Online freedom has responsible limitations

Freedom. Arguably, this is one of the highest-held values in our nation. And when it comes to speech, few will argue against the notion that freedom of speech is held aloft as a precious commodity. In Ashland, it is near priceless.

We have witnessed freedom of speech exercised in many venues here, and in numerous creative ways. Ashland has a much-deserved reputation in Southern Oregon for speaking its mind. It seems to be a sacred virtue that has made an indelible mark upon our community.

Ashlanders have opinions. And they express them. We may not all agree with one another's opinions, but the freedom to express them draws us together. This is the attitude with which the Tidings approached the decision to open its Web site to engage and interact with the public.

Of course, when individuals possess the power to impact, influence and persuade others through the expression of ideas, they also inherit a certain responsibility &

perhaps even obligation &

to express themselves with a level of decorum acceptable in their community.

Some have argued that the degeneration of discourse on the Tidings' Web site is indicative of the necessity for moderating the level of free speech online. There is a good parallel point being made &

that the Tidings' Web site substantially increases the sphere of influence of a single voice. Certainly it enlarges the number of those who might read what one individual has to say, regardless of whether one is influenced by what is expressed. The manner in which that person speaks to the community at large ought to at least meet with the acceptable standards of speech in the community, many believe.

That makes sense.

Speech is limited in numerous ways in our society. No one can deliberately create a riot by yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater. Nor is it acceptable to use profane, vulgar language in the presence of small children or during official speeches. These are just a couple of sensible limitations most of us understand. One is a legal prohibition, while the other suggests a limitation on the tolerance we have as a community.

Freedom is destined to run up against responsibility. And freedom of speech on the Tidings' Web site did just that.

The community at large got irritated with the community online and freely expressed that irritation to us. We listened. We debated the issue. We monitored the situation. We gathered information. And in the end, we decided everyone on all sides of the issue were right.

Free speech is a precious commodity that needs protection from those who would set themselves up as arbiters of acceptable speech for everyone. At the same time, some speech does fail to meet the minimum standards of public decency and tolerance.

But who gets to decide?

We decided that you, the public, should. The change in our Web site reflects that decision.

The Tidings' Web site now requires a one-time registration for those desiring to make comments on anything that appears on our site. Of course, that doesn't completely resolve all issues. But, it isn't meant to be a panacea. Rather, we hope that by registering on the site, those who comment would be compelled to do so in a reasonable manner. At the same time, we encourage those in the public realm who find comments that do not meet the minimum level of tolerance (in your opinion) to use the handy "report this comment" link.

We plan to stay out of it, with the exception of determining whether we agree with your opinion on comments you wish removed. If we agree to remove a comment, it will disappear without debate or recourse. If we disagree with a petition to remove a comment, it remains without debate or recourse.

We believe this system of limited, yet wide-ranging ability to express opinions on our site will meet with everyone's approval. Of course, that's shooting a bit high as a goal. But, for the most part, the new system has certainly appeased the greater majority.

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