ARE MESSAGE BOARDS GOING THE WAY OF THE DODO?

By: Jason Williams

Unruly Posters May Lead To Nixing Of Community Forums



Online newspapers began using message boards to give their readers a
place to sound off on community current events. But it seems a few bad
apples may have newspapers throwing out bushels of forum comments.



Unable to deal with ‘outrageous violations of its guidelines, including
foul language and threats by users against users,’ LATimes.com, the
online site of the Los Angeles Times, shut down its message boards. And
The Sun’s site in Baltimore could be next.



Matthew Baise, senior news producer at Sunspot, The Sun’s Web site,
said that Sunspot had been running a rather ‘freewheeling forum,’ until
a run-in with a user forced him to rethink his message-board strategy.



‘He was always off-topic,’ says Baise about a user who repeatedly
spouted white-supremacist propaganda. ‘I just started a books forum for
people to discuss books, and the second he goes in … he starts
posting books about the Jewish conspiracy and how the white man is kept
down.’



Baise deleted the user’s posts and contacted him via e-mail that he was
violating the message-board guidelines and also could possibly get the
paper in legal trouble by posting copyrighted material.



After his messages were deleted, Baise says, the user rallied other
message-board posters, claiming his First Amendment rights were
violated. But, Baise says: ‘The First Amendment is about the government
prohibiting freedom of speech; it’s not about a private company or
individual who sets up a forum. It’s like when you invite people into
your house to hold a conversation – you can ask someone to leave if
they’re causing trouble.’



Trouble continued with the user until his account was removed, but the
user re-registered and posted Baise’s home phone number, address, and
even the demographics of his neighborhood on the message board,
encouraging people to harass him. Eventually, using some creative Web
administration, Sunspot was able to block the user permanently. But the
event has shaken Baise’s faith in the open-door policy with message
boards.



Given the recent merger between the Times Mirror Co., parent of The Sun
and the L.A. Times, and the Tribune Co., stricter policies might be
adopted under the direction of Tribune Interactive, Tribune’s new-media
division. But such policies at Tribune Interactive’s
OrlandoSentinel.com have several message-board users upset over what
they say is censorship of their message-board posts.



‘On the one hand, they’re inviting you to express your opinion, and on
the other hand, if the opinion doesn’t measure up in some shape or
form, they come along and delete it or censor it,’ says Gene Schumann,
42, a semiretired Floridian who often posts his thoughts on The Orlando
Sentinel site’s message boards.



Tanya Hanson, a producer for OrlandoSentinel.com, denies that anybody
is being censored for expressing his or her beliefs. Messages are
deleted only when they violate Tribune Interactive’s guidelines or
terms of service, she says. ‘Unfortunately, you can have a couple of
tornadoes crop up,’ Baise says, ‘and the whole thing is ruined.’



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Jason Williams (jwilliams@editorandpublisher.com) is the new-media
reporter for Editor & Publisher magazine.











(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher

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