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Abusing free speech

Published 01/21/2014 12:00 AM
Updated 01/21/2014 02:04 PM

There's a reason framers of the U.S. Constitution designated the very first amendment as a prohibition of any law abridging freedom of speech or infringing on freedom of the press - they recognized such rights are a foundation of our democratic government that protect us against totalitarian rule.

For all the edict's noble intentions, though, misguided miscreants sometimes try to wield the First Amendment like a cudgel instead of a shield, improperly insisting that such constitutional privilege applies to all self-expression, no matter how hateful or vile.

This, apparently, is the case of the anonymous reprobate who over the weekend posted online a photo of New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio that depicts him as Adolf Hitler. The image appeared briefly on the Facebook page of Whale Tales, a website maintained by Kathleen Mitchell, a frequent critic of the mayor.

The Day deplores such contemptible characterizations and shares Mr. Finizio's outrage upon learning of the posting.

"This kind of venomous political discourse poisons our community. Comparisons to Nazi-ism are clearly outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior," the mayor wrote on his Facebook page.

To her credit, Ms. Mitchell said that soon after being alerted by Facebook of inappropriate content on Whale Tales she removed the doctored photograph, which included a caption referring to the mayor as "Adolph Fibnizio." She said the electronic image had been visible only about 30 minutes.

But Ms. Mitchell missed an opportunity to distance herself from the anonymous poster by attempting to justify his or her scurrilous message.

"I understand the intent of it. It compared Daryl's oratory skills and skill at manipulating an audience (to Hitler's)," she said about the posting. "He's a dynamic speaker."

Not good, Ms. Mitchell. In such situations, there's only one proper response: "We're sorry, and it won't happen again." Hitler was not simply a dynamic speaker; he helped orchestrate the Holocaust that led to the slaughter of six million Jews, and millions of others during World War II. And how could she know the "intent" of the person who posted the photograph if she didn't know his or her identity?

The website then posted this message: "Whale Tale is not intended to be socially offensive, but sometimes it happens anyway. And we do enjoy roasting the Mayor because he deserves it, but not at the expense of our followers. We also take very seriously the very wrong interpretation by some of our FB friends and take exception to their erroneous postings and comments. The picture that was posted earlier today, because of their very wrong interpretations, has been removed. Should you still be offended in any way, please unfriend Whale Tale." We find this response - blaming "the very wrong interpretation" of the photograph rather than the image itself - particularly egregious.

Ms. Mitchell said that only a limited number of city employees and board members who are anonymous writers for Whale Tales can post messages on the website, adding that she does not know who posted it and would have no intention of naming the person if that information came to light.

This newspaper is less interested in the identity of whomever posted the photo than we are in maintaining a civil conversation about politics, while at the same time safeguarding the right of free speech.

Admittedly, sometimes it's a delicate balance, particularly with regard to anonymous postings on a newspaper website.

Publisher Gary Farrugia explains The Day's policy:

• Comments are limited to paid subscribers. Although many who comment on theday.com use an alias, the identity of the people who comment is known to The Day. Commenters who violate The Day's guidelines repeatedly are banned.

• The newspaper uses software that monitors and prohibits offensive language.

• A review panel of editors also monitors the site and removes personal or hateful language.

• Comments are restricted on stories that generate offensive or hateful postings.

We disagree with other media that allow all readers to comment without restriction, and also with those that outright ban all postings, anonymous or otherwise.

The online reader comment feature often serves as a popular, lively forum, and those who take advantage of The Day's policies soon learn how to make their points appropriately without having their remarks removed.

And while we sympathize with Mayor Finizio's objections to being compared to one of the world's worst tyrants, we respectfully disagree with his demand that removing the Hitler image does not go far enough; that the Facebook group should be disbanded.

On this, we side with the sentiment widely attributed to Voltaire, the 18th-century French philosopher: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

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