By Reid Goldsborough
The Internet has been called the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the best advancement in democracy since universal suffrage, the greatest soapbox ever built, reaching even the most fettered corners of the world, in which people freely speak their minds about issues of the day.
Yet freedom on the Internet is the snarly sort, with faceless and often nameless ranters cyberbashing anyone and anything they please. Truth often becomes the victim.
There’s a war out there between those pushing the free-speech envelope, sometimes anarchically, and those trying to rein them in, sometimes oppressively. And for the mass of individuals and organizations in the middle, there are prudent steps to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.
Surveying recent headlines shows how central an issue this is.
• In the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, students’ Web sites containing derogatory or threatening comments about teachers were taken down, and some students were expelled.
• Presidential candidate George Bush Jr. bought the rights to 200 Internet domain names, including “bush-sucks.com,” to prevent critics from using them to create highly visible Web sites critical of him.
• A jury ordered a group of anti-abortion activists to pay more than $100 million in damages after they had created a Web site listing doctors who perform abortions. The site, called the Nuremberg Files, offered rewards for doctors’ addresses and license plate numbers, with lines drawn through the names of doctors who had been murdered.
• Defense contractor Raytheon filed suit against nearly two dozen of its own employees for exchanging chitchat about the company at a Yahoo public discussion board, using aliases. Through the suit it learned the identities of the chatters and took disciplinary action against them.
• After she was threatened with hanging at a Philadelphia-based Web site operated by white supremacists, an anti-hate activist felt forced to move out of state.
Be careful out there. If you like participating in online discussions, post as if you’re sitting in the living room of those reading your messages. If you write a statement of fact that disparages someone else, tell the truth to avoid libel. Don’t threaten others with violence.
If you’re an employer or supervisor and intend to monitor employees’ e-mail, establish a policy about this and communicate it to employees to prevent hurt feelings and lawsuits. If you’re an employee, recognize that your employer has the legal right to read e-mail you send using its equipment.
If you’re employed, be circumspect about what you say on the Net, or use a pseudonym. The First Amendment prevents the government from stifling your speech, not your employer. Though it happens rarely, and when it does it’s sometimes challenged in court, people have been fired for statements they’ve made through their personal Web sites.
If you come across a Web site critical of you or your organization, try to establish a dialogue. Ask about the circumstances that led to the person’s dissatisfaction. Your reputation can only improve if you try to solve the person’s problem instead of calling in the lawyers.
If you’re concerned that others may be spreading false rumors about you or your organization on the Web or in Usenet discussion groups, you can use a commercial Internet intelligence service such as eWatch, at www.ewatch.com, or EclipZe, at www.eclipze.com.
If you or your kids are worried about a student’s Web site that threatens violence or suicide, check out CyberAngels, at www.cyberangels.org. The group behind the site, which is affiliated with Curtis Sliwa’s Guardian Angels, says it will contact the student, the student’s school, or law enforcement officials, depending on the situation.
If you’d like to comment about a Web site, a new way is through a free software program called Third Voice, which you can download at www. thirdvoice.com. It lets you append Post-it type notes to others’ sites, though your notes will be visible only to other Third Voice users.
Freedom of speech is both a privilege and a burden. Sometimes what you read can make the hair on your neck stand on end. But it’s long been recognized in this country that the best answer to “evil” speech is “more speech,” as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote more than a half century ago.
The late newspaper reporter Richard Pothier, who spent his last years as an active online debater, put it this way: “Censorship is never the answer to unpopular opinions. The ‘court of public opinion’ makes its own judgment. Intolerance, bigotry, and other stupidity are seen for what they are.”