Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Freedom of Speech or Libel?

In the article Appeals court refuses to unmask anonymous donut shop critics, a Dunkin Donuts store owner was suing Independent Newspapers who runs an online forum. Apparently three anonymous commenters made negative statements about Dunkin Donuts and the newspaper refuses to reveal their identities. The newspaper felt this infringed on the commenters First Amendment rights. In the first trial, the newspaper lost and was told to hand over the information so they appealed. Now that decision has been overturned.

I can understand why people would want to remain anonymous. I live in a very small community and if I want to make a comment about a news article, I would rather remain anonymous. I use a username that has nothing to do with my real name. People in my small community can be judgmental and I feel I should have a right to my opinion without worrying about repercussions. Of course I try not to make negative general statements and only make negative ones about a company by explaining exactly what has happened to me. I usually try to follow the rule of “If I don’t have anything nice to say, I don’t say anything at all.” But I believe if I had a bad experience, I would want others to know about it so they don’t have the same experience. That is why I like to read reviews about products, hotels, and other things. I want to know the opinions of people who actually had experience with something I may be interested in buying and the opinions of real people mean more to me than general articles about the product. I have the ability to read the reviews and form my own opinion from what I’ve read. If there are many people who have reviewed an item, I feel I can get a better idea about the product. If all of them say negative things about it, I will steer clear of it. If only one or two out of thirty have had a bad experience, I may feel that they just were unlucky enough to get a bad one. If everyone loved it, I may investigate further.

But if people only can comment if they give their personal information, would we be getting the true picture? We have had anonymous commenters from the Revolutionary War days. How many anonymous pamphlets were distributed to get the colonists ready for action? Where would we be today if they hadn’t done that? How about during the Civil War? Anonymous commenters have helped shaped the United States into what it is today.

When we use a username, the readers don’t know who we are but can read our comments. Usually the owners of the forum get the personal information in case there is something illegal about what you are saying or doing, so we really aren’t anonymous. When we use words like “in my opinion” or “it feels like to me,” how can that be libelous? We have a right to our opinion and our right to freedom of speech.

How do we teach our students this? Do we teach them to use critical thinking when reading opinions? I liked to use the editorial page a lot in my classroom and explain that these are someone’s opinions. I encouraged students to write a response to this opinion. This is a great lesson in persuasive writing and using facts to back up our opinions. Sometimes I would break students up into two groups and have one group write a response in favor of the editorial and the other group would write a response against the editorial.

We look at reviews on common products that they like to buy. Then they learn how to critically analyze the reviews and decide what makes some more valid than others. They also look at how they can use reviews to make a decision about buying certain products.

Next we learn about how to make appropriate comments on forums. What is appropriate language to use? How do we back up our statements? This is a great time to talk about the law and libel. This is a great opportunity to talk to students about leaving anonymous comments and the repercussions to doing this. Students need to learn this skill in order to be more successful in reading the newspaper and forming their own opinions. Do you have any suggestions for teaching critical thinking with editorials? If so, please share them!

Original image: 'Brown paper bag anon'


Customers Revenge said...

I agree to some extent because I created my own website just to expose the business that do me wrong.

Opinions are one thing, but when the anonymous poster lies about facts, that's when things get really bad and businesses or people get hurt.

Anyone who accuses someone of something has to stand behind their claim. It sounds like the people in the article claim that the store was unclean, which might hurt the business. I don't know exactly what was said but if they said something like "I saw 50 rats" when there were no rats then they should not get away with that.

Imagine if someone started a hateful blog full of lies about you .. you would want to be able to find out who that person was.

loonyhiker said...

Customers Revenge: I agree that it is hurtful but you could also respond online in the same way and give examples or proof that the poster is incorrect. I also think people who read these things need to be critical readers just like seeing ads on TV and in magazines. Not all of them can be substantiated. Thanks for your comments.