Web's anonymity unfair to those maligned

  • September 11, 2009
{mosimage}The recent ruling of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in the case of Marc Lemire has been ably analysed for its discussion of constitutional law and the problems inherent in penalizing free speech in a democracy. Less discussed was its finding that the owners of web sites cannot normally be held responsible for the anonymous postings to message boards. This is probably true in any legal sense, but from the standpoint of professional editorial standards it is another matter.

Offered by most online editions of major newspapers and broadcast outlets, these anonymous postings are an ongoing festival for the opinionated, the chatty, the venomous and those with time on their hands. Should publishers be including questionable facts and arguments against Catholicism, to take just one example, on boards that most readers are going to associate with that publisher, rightly or wrongly? A look at some of the offerings from a few church-related stories of the past summer suggest that some postings should be held to a higher editorial standard.

In August, the diocese of Antigonish agreed to a financial settlement relating to a sexual abuse case going back several decades. While many of the message-board postings were fairly straightforward expressions of hope that such crimes will not be repeated and sympathy for the victims, it also opened the gates for the type of anti-Catholicism that won’t ever let facts get in the way of a good rant. Consider this from the CBC message board:

Posted 2009/08/08 at 8:19 PM ET (by Bruin Lover):

 Yes, there have been teachers who have molested children; however, no school board has ever tried to cover it up by moving the teachers, giving them access to more victims. The church is an accessory to systematic rape and abuse. Why is this so difficult to see? Church apologists make me sick. ======= I agree. And the numbers do not come close to those in the Catholic Church.

When we “apologists” disprove or discredit the various allegations made in this posting, we must provide citations and write under our own names. In a note to the webmaster at CBC, I pointed out this disparity and also suggested that such a contentious and false statement, if it must appear at all, should not be anonymous. Not surprisingly, there was no reply and no action taken.

On the same story, the Globe and Mail disabled the comments feature “because an overwhelming number of readers were making offensive statements about other commenters and/or the individual or individuals mentioned in the story. That kind of behaviour is a breach of our commenting policy, and so the comment function has been turned off.”

The papal encyclical Charity in Truth issued in early July called for a new approach to the way the world economy is run. It touched on a number of social issues, but the main connecting thread was how the economic crisis has affected both rich and poor nations. Again the message boards had a lot of thoughtful opinion from people who agree or disagree, and also those who question the church’s expertise in economic matters. This is fair comment, but when it comes to the church, even a document confined to economics and social welfare can be a reminder to some people of all those other axes they might wish to grind. Consider this from the National Post board:

From Felicity Hangnail: This Pope should be spening (sic) more time on ensuring the economic well-being of all those Catholic child molestation victims.

From anonymous 66: So long as the RCC leaders keep trotting out gems like that (reference to case of excommunication of those involved in an abortion), I don’t think they have the credibility to tell anyone else what colour of shirt to wear, let alone how national economies ought to work differently.

In a free speech society we can expect countless opinions with which we disagree or which may offend our beliefs. There are undoubtedly many message boards that are worse than those noted here, but they aren’t under the banners of news operations we rely on for accurate information.

When these same outlets print letters to the editor in their comment sections they make best efforts to verify authorship and anonymity is rarely granted. As the examples cited above suggest, there is good reason for that policy. Being identified helps keep you accountable for the things you say. The custom of keeping message boards anonymous is worth revisiting if we’re supposed to take them seriously.

(McGarry is Executive Director of the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada.)

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