On Thursday, the Wildcat published an article titled ""UA swimmers accused of Red Bull theft,"" written by news reporter Jazmine Woodberry. The story surmises that members past and present of the UA's men's swimming team participated in stealing $288 worth of Red Bull cans from an off-campus bar two weeks ago.
A number of readers have since questioned the story's journalistic merit in comments published below the story's online version. The gist of these comments is that the story was poorly researched and corroborated.
That's a fair criticism of any story, no matter the publication. Readers deserve thoroughly reported stories, and they have every right to demand a better product if they feel slighted.
Unfortunately, the criticisms didn't stop there. For roughly 36 hours beginning early Saturday morning, the highest-most comment on this story — indeed, what for many readers will forever color their interpretation of it — read as follows: ""Jazmine Woodberry is an ugly bitch.""
The comment's author? ""Anonymous."" Someone under the same pseudonym, responding to an earlier comment suggesting that Woodberry simply was ""trying to get her big break"" by writing the story, had this to say: ""Oh, I have a feeling shes (sic) gonna get a big … break. Hahaha yaaaaa.""
The First Amendment provides for a bevy of expressive freedoms. It allows us to publicly use racial slurs and wear jackets with ""Fuck the Draft"" stitched on the back. It allows people to post venomous commentary online. It even allows nascent law scholars to wax pretentious about the First Amendment.
Why is this so? Primarily, it's because we live in a ""free society"" and all that gooey goodness. But more specifically, it's because we acknowledge that unencumbered expression contributes to a more aware and empathetic society.
Perhaps acknowledging that point, the vast majority of newspapers today, including the Wildcat, permit readers to leave unedited commentary on stories read online. This privilege may have been granted with the hope that people, given an open forum, will use their newfound knowledge to increase both their and others' understanding of a given topic, for the betterment of all.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon rarely occurs. Common experience shows that readers by and large use these forums to unload angst and spite upon a quite diverse range of victims, from celebrities to young children to the source publication itself — sometimes all in the same submission. The trend worsens significantly when readers are allowed to submit anonymously or under an assumed name. Anything goes, as Thursday's article illustrates.
Are these people acting within their rights, as defined by centuries of deliberate formal and informal discourse? Of course. But although that often ends the discussion, it shouldn't.
Anonymous and pseudonymous online commentary, while constitutional, often conflicts with a key purpose and benefit of First Amendment freedom. No one gains awareness or empathy for others from comments that merely insult and threaten harm. Allowing these practices to continue only encourages more and more people to eschew courage and reason because they know they can get away with it.
Newspapers need to take the first step toward addressing this hypocrisy. They should force people to (wo)man up and assume responsibility for their viewpoints. While such an effort will undoubtedly spur some to cry ""censorship"" — a claim, indeed, with merit — consider this: What is expression without an identity?
— Tom Knauer is a first-year law student.
He can be reached at email@example.com.