Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The Gazette has recently received a number of reader questions about our comments policy. We hope this brief editorial will remind readers of our policy’s details and of our justifications for maintaining the current policy. If you have questions about our policy that are not addressed in this editorial, please ask them in the comments section below. An editor will respond shortly.
Why don’t you require people to post their real names? Wouldn’t that make people less likely to post irrelevant and offensive things?
The Gazette takes its role as a vehicle for student expression very seriously, and we want to make sure that all students feel comfortable posting on the site. Many students only feel comfortable voicing their views about administration policy, Gazette editorial policy, and other potentially sensitive issues under a pseudonym. At a school this small, and in an age where anything that is attached to a person’s name can be searched and retrieved with a few key strokes, we think it is important to respect the wishes of students who do not want to put their names next to their posts. Although some posters take advantage of this policy and write offensive comments, many more feel liberated to comment passionately and knowledgeably about school policy and other important issues.
The Gazette requires that commenters submit their e-mail address along with posts. Can’t you use this information to make it more difficult for people to leave offensive posts?
At the risk of alerting Gazette readers to an easy way of avoiding any sort of accountability, a person who comments can list basically any e-mail address as their contact address before posting. We do not ask for an e-mail address as a way of ascertaining that you are actually associated with the college or as a way of identifying you, but simply so that we can e-mail you if we need to. (In the past we have used e-mail addresses to e-mail posters who seem to have a scoop for a story, as well as posters who have written offensive material to ask them to refrain from making similarly styled comments in the future.) When posters list their e-mail address as “email@example.com” then we have no way of e-mailing them, and no way of banning the user who used the anon@gmail address from making future comments, as they could just as easily invent a new address on a different computer. However, any time we wish to amend a comment—which is a very rare occurrence—we will e-mail the user at their specified e-mail address to give them an opportunity to amend their comment themselves. If they have given us a fake address, they will not have that opportunity.
What information do you have about each commenter and who gets to see it?
We have the e-mail address the commenter gives to us, the name they give to us, and their IP address. Writers and readers only see the name; editors have access to the IP address and e-mail. At the beginning of this semester, writers also had access to commenter information linked to their own articles, but they no longer have this access. Please note that editors do not attempt to identify commenters based on their IP addresses.
So far this year commenters have written ad-hominem, vulgar, and bigoted comments. Why don’t you just delete those comments from the site, or request that the author re-write them? Sites like The New York Times and The Washington Post have strict limits on the language and views that they will allow in a post.
The Gazette is very wary of deleting comments. This is in part because, as editors and journalists, we are generally opposed to all types of censorship. When a reader or editor flags a comment as offensive (you can e-mail us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to do so), we debate whether or not the comment should be allowed to stand. We have very few hard-and-fast rules that we use to evaluate offensive comments, because each comment is different, but some general rules do apply.
We rarely delete a comment on the basis of vulgarity—here defined as otherwise appropriate comments that contain curse words (e.g. “Fuck this political candidate, I still like fried chicken”)—because we think the Swarthmore community can deal with vulgarity. Ad-hominem comments are trickier because attacks (e.g. “This political candidate is a self-aggrandizing, attention-seeking, prima donna”) are seen by some as spiteful and without insight, and by others as necessary and insightful comments on a person’s character. We almost always let ad-hominem attacks on public figures stand but are more sensitive to comments that criticize the character of administrators and faculty, and we are even more sensitive to comments that criticize the character of individual students. We have very little sympathy for comments that criticize Swarthmore community members without making specific criticisms of the actions taken by the people in question. However, readers should note that editors err on the side of leaving posts as they are, and no comments of this kind have been deleted yet this year.
Bigoted comments are difficult to evaluate because certain types of bigotry, for whatever reason, are considered reasonably acceptable in discourse. In general, we ask that you e-mail us if you find something particularly offensive. This way, even if we do ultimately allow it, you can be assured that you will receive a considered response about our decision, and you will have the opportunity to persuade us to act differently in the future.
Can you make it easier for readers to flag comments that may be triggering or harmful to the community?
We implemented a new system on Thursday, October 27th that allows readers to rate comments. Comments that are consistently voted down by the community will need to be expanded by the reader before they can be read.
What do you do if a comment contains a threat?
If the threat is specific, especially if the target of the threat is a person or organization associated with Swarthmore, then we will notify the relevant authorities. The authorities—deans or otherwise—have, as far as we know, not been notified of a Gazette related threat in the history of The Gazette.
What if somebody who isn’t me attributes a comment to my name?
E-mail us immediately and we will delete their comment. We will give you the opportunity to explain that you do not hold the views that were ascribed to you. Readers should feel free to comment as Genghis Khan, Bob Dole, Barack Obama, etc. We just ask that you never sign off as anyone who might actually comment on The Daily Gazette or who is associated with the school in any way.
We hope this gives students a better idea of the philosophy we take toward the comments policy. If anyone has any comments, criticisms, or questions, please write to us below or at email@example.com.