Saturday, April 12, 2008

Can Web Sites Be Sued for User Comment?

Recently, I read an interesting story, " can be sued for violating fair housing laws." The story reported that a federal appellate court ruled that the housing site,, could "be sued for helping to match roomates based on race, sexual orientation," etc.

Interesting enough, to be sure. But the case has far-ranging potential, according to another article about the issue in Why? According to the article, "Some digital rights advocates view the case as a significant loss, because it appears to open the door to lawsuits against a variety of Web publishers for reasons that go far beyond discrimination in housing." One of those being the ability "to sue for defamatory comments" from users.

What does all of this mean for newspapers? There's the question. Many users of the Web consider the Internet a free-wheeling, free-for-all of commentary protected by The First Amendment.

But in an article by Robert Niles, "It's time for the newspaper industry to die," the author asks whether there isn't a responsbility attached to print stories posted online. In his article, he questions the user-generated commentary attached to a feature story. That commentary offered misinformation to anyone reading, and Niles suggested a reporter should have corrected the misinformation by responding to it -- a no-no in many traditional print newsrooms around the country.

Given what I know about the heated debate on the issue in several newspaper newsrooms I've worked in over the years, I must admit I have wondered long before reading his article whether he wasn't right. I must now admit I have a particular emotional stake in this debate, given that my mother left her own country to live in a country where you can say anything without fear of retribution. Plus, I'm a journalist, so I come with an additional bias -- I consider defending The First Amendment "God's work" as my old boss used to say.

But because of my background in community newspapers, I've also struggled with where to draw the line between the right to say what you want and understanding the damage it can do to people like my mother, who has been told a number of times over the years to "Go back to where you came from," because someone didn't think she spoke English very well. I suppose that makes me a little more receptive to the idea that The First Amendment comes with a responsibility -- to spark debate, to engage in discussion for certain -- but also to be respectful to others at the same time.

It will be interesting to see how the decision about plays out. Whatever the effect it has on the discussion over the long haul, I hope that it offers something all of us can learn to live with -- a little less crudeness and a little more civility.

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