Why free speech is on thin ice

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By Richard RoBards

"Rumor is a pipe

Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,

And of so easy and so plain to stop

That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,

The still-discordant wavering multitude,

Can play upon it."

- Shakespeare's King Henry the Fourth, Part II

Shakespeare scribbled his thoughts more than 400 years ago. Do you think he had any clue what the Internet would do to bolster a society hungry for prose, information and blatant hatred?

As we stagger into the age of instant information, we may need to stop and take stock of what has developed in the few short years since the Internet slapped us with fingertip "science."

What has turned out to be one of the most-used mediums of information has also turned an ugly eye toward the truth.

Evidently, cyber law has not been able to keep pace with the Internet, nor has it been able to regulate unfettered hate and seemingly unproven rumor.

As an example, a new Web site - JuicyCampus.com - allows anyone with a computer to post malicious attacks against anyone. No one is spared. Most of it is done anonymously because the identity of Internet posters is hard - very hard - to establish.

But sites like JuicyCampus would not proliferate if it weren't for the thousands, if not millions, of people who either go there to write or simply to read the succulent posts.

The nasty rant syndrome has grown so large that none of us are safe from the kind of gossip that was previously passed from mouth to ear at the office water fountain, in a school hallway or in CIA-silent fashion in a dark movie theater.

One post begets another, and another and another until the truth is clouded so badly that you get sucked into the fray.

Don't try to defend a friend on a free-for-all site lest you become the target of hate yourself.

In a story in this past week's Newsweek magazine, the experts were talking about "What's a person to do?"

These sites are protected by a federal law, according to Newsweek, that immunizes Web hosts from liability for the thoughts (however hateful) of their users as long as the hosts don't edit the posts.

The original rationale was to protect big companies like AOL from the actions of each and every user, according to Newsweek. The flip side of that is that the victim of a damaged reputation has little recourse.

Daniel Solove, an expert in cyber law, says that until that changes, sites like JuicyCampus are going to continue - and probably thrive.

It doesn't take much to start a Web site where posts can become the attraction - usually all you need is a computer, a kitchen table and some basic tech knowledge. Word travels pretty fast over the Internet.

As we move forward with our Web site improvements, we will be faced with a dilemma - do we do what many other mediums do and provide virtually unfettered comment on our site's message board and in blog comments that are in response to our stories, or do we decide a different track?

Those who blog or message on our site will be required to register with a valid e-mail address. While we know it's simple enough to register for a fake one, we hope that readers won't take advantage of that, or we may have to omit that feature.

It's a lot easier to spread hatred when you do it under the mask of anonymity.