About 35 years ago, the editors at the Press-Republican “invented” Speak Out.
It was a forum where people could call up on the telephone and offer an opinion on any subject into a recorder. An office clerk would then transcribe the opinion, hand it over to an editor, who would decide whether it was appropriate for print.
It was wildly popular. People didn’t have to go to the trouble of writing a letter. All they had to do was talk into their telephone.
They also didn’t have to go to the trouble of saying who they were, meaning they had to take no responsibility for their remarks. Some were mean-spirited; some were downright nasty. If they were deemed unfit for print, they were deleted.
Eventually, Speak Out died — literally. The recording device broke, and editors decided the job of transcribing the submissions had become too time-consuming anyway.
Some years later, however, a new editor sensed the value of the concept, and Speak Out was reincarnated as Speakout — it went from a verb to a noun, among other things.
By then, the Internet had been born, so people could type in and email their anonymous opinions practically as easily as dialing a telephone. Speakout remains a very popular feature of the Press-Republican.
And it still requires heavy, judicious editing. Many of the offerings never get printed.
The growth of the Internet and the Press-Republican’s website has also introduced online comments. Readers can add their opinions to local articles, letters and even Speakouts through pressrepublican.com.
The Press-Republican isn’t the only medium that allows this opportunity. Anonymous remarks are a way of life for Google, the Huffington Post and a myriad of other news operations that invite reactions to their stories. Some businesses also have sites that allow comments.
An article in Sunday’s Press-Republican outlined some of the problems that organizations are confronting trying to keep comments from getting out of hand.
Some of the comments are described as bullying, insulting, incendiary and offensive — to say nothing of libelous. Some groups are not only editing the comments, they are cutting the opportunity out altogether.
In a country that prides itself on being founded on the principle of free speech, that is a tough reality to swallow.
But free speech does have limits, as the Supreme Court has affirmed. And freedom of speech belongs to the publisher, not the published.
Our newspaper, for example, must keep in mind the sensibilities of its readership. You can’t accuse someone of committing a crime, you can’t spew four-letter words, you can’t insult anyone you want anonymously.
Speak Out taught us decades ago the perils of anonymous commentary. The lessons are still being learned today.