This week, we had some of the anonymous bloggers on our website complain that we weren't allowing comments on a couple stories -- specifically, a couple of stories involving crimes allegedly committed here.
I didn't have a lot of sympathy.
Sometimes we block comments because we have reason to anticipate that most of the comments will be mean-spirited, and given a choice, I prefer things to be a little more civil. We get enough of a lack of civility as it is on the stories where we do allow comments.
But we always try and block comments on crime stories.
I don't care how many fourth-, fifth- or sixth-hand "facts" these people have, if they had any real first-hand information they should talking to the police, not hiding behind fictitious names in the blogosphere.
More importantly, I actually believe in the fundamental concept that a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. I know, in today's whole "Nancy Grace -- guilty, guilty, guilty" world, that is such an old-fashioned attitude, but it's an ethical point upon which I try not to waiver.
So why shouldn't I grant these people their First Amendment rights to comment anyway? After all, this paper exists because of the First Amendment. But never make the mistake that the First Amendment allows totally unfettered speech. It does not. You can't yell "fire" in a theater and you can't commit libel or slander. There are a lot more limits, beyond those, than most people realize. The First Amendment may be interpreted very broadly, which is a good thing, but it is not a blank check.
Perhaps most importantly, there's a selfish reason we try to remember to turn off comments when it comes to stories about alleged crimes. I don't want to give any defense attorney a reason to contend that adverse pre-trial publicity and a community that has already made up its mind would justify a change of venue. All those blog comments could go a long way toward demonstrating that people have already made up their minds and a person couldn't get a fair trial here.
I don't want that to happen, because the moment a trial gets moved out of county, two things happen.
First, it costs the taxpayers a ton of money.
Second, we wouldn't have the opportunity to cover the trial at that point. In fact, we'd be lucky if we even found out what the final result was. It's hard enough as it is, with just the two of us on staff here, keeping track of the motions and changes in court dates of any high-profile case in Elmore County. It approaches being nearly impossible if it gets moved out of county. It makes it really difficult to let the public know what the actual facts in evidence really are in a high-profile case.