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Free speech versus responsible speech

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Since the South County Spotlight rolled out online comments on our Web site (www.spotlightnews.net) a few months ago we've received a fair amount of feedback from readers questioning the practice of allowing people to post anonymously.

For years, the time-honored practice of newspapers was to publish commentary only if it was accompanied by the name of the author. The idea was that by holding people accountable for the words they used they would choose their words more carefully, which in turn would elevate the quality of public discourse, In a word, it would be more civil.

Of course there have always been newspapers that have allowed people to write under fictitious names. Perhaps the most famous newspaperman of all - Mark Twain - was really a chap by the name of Samuel Clemens. As we look back on Twain's body of work, there are few who would try to make the case that Clemens was less of a writer because he used a pen name.

Most editorial page editors in this country still adhere to the practice of requiring writers to include their name. There are exceptions to this rule of thumb, generally in bona fide cases where the author is bringing to light an important public issue at considerable personal risk. In those cases, editors generally agree, it is appropriate to omit the name along with a note from the editor explaining the extenuating circumstances.

By and large, the editorial section of a newspaper, including signed columns, editorials and letters to the editor, constitutes the highest form of public discourse because the writers choose their words as if they will reflect on their own intelligence, credibility and character.

The rise of the Internet in the mid 1990s had an immediate and dramatic effect on public discourse, as people could post their ideas and opinions almost instantaneously to a worldwide audience without revealing their identities. This new-found ability to self-publish quickly and across great distances took hold and evolved into what now are known as Web logs or 'blogs,' which have become a wildly popular form of communication and public discourse. People love to be able to write a letter and, seconds later, see it on the World Wide Web.

The sites that allowed people to use pen names are among the most popular, in part, because they facilitate completely unfettered commentary. This is the essence of free speech.

This unfettered form of communication makes a lot of people uncomfortable, including newspaper editors, who are invested in the old way - signed columns, op-ed pieces and letters. Put a group of editors in a room and ask them to debate the merits and demerits of anonymous blogs and they will argue for hours without reaching a consensus on the 'right' approach.

Like many of our sister newspapers in Community Newspapers Inc., we have opted to let the people who visit our site post comments anonymously, if they wish. We believe that community discussions belong to the community and that in the marketplace of ideas the best ones will win and the others will quickly be debunked, discredited, cast aside and forgotten. Great communicators with great ideas will rise to the top, and poor ones will sink to their rightful place at the bottom - just like they do in real life.

We appreciate everyone who takes time to visit our site and contribute to the great ongoing discussions of the day, and especially those who have something clever, funny or insightful to add. We welcome those whose ability to communicate is limited to speaking in monosyllabic words and name-calling, too. After all, writing well takes practice, and at least these folks are practicing. R.S.