Rights and Responsibilities of Bloggers and Commenters

I have been reading with great interest in the debate brought up by several people such as Hank Williams and now being discussed on both the Disqus and Intense Debate websites regarding  “A Commenter’s Rights” and who owns the comments. I believe that there is a problem with the discussions. This is my perspective.

When ever one discusses the “rights” a person has, there needs to be the inclusion of what that person’s responsibilities are as well. It also needs to include what rights and responsibilities others have that are affected by that person. Without this inclusiveness, a person’s rights can be declared and they stomp all over everyone else’s rights.

I became intrigued by this discussion since I have gone through many cycles of thought myself. Having run a forum for many years at my old ISP, we constantly ran into this whole issue of who owns the comments, how should they be dealt with, and what to do with comments that contain some good stuff that moves the discussion forward but has some cruft as well.

We ended up using a system with explicit guidelines that explained what was acceptable. I based this on the guidelines the local papers used for their letters to the editor. The system then did three things. First, we let comments stand even when there were typos, idiotic opinions, etc as long as they had followed our forum guidelines. Second, we would delete unacceptable comments totally if they were just inappropriate.  Finally, for comments that did move the discussion along but had cruft we would delete the cruft if possible and indicate it had been removed with the visual signal <snip>, something people used to do in e-mail lists to indicate non-essential text had been removed in a reply. If we couldn’t remove the cruft without changing the comment’s meaning, the comment would be deleted.

This system said basically, we want your comments but we want you to comment responsibly. Cruft normally was broken links (or links to inappropriate sites) and personal attacks against someone else on the forums (although if a post had a personal attack in it, it normally was completely deleted). It was my opinion that if someone wanted to show their lack of intelligence by spelling poorly, spouting off really stupid opinion, or just writing nonsense, that was their privilege and we would let the world see it.

I decided to do some research again to see what on-line papers such as the New York Times have now as their policies. Most were brief and to the point: we own what you send us and we can do what we want with it.

However, I found the New York Times policy rather interesting (I had difficulty getting a good link to it). I quote, “We reserve the right to edit for space, clarity, civility and accuracy, and we send you the edited version before publication.” They then state that they verify authenticity of the writer (they are who they say they are). They stated the writers have a responsibility for ensuring that facts cited in the letters are accurate.  They say, “Letter writers, to use a well-worn phrase, are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.” Finally, they state, “As with any letter, writers speak only for themselves or their organizations; publication should not be taken as an endorsement of that view by The Times. The aim is to stimulate discussion, not end it.”

This policy of the New York Times has kind of woken in me what I have always felt with regards to comments. There is the right and responsibility of the publisher of a blog to ensure that all comments made respect the rights of the commenter but also enforce the responsibilities of the commenter as well.

Blog comments don’t need to edit for space so we certainly don’t need to worry about that. Right now, there is no way to send an edited version back to the commenter before publication but we can always allow a commenter to delete or request a deletion of an edited comment. Of course, right now, Disqus doesn’t even allow for edits so it is a moot point. Using a system like Disqus or Intense Debate can provide some authentication of who the writer is but in general most on-line systems can be fooled. Unfortunately, this allows some inaccurate and misleading statements to be made in someone’s name who had no idea it was being said.

I also have to say that if someone posts a comment anonymously, they are obviously giving up all rights to that comment including copyrights since there is no attribution. People just can’t complain at all if they post anonymously and it all gets changed.

I will be working on fully writing this out but as a preliminary revision of this blog’s stance regarding comments here is my policy.

We reserve the right and feel we have the responsibility to edit for clarity, civility, and accuracy all comments submitted. All edits will be noted. If an addition, the addition will be surrounded by square brackets, e.g., [ed: Sam Spade]. If content is deleted from the comment, it will be indicated by “<snip>”. If a comment is edited, and the commenter is known (anonymous commenters give up all rights since there is no attribution), they have the right to clarify their comment, delete it, or request it be deleted.

Commenters have the right to look ridiculous, inarticulate, and unlearned. We, of course, hope for smart, articulate and informed but feel that editing should always be done minimalistic if at all. Don’t expect us to correct your spelling, fix your grammar, or otherwise become the “iron fist of editorial control.”

Commenters have the responsibility to respect others and the facts. All facts stated in a comment must be accurate. If what you are stating is an opinion, it must be clear that is is an opinion and not a fact. Broken links or links to inappropriate sites disrespect others and will be deleted. Libel, malicious, hateful and/or disrespectful statements against others will not be tolerated.

Commenters speak only for themselves and/or their organizations. Publication of a comment should not be taken as an endorsement of that comment by this blog or anyone associated with it.

Our aim is to stimulate discussion, not end it. This is a partnership between blogger and commenter not adversarial.

I doubt I would ever edit for clarity since if you want to look dumb, you can but in some areas, it might be good to do so. I have seen it where a name needs to be added to clarify who said what.

Civility is just right. It is the responsibility of both blogger and commenter to be civil.

Accuracy of the facts is paramount. Twisting the truth so that it becomes a lie is just wrong too. I don’t see  inaccuracy or twisting facts as a right that a commenter has, at least not on my blog. If they want to spew lies and mistruths, they can do it on their own blog.

Note: at this point I am waiting to see how the debate works itself out at both Intense Debate and Disqus. I will not remove Disqus at this time despite the fact I can not do anything but allow or delete a comment which I feel is too limiting. I hope that one or both of them will end up at a position that will allow me to use them. If not, I will not use either and go back to the boring old comment system that is built into WordPress.

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