PORTLAND — MaineToday Media’s decision to suspend its online comments until it could come up with a manageable and affordable way to register the people who want to express themselves was a laudable one.

The editors of the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel verify the authorship of letters published in the hard-copy editions of their newspapers.

The policy is so strict that when an editor called the phone number listed on a letter submitted by one writer, his wife’s assurance that her husband was in fact the author was insufficient and he had to call the paper himself.

There is no reason that the same standards should not apply to online comments.

There are both practical and moral reasons for newspapers to align their online policies better with those applied to the printed page. Most obvious, as publisher Richard Connor noted in his explanation of the changed policy, unvetted postings lower the tone of civic discourse — and they cheapen the value of more thoughtful expression by association.

A secondary concern, particularly with respect to election coverage, is the suspicion that at least some of the opinions expressed are not those of readers with a vested interest in what an article says but rather that they are churned out by organizations seeking to influence public opinion from afar to further partisan agendas.

More important than either of these concerns, however, is the more pernicious effects of such a double standard on the way people interact online.

Contrary to what we have been conditioned to think since the rise of the Internet as a popular medium, electronic communication does not take place in a virtual world with only shadowy associations to the one we inhabit.

We are reminded daily that what occurs in electronic media has immediate real-world consequences – from using a bank card to shop at the corner store to having one’s identity stolen, from poorly designed trading programs that cause the Dow Jones Industrial Average to fall a thousand points in minutes to car systems that can alert a third party when you’ve been in an accident.

Yet too many people believe that they can get away with behavior online that they would never attempt “in person.”

The most infamous examples are those of Lori Drew who, posing as a 16-year-old boy, befriended and then jilted a 13-year-old-neighbor, and Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, who posted on the Internet a video Ravi had secretly filmed of his roommate having sex.

These examples of cyber-bullying led to the suicide of their respective victims, and while it is doubtful that any newspapers’ online comments have had the same sad result, the behavior is not dissimilar.

Its tempting to say that the double standard of anonymity online and rigorous identification in print has its most pernicious effects on young people, but Drew was 39 and Ravi and Wei 18 when they ran amok in their “virtual” worlds.

Nonetheless, the anecdotal evidence – reinforced by such articles as the one on electronic cheating and plagiarism by high school students in a recent Portland Press Herald – suggests that people of all ages seem to think that what is unethical in one medium is somehow acceptable or forgivable (“It’s so easy, how could it be wrong?”) in another.

MaineToday Media’s decision is correct because it is inconsistent to have one set of rules for print and another for electronic media.

There are many ways for people to express their opinions anonymously or pseudonymously – blogs, social networking sites and the like – and newspapers’ maintaining standards for electronic media in no way constitutes an infringement of anyone’s speech.

As countless unpublished writers of letters to the -editor can attest, newspapers have the final word on what does and does not see the light of day, and they should exercise the same standards online as they do in print.

Electronic media can and should enlarge the scope of civic dialogue, but it should not do so at the expense of civility and common sense.

Maine’s Sen. Margaret Chase Smith got the balance right when she observed, “Moral cowardice that keeps us from speaking our minds is as dangerous to this country as irresponsible talk.”

MaineToday Media and other publishers should continue to find ways to encourage their readers to speak their minds.

But it is in their interest, and that of the communities they serve, to make us do so responsibly.

 

– Special to The Press Herald