The Coast caves – feedback

Two readers see The Coast’s failure to lift a finger in defense of its reader-posters not as an unwelcome blow to free expression but as an overdue comeuppance for the well-known excesses of anonymous Internet posting.

Bill Turpin writes:

The Coast’s greatest failure to its readers was in allowing anonymous posts in the first place. It’s The Coast, not Samizdat, and this is Canada, not the former Soviet Union. You’re free to write what you want in this country, subject to defamation laws which, while imperfect, are not odious. There is no need to hide behind an alias. But when you do, you don’t have to think about what you’re saying, you don’t have to ask yourself where your “facts” originate, you don’t have to consider the reputation of the people you’re writing about, and you don’t have to worry about whether you’ve succeeded in communicating something. The resulting discussion rarely rises above eight-year-olds debating whether girls should be allowed in their tree-house. It’s a poor excuse for what Parker calls “free expression.” By publishing anonymous posts, online media have squandered an opportunity to enhance public discourse and chosen to debase it instead.

It’s interesting to see that The Coast promptly and fulsomely apologized for the comments at issue, which all but eliminates its own legal liability. This sends an additional message to anonymous commentators, i.e., not only is your anonymity illusory, but when you choose anonymity, you’re solely responsible for what you write. For this, The Coast deserves our gratitude.

Defamation suits are expensive for all concerned, even thought most don’t make it to court. This creates an unfair advantage for those who can afford them and it would be nice to see the law changed to level the playing field. Meanwhile, though, it would be wonderfully ironic if a defamation suit finally managed to let the sun shine on the subterranean world of online “commentary”

Dana Phillip Doiron agrees:

I don’t believe that individuals or groups should be allowed to use anonymous posting to slander someone with impunity.  The “comment” facility is akin to letters from the editor or op ed commentary in a printed news medium and, the “name withheld” feature encourages comment from sources (employees, relatives, neighbours, etc.) who would not participate were their name published.  It isn’t a license to slander.  It is the policy of most media to accept commentary as long as they have the contact information of the source.  Readers should have the level of confidence in the information that goes with the possibility of identification and accountability in court and the subject of commentary should have that recourse.

I share Bill and Dana’s distaste for the un-moderated, anonymous newspaper comment sections; they are havens for ignorant bile. That’s why comments on Contrarian are closely moderated (though sometimes anonymous). But the legal and ethical issues around anonymous Internet posting are more complicated than Bill and Dana let on, and you don’t have to be a fan of anonymous posts to believe The Coast shirked its responsibilities here.

The Coast has long encouraged anonymous posting, in the newspaper and on line. (True, as co-founder, editor, and part-owner Kyle Shaw argued in an email to me, the paper does require online posters to create a profile that includes a working email address, but this profile may have scant connection to their real life identities.)

If The Coast “deserves our gratitude” for having chilled anonymous expression, it certainly chose a sneaky route to that end. Having lured their readers down the garden path of anonymity, the paper owed them an ethical obligation to at least ensure that the judge in the case had the benefit of hearing both sides of the anonymity debate.

When an Ottawa judge ordered a conservative website to cough up identifying information about eight “John Does” who had posted allegedly defamatory comments on the site, the website appealed, and was joined by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the University of Ottawa’s Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic.

Both argued that a court should issue such an order only after a plaintiff has demonstrated a prima facie case for defamation, not merely leveled an accusation. Even then, the groups argued, a court should order disclosure only after determining, on the merits, that the public interest in disclosure outweighs concern for freedom of expression and privacy. As the Ottawa Citizen’s Don Butler reported:

In its factum, the CCLA argues anonymous expression on the Internet “fosters a veritable ‘marketplace of ideas’ online.

“Anonymity reduces the possibility of identification and fear of reprisal and encourages individuals to engage in legitimate, even unpopular, expression,” the civil liberties group says.

“It permits participation in public debate by those who would otherwise remain silent out of fear of persecution, loss of status or ostracism.”

Unlike Madame Justice Heather Robertson, who rushed to judgment having heard only one side of the argument, a three-judge panel of the Ontario Sessional Court has reserved its decision.

Although the lawyer for the two Halifax fire officials who sought disclosure said the identities were needed so they could commence a libel action, I am skeptical. It seems at least possible that the real purpose is one of command and control: to unmask any Halifax firefighters among the anonymous posters and take disciplinary action against them. If so, the application was an abuse of court processes. One consequence of The Coast’s failure to contest the application is that this possibility was never considered or tested by the court.

The issue before Justice Robertson might better have been, “Should accusations of racism against public figures, however intemperate, be a firing offense? And if so, how can minority employees combat what they genuinely believe to be racism in a public organization?”

This smells like a classic SLAPP suit—a strategic lawsuit against public participation—with taxpayers footing the bill, and The Coast acquiescing. It makes the paper’s left-wing editorial stance look more like a marketing ploy than anything borne of conviction.

I want to stress again that I have no knowledge of, or opinions about, the inner workings of the Halifax Fire Department; I have not read the comments at issue in this application; I have no opinion about their merits, about the merits of the Halifax Fire Service, or about its officials.