circa 1950s. King Narcisse was the 'Leader' of Mount Zion Holy Temple in Oakland, CA. and was a wonderfully flamboyant character that was driven around (mainly in the Lakeshore area) in a golden Coupe deVille. Whenever and wherever he arrived, his driver would pile out and roll out a runner of brilliant red carpet to keep the good king from soiling his (also) golden footwear as he entered his destination. The motto (for lack of a better word) of the Mount Zion Holy Temple was, "It is Nice to be Nice." When the King departed, as he waited for the carpet to be rolled up, he would beam a huge, electric smile and exclaim, "It is Nice to be Nice!" Really can't argue with that. As I was raised in the ghettos of Piedmont, the King and his message were fascinating to me, so, at about age 11 or 12, I ventured one Sunday to the Temple, the only pink face in the crowd. The experience was extraordinary, bordering on unbelievable. My nerves were immediately set at ease as I was warmly welcomed and invited to a seat up front. The service was as uplifting and all-encompassing as any I have ever witnessed to this day. By the end I was standing, swaying, singing and clapping loudly along with the all the others in the vibrating building. I returned many times in the next few years. It was indeed, nice to be nice.
Claire Voyance April 12, 2012 at 03:01 AM
First and foremost, the RIGHT of Free Speech does NOT apply to this website because there is no governmental conduct. However, regarding the SPIRIT of Free Speech, the ONLY post that should be prohibited is a post that violates a criminal law (e.g. threat) and/or civil law (e.g. defamation). Whether profanity should be permitted is debatable. If you don't like what someone else posted, ignore it or respond to it. (or start your own website)


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