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Newspaper comment sections should foster free speech

Comment sections are some of the most infamous parts of the internet. Everywhere we go on the web there’s bound to be one, and inside there’s bound to be a mixture of several things: perhaps some praise, maybe some criticism, general feedback, or, more often than not, complete and utter chaos.

This chaos occasionally manifests itself in defamatory comments, which often carry serious legal implications. In order to combat such comments, sites like Facebook, YouTube, and online news services have in place a system to report comments that contain inappropriate content. This allows for quick and easy removal of these comments when they appear.

From a legal standpoint, some argue that internet comments are considered user-generated content (UGC for short). Typically, online service providers (OSP) such as news outlets and social media sites are not responsible for managing UGC, nor are they responsible for the views contained within it; they simply provide the comment section for users to exercise their right to free speech within the limits of the law, and provide the tools to report inappropriate content and remove it. Recently, however, newspapers are able to be sued for defamation due to comments made on their online sites, and courts are beginning to lean more in this direction.

In 2006, the Estonian online news portal Delfi published an article about a local shipping company whose changes to one of their ferry routes was going to interfere with potential ice roads, which local residents relied upon heavily for their commutes. Angry comments began to quickly spring up on the article, some of them defaming a member of the shipping company board, referred to as “L.” Even though Delfi removed these comments at L’s request, he still sued Delfi for damages, and the court ruled in his favour in 2009.

The court ruled that since Delfi occasionally monitored comment sections on controversial articles for inappropriate content, they should have dealt with these comments sooner than the six weeks it took them to do so, and also should have predicted that such comments would be made on a controversial article. Guess how much L won? €320, or about CDN $450 at the time of judgement. Clearly, a fortune.

This, to put it bluntly, is a load of garbage. Newspapers do not have spare resources to be constantly monitoring comments, and being able to only monitor in a limited capacity like Delfi was opens up newspapers to tricky liability issues with loads of grey area. There’s too much that the paper can miss if they are only able to monitor a portion of the comments on their site at a time. Besides, these comments don’t even reflect the views of the newspaper itself. These comments are the opinions of readers, and these readers should face the consequences of their actions if they decide to defame someone online. As long as a newspaper provides the same tools to combat defamatory comments like other media sites, such as report buttons so that inappropriate content can be identified and removed, they are fulfilling their responsibility as OSPs.

Comment sections are special places where people can come together and voice their opinion on a particular topic. They are battlegrounds of free speech riddled with bitter remarks and outrage, free-for-all arenas where etiquette is checked at the door and emotional tensions run high. Sometimes comments get a little too heated, and that’s what report buttons are for. Online news outlet comment sections are no different from any other comment section, so they shouldn’t be treated any differently.

Oh, and if you’re reading this online, please don’t comment something defamatory. Someone could sue us.

Andrew McWhinney

Andrew McWhinney is a fifth-year English and political science combined honors student, as well as The Gateway's 2019-20 Editor-in-Chief. He was previously The Gateway's 2018-19 Opinion Editor. An aspiring journalist with too many opinions, he's a big fan of political theory, hip-hop, and being alive.

One Comment

  1. I have written several dozen “letters to the editor” in my life before the world went digital. This input should be valued by any newspaper and it used to be as I received several replies from the papers and writers. My secret belief is that the Editors simply want comment pages disabled because people enjoy reading them and thus the other articles (and advertising) get less viewing because people only have so much time each day. Yes I enjoy scrolling through the insane comments, especially if it is a factual/technical article. You can learn way more from the peanut gallery than from the beginner-junior writer trying to catch up. Any honest Editors available with some stats?

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