Opinion » Viewpoint

"Dirk Diggler," Larry Godwin, and the First Amendment


If someone was persistently and publicly saying things about me or my friends or family that were malicious and untrue then I would want to know who they were, and I would want them to stop, and I would do something to try to make that happen.

I assume that's how most people feel when they are subjected to personal attacks, but apparently I am mistaken. Some of my former colleagues at The Commercial Appeal and the ACLU think the First Amendment gives bloggers and blog commenters the right to say anything they please as often as they please with impunity, never mind that the newspaper edits and holds to a higher standard its reporters, its letters to the editor, and even the people who comment on its stories online.

The issue has been raised recently by Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin, who wants AOL to turn over the identities of the person or persons who operate a blog that is critical and at times defamatory about Godwin and the city administration.

This is not just about Larry Godwin. Journalists, public officials, cops, Memphians who believe in democracy and common decency -- this is your fight. Saying or writing what you believe and putting your name on it are ways we exercise our rights every day. A virus of malicious rumor and anonymous personal attacks is spreading, right here in River City.

The threat to the First Amendment from making people think twice before writing something libelous for public consumption seems to me like a stretch. On the other hand, the threat posed by rampant rumor and and whisper campaigns seems to me as real as anything cooked up by Joe McCarthy or J. Edgar Hoover in the Fifties and Sixties.

It's especially distressing, although not especially surprising, that some of my professional colleagues are so ready to throw out the old rules and roll over and pander to bloggers and the ACLU and popular opinion. Instead of defending "Dirk Diggler," we should be defending good writing, correct spelling, careful sourcing and editing, fairness, documentation, and the importance of accountability and using names.

Reporters and columnists should follow a simple rule: Don't write anything about someone that you wouldn't say to their face. When we get it wrong or blast someone or put out a controversial opinion, people should be able to get in touch with us as easily as they can get in touch with the average Memphian and call us to account.

Anonymity has its place in police investigations, criminal prosecutions, and the news business, but it's not the anonymity associated with slanderous comments and blogs. Cops know their tipsters. Prosecutors know their witnesses, and ultimately have to produce them in open court if a case goes to trial. When reporters give a source anonymity, they must know who that source is so they can can evaluate the source’s credibility, grudges, and evidence. That's not the same as posting an unattributed and anonymous comment that "so and so is stealing hundreds of dollars out of the city treasury" or "so and so is having an affair and is a homosexual."

In its first year of publication, the Flyer ran a weekly feature called "Rumor Mill." It was a surefire attention grabber for a paper struggling to attract readers and advertisers and lucky to publish 24 pages some weeks. But after a year or so, publisher Ken Neill and editor Tim Sampson wisely ended it. Today the rumor mill is back with a vengeance on every computer.

Some say this is the only way to expose frauds and corruption, but I disagree. First, what is an acceptable batting average? Is being right twice and wrong once good enough? Not if you're the person they're wrong about.

Second, whistleblowers can usually -- not always but usually -- get their charges and evidence out in other ways while protecting themselves. Many serious and credible ones do just that. Sometimes they have to pay a price, and the price may be your job or your friends or testifying in open court, but that's what Americans do in the cause of justice and civil rights.

I wonder just how anonymous those comments about the police department are anyway. Information can be traced in several ways. THEY'RE COPS! If the bloggers want to take down Godwin, they should take their best evidence to a prosecutor, a public official, or a reporter. Old fashioned, self-serving, and naive, I know.

In the news business, we've developed a double standard for our print and Internet products. Letters to the editor of the print paper must be signed, and the authorship verified. On the web, we urge general decorum and delete some comments, but we don't edit comments because editing means ownership and responsibility. And we tacitly if not explicitly encourage anonymous comments, the more outrageous the better, by prominently displaying them along with our own stories and columns.

I have no problem with most anonymous comments. They're often entertaining and informative, and I read them like everyone else. I understand how anonymity can encourage participation and keep the dialogue from getting personal. But the personal attacks and bogus rumors bother me, especially when they're glibly wrapped in the protections of the First Amendment. They're cowardly and doubly offensive as an abuse of the publications I work for and respect.

Larry Godwin's critics have the right to criticize and, perhaps, defame him, but he has the right to file a lawsuit, even if only to harass them, and to dispatch them if they're lying. And if that makes Godwin’s enemies and AOL and this newspaper and other newspapers think twice about what we say and write and do, then that's good.

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