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We won’t repost Sandy Hook hoax comments

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Posted: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 7:45 am

We recently removed online comments alleging the Sandy Hook shootings were a hoax.

In the days since, as our readers’ behest, we’ve reflected more deeply on that decision — and on the tone and texture of our online comments generally.

This is what we’ve come up with:

  • We won’t be reposting the Sandy Hook hoax comments. In fact, we’d like to guide comments away from conspiracy theories, preferably to stories and issues of general interest in Lodi and the surrounding area.
  • We are adopting a new rule, suggested by commenter Jerome Kinderman, allowing us wider latitude in taking down comments we deem inappropriate or off-topic. That may include, on a comment-by-comment basis, postings on conspiracy theories.

We’ve done much discussing and a fair bit of research before making these decisions.

A viewpoint we found particularly persuasive came from Matt DeRienzo, the group editor of several newspapers in Connecticut that covered the Sandy Hook shootings:

We asked him if his publications would post comments purporting that Sandy Hook was a hoax.

“No, we don’t and wouldn’t allow comments like this,” he responded. “We also wouldn’t allow comments saying the Holocaust never existed, or that black people are genetically inferior, or any other number of extremely offensive, malicious, irresponsible mistruths.

“From my perspective, if you’ve committed to moderating and building a responsible discussion, you have to make these calls, and it has zero to do with the First Amendment or freedom of speech,” DeRienzo wrote. “If you don’t want to do that, just go straight 4Chan in your comments and allow anything. But I don’t think that would serve our readers or community very well.”

(4Chan is an imageboard website where anything goes. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it. Proceed with caution. )

DeRienzo underlines a good point: This is our forum to guide and manage. We don’t want it being dominated by extreme views. Or lengthy digressions into obscure or speculative topics.

We’ve thought about our forum being a free-flowing marketplace of ideas, where the strongest thinking and arguments prevail.

But do readers avoid our marketplace altogether because it is simply too extreme or insular?

If we think of our online forum as a coffee shop or corner pub, where conversation is invited, don’t we want the environment to be comfortable and inviting — not shrill or irrelevant?

To help us nurture that kind of environment, we are changing our rules and terms of use policy. We are adding a general rule that gives us wide latitude to deny user submissions. The new rule is based on suggestions we received, and our research into the polices of other news companies:

“We reserve the right, at our discretion, to monitor, delete or choose not to post any comment. This may include removing or monitoring posts that we believe violate the spirit or letter of these rules, or that we otherwise determine at our discretion needs to be monitored, not posted, or deleted.”

We have also added a rule forbidding trolls, which we will also enforce at our discretion. Here’s a good definition of a troll.

At this time, we are not going to be create a rule specifically forbidding comments containing references to conspiracy theories. However, we respectfully ask that commenters do not use this forum to argue conspiracy theories. There are numerous websites devoted to conspiracies if that is something you’re interested in. Please take your conspiracy discussions there.

We began accepting comments on eight years ago. Our goal has always been to provide a forum for readers to intelligently comment on and debate — with respect for each other’s opinions — the topics contained in our news stories, letters to the editor, editorials and opinion columns.

With our readers’ help, we’ll continue to pursue that goal.