From the editor: Commenting is a privilege not a right

Beginning Friday, March 26, we will be suspending online commenting on articles. This is a decision we’ve been weighing for several months as we’ve seen the quality of comments devolve, becoming more and more toxic and divisive.

One concerned reader recently emailed me with her thoughts, and they were spot on. She wrote, “Many commenters (almost always the same few people) post unsolicited knee-jerk responses that reflect badly on our community as a whole. Most responsible, respectful citizens are uncomfortable being subjected to the excoriating comments lobbied by those who have literally been handed a free platform.”

This very valid complaint was prompted by a string of horrible comments made in response to an article about the local Planned Parenthood office. The comments were posted by a person who has been banned repeatedly for violating our rules but creates fake accounts over and over again to try to cheat the system. And he is not the only one.

Our digital engagement editor spends a lot of his time identifying these fake accounts and deleting them, only to have the person turn up again using another name. We adopted a new commenting platform about a year ago to try to help foster better conversations and participation by more people, but that software has not cured those challenges, and the quality of our online comments has gotten worse rather than better.

The purpose of online comments is to advance constructive community dialogue and create an online forum where ideas can be exchanged freely, and readers can respond to our reporting. Instead, our comments are dominated by a few loud, persistent voices who take over most of the online conversation, and others who consistently veer off topic and hijack what might have begun as a productive discussion.

Some of the online comments are bullying in nature, contain misinformation and are flat out racist or misogynistic. Reading the comments under many Pilot articles gives people the wrong impression about our community. We are not a community of bigots, conspiracy theorists, naysayers and bullies. Instead, Steamboat Springs and Routt County are home to independent thinkers, risk takers and highly educated individuals whose voices are not reflected in the online comments, because most people don’t want to dip a toe into a toxic cesspool.

And if our online comments section keeps people from sharing their opinions, and in some cases, stops them from wanting to be interviewed by our reporters for fear of online retaliation, then we have a problem to fix. Refereeing this online forum has become a drain on our resources, and I’d rather have our news team spend its time pursuing important stories rather than monitoring comments posted by people who can’t follow simple commenting guidelines.

And for those who believe we are violating their First Amendment rights by disabling online comments, let me address that.

The First Amendment clearly states that government cannot pass a law that violates freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Our newspaper is not owned by the government; it is a private entity, and it’s the First Amendment that gives us the right to disable comments, refuse to publish a letter to the editor or not run an ad.

In the precedent-setting case Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote, “A newspaper is more than a passive receptacle or conduit for news, comment, and advertising. The choice of material to go into a newspaper, and the decisions made as to limitations on the size and content of the paper, and treatment of public issues and public officials — whether fair or unfair — constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment. It has yet to be demonstrated how governmental regulation of this crucial process can be exercised consistent with First Amendment guarantees of a free press as they have evolved to this time.”

In a nutshell, people have a right to say what they wish under freedom of speech, but that right does not force us to allow to become a platform for those views, especially if they are inflammatory, cruel, false or threatening. Commenting on articles is a privilege, and over time, that privilege has been abused.

There remain other avenues for engagement. We encourage our readers to write letters to the editor in response to issues raised in our reporting or to comment on community issues. And we will continue to post our content on social media, so you can still comment there, but we’ll be moderating that dialogue as well to ensure the same loud voices don’t pollute those threads.

Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that online comments do not align with the mission of the Steamboat Pilot & Today, which is to connect our communities. Instead, comments are undermining that goal, diminishing constructive engagement with our readers and taking away from the journalism we produce.

There may come a time when we choose to enable comments on a certain article to test the waters and try to engage with readers on an important topic or issue. And we will do this, but only if we can devote the resources necessary to closely monitor the online conversation.

If you have questions about this change, please email me at Comments will remain enabled until 7 a.m. Friday so you can also share your thoughts below.

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