Comment trouble at the Arizona Daily Star

Danny Sanchez points out an explainer from the Executive Editor of the Arizona Daily Star on why comments were deleted from some stories:

“While we created the reader comments feature to give readers a place to talk, StarNet is still our house. And our editors and staff simply do not want guests who make vulgar, abusive, obscene, defamatory and hateful comments. If you want to live in that kind of neighborhood, go create your own online forum.”

First things first, if you’re going to edit individual comments and threads, chances are you’ll have a harder time defending your paper against libel and defamation suits regarding statements made in those comments.

Second things second, that is a damn fine commenting system they’re running over there: It’s got the Digg-ish thumbs up/thumbs down function I’ve been wanting to see. It’s got the Slashdot-esque threshold I agitated for a long time ago. The paper has a clean, well-designed registration page, and users must be registered to post or rate comments. I want this commenting system. Seriously. What sort of CMS are you guys running and is the commenting system built into it, or is it an add on? E-mail me if you don’t want to, er, comment publicly.

Third of all, I’m betting this robust commenting system has a function where you can check a box for each story in the system Comments On or Comments Off. Use it.

Cases where comments-on is probably an inappropriate choice:

Cases where comments-on makes perfect sense:

  • every single opinion and editorial piece published in your paper
  • any feature story
  • any enterprise story
  • anything on style, tech, food, arts, entertainment, media, business, sports

What am I missing? What’s a Comments-On story and what’s a Comments-Off story?

Cast your vote…in the comments on this post.

…a bonus point for everyone who knows why the comments thread on that Daily Star note is exactly 255 comments long…

8 Replies to “Comment trouble at the Arizona Daily Star”

  1. Well, since my weblog is down right now, I’ll bug your comments.

    First things first, if you’re going to edit individual comments and threads, chances are you’ll have a harder time defending your paper against libel and defamation suits regarding statements made in those comments.

    Not necessarily. A few rulings – notably the dismissal of a suit against tucker max earlier this year – have seemed to indicate that even some editing of comments in an online discussion is not enough to pass libel on to the news publisher – that libel suit can only be brought against the person who made the comment. this is different from regular publishing.

    Qualifier – IANAL.

  2. Bryan – Hosting libelous comments is all well and good, as long as you’re not playing too much of a role in picking and choosing which make it to public view.

    Zeran v. AOL is our friend here, finding that an ISP is a distributor, not unlike the phone company – a common carrier. Say whatever you want in our public park – all we do is provide the benches.

    That said, a blog or newspaper comment section that is edited closely by a human (or has stringent official guidelines) is easier to sue for libel or defamation, because once you’re making decisions about what’s okay and what’s not, someone can claim you had “knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard of the truth,” a la New York Times v. Sullivan and the cases that followed it.

    The caveat to all that, of course, is that it’s enormously difficult (in the U.S.) to prove “knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard of the truth,” and even if you can prove it, you need to be a pretty private person in order for it to be in play in the first place.

    So, private citizens can toss insults at politicians in your edited newspaper comments all they want — but watch out if you find yourself deciding which of their quiet neighbors they’re allowed to slam, and how hard.

    IANAL, but I took a pretty solid Media Law class a year ago.

    P.S.: There was a case in California recently that extended Zeran v. AOL-style protection to bloggers, if I’m reading it correctly, which is pretty cool.

  3. Ryan,

    as I noted, the judge who dismissed the case against Tucker Max did so even though he edited and removed comments from the site, noting that even some editing of online comments did not rise to the same level of newspaper publishing. Read more about it here. It’s worth noting that the judge who dismissed the case was also the judge who wrote the initial opinion in another famous case regarding online libel (although the name escapes me at the moment).

    As I wrote in an article for Keeping Free Presses Free entitled “Legal and Ethical Issues in Online Publishing”:

    U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell found that, even though Max “selects, removes, and alters posts on the message boards,” he still acted as a “provider of an interactive computer service” and was thus not liable for the forum messages under 47 U.S.C. (a.k.a, the Communications Decency Act), section 230.

    Of course, it’s easy to sue anyone for libel. Getting the case heard, or winning, is a different matter entirely.

    And again, the key upon which the judge relied was the CDA (the part that wasn’t thrown out by the Supreme Court). I admit that it’s pretty weird that a publisher who does something online (moderates or removes comments) has greater protection than the same publisher doing something in print, but that’s the way the courts and congress have set it up, apparently.

    (and my media law class was two years ago, btw) 🙂

  4. I like the sound of that Tucker Max decision, although I’m not sure how it fits into the logic of NYT v. Sullivan.

    If we stick with the Marketplace of Ideas rationale, then Dalzell could be extending the protection of online speech to the editor, very much the “if you don’t like what I allow or disallow, get your own damn blog” thinking. I’m not sure that would apply to online newspapers, but I like it.

  5. If they’re at 256, that busts my theory that no one changed the default setting on the database table to something higher than 255, but it certainly looked that way at first.

    But Mike gets bonus points anyway for blogging…

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