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Creepy comments and blogger responsibility

Creepy comments and blogger responsibility

University of Wisconsin Law School Professor Ann Althouse is, like Madison's ever more digitally inclined Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, a busy blogger.

Althouse tends toward the right edge of the ideological spectrum, although she is adventurous enough in her thinking and her interests to avoid the easy compartmentalization that is the fate of so much of the blogosphere. She links to my columns now and again, which is either a sign of her good taste, open-mindedness or sense of humor.

Of late, however, Althouse has been taking something of a battering not for something she wrote, nor even for some crazy article she linked to, but for the responses to her blog posts.

When Althouse took a shot at something that former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan, who now produces the Atlantic's "Daily Dish" blog, had said about Sarah Palin -- yes, it's a little like junior high school gossip -- Sullivan poked back.

Instead of taking apart the argument Althouse had made, however, Sullivan griped about comments written in response to Althouse's post.

Sullivan, who is gay, noted the homophobic character of some of the comments. "(It) does bear noting that on a widely read conservative blog, this stuff is routine. I think that's part of the GOP's problem. I also think that Althouse's engagement in the comments section and failure to remove any of these remarks is eloquent."

I like Sullivan. I respect his writing and thinking and, as with Althouse, I've appreciated it when he has linked to pieces I have written.

But on this point, I think, Sullivan is stumbling onto the blogosphere's most dangerous turf.

If the Internet is to remain open and free, and more importantly if it is going to foster the sort of aggressive, often unsettling debate that expands the boundaries of our democratic discourse, then it is wrongheaded to blame bloggers for what is said about their blogs -- either by fans or critics of the ideas.

If a forum is truly open, it will attract its share of blustering bigots.

Different writers have different opinions about whether they should engage with those who comment on their posts, and whether offensive comments should be deleted.

My view, for what it's worth, is that those of us who used to buy ink by the barrel but now discourse digitally should offer our views and then step out of the way and let our friends and foes have at it. As such, I've enjoyed more than my share of nasty comments about my sexuality, my mental health and my penchant for using the word "penchant." But what strikes me is that the crude comments invariably attract responses that check and balance them. Deleting crude or offensive statements may make everything neat and tidy, but it also obscures unpleasant realities and prevents enlightened readers from addressing them in bold and creative ways. (I don't delete comments; some publications for which I have written do, although usually sparingly.)

I disagree with Althouse on plenty of issues, but I like her take on this. "Jeez," she writes, "I don't post the comments! I have an open comments section and a policy against deletion." And she suggests to Sullivan: "I don't like crap said about me … and I completely understand that you don't like crap written about you. Do you realize that my free speech policy includes leaving hundreds of insults against me in my comments section?"

Althouse explains, in another post: "I have a very high tolerance for vigorous/rough/nasty speech in the comments here. (Some of it is very pro-male homosexuality!) I rarely delete, and there is no way that my failure to delete indicates approval."

That strikes what seems to me to be the right balance. The test of whether we are for free speech rarely comes in regard to speech that meets our approval. The test comes when the speech is creepy, offensive and wrongheaded.

When the free speech protection is abused, that abuse is best countered with more free speech.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com