The Ugly Side of Free Speech

by Erika Weisensee
Milwaukie writing mom

I cherish the First Amendment. As a writer and the daughter of a journalist, I believe the right to free speech is an integral part of our democracy. “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend until the end your right to say it.” I grew up hearing those words, absorbing their meaning, and thoroughly believing them. I still do. Yet, as we all know, when you live in a free society with the free flow of information, some of that information is bound to be distasteful, offensive, and even vile. The Internet has allowed information—the good and the bad— to spread like wild fire.

The Internet’s ugly side hit me like a slap in the face at the end of last week. Like thousands of Oregonians and people around the country, I have been following the story of missing 7-year-old Kyron Harmon. Last Friday, wanting to know the latest, I got on the website of a Portland television station and read the most current article. I scrolled down my screen and noticed a large number of comments after the article—193—and the article had only been posted for a couple of hours. I read a few of the comments and was immediately turned off by the rudeness, the accusations, the personal attacks and the gutter-level dialogue of these posts.

Today, it is expected that news websites will give readers a place to comment on articles. Indeed, “comments” is an important feature of this website, and as a contributor, I appreciate the thoughtful, interesting and sometimes funny remarks posted by readers of the Oregon Women’s Report. Constructive criticism, questions and alternative points of view should be welcomed and encouraged in comment sections.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed an ugly trend on other sites. The comment sections of some television and newspaper websites seem to be littered with personal attacks. Some of the people leaving the worst of the comments hide behind nicknames or obviously made-up names because websites, unlike traditional newspapers that run letters to the editor, don’t require a first and last name. I wonder if people would be a bit more civil if they had to leave their real names? Not that I expect that to happen.

So, what are we to do? Well, editors could choose to monitor their sites a bit more carefully. But more importantly and more realistically, we can just choose to not read and not participate in that garbage. In this instance, I’m not for censorship, but I am for common decency.

### Erika Weisensee, a writer and native Oregonian, lives in Milwaukie and teaches journalism and communication courses at the University of Portland.

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