Censorship vs. soapbox vs. call to action

Where is the line between protection and censorship?

Where is the line between protection and censorship?

A few months ago one of our Twitter law enforcement contacts, a community relations officer, tweeted that she was thinking about starting a blog for her agency. Scott replied: Portsmouth PD had tried it, but the number of negative comments forced the agency to shut it down. They couldn’t block the negative comments or else they, as a government agency, would be censoring free speech. So they shut down the blog entirely.

They’re not the only department to have faced this problem. Baltimore PD is dealing with it currently, not with a blog but with its Facebook page. Police reporter Peter Herrman discusses the wide variety of civilian reactions, and police responses: from bland “thanks for a good job” to outright attacks, which some agencies circumvent by not allowing any kind of commenting access.

Dealing with negative comments

You could, of course, close comments. But this doesn’t allow for the true two-way interaction which social media demands. You could also do what Kansas City Police Chief James Corwin does, and allow comments via email sent directly to him.

Or, you can set a comment policy, as newspapers do: something like “Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned.”

Still, as Hermann points out in his article, “The big questions are, what line and who decides whether it has been crossed?… Should government bureaucrats be making these decisions at all?”

The best comprehensive example I’ve seen of a blog policy comes from none other than the U.S. Air Force. Its flow chart makes it easy to visualize every possible response to a blog, and what the blogger’s counter-response should be (if the choice to respond is made).

Then there’s Lakeland Assistant Police Chief Bill LePere’s comment policy. He concisely shows that a government representative can, in fact, moderate without censoring.

True free speech inspires action

Free speech works both ways: not just allowing haters to have their say, but canceling out heat in favor of light so that, as Le Pere says, “We will continue to moderate [comments] and willingly publish those that my be contrary to our position on a topic but yet are beneficial to the public discussion we hope to generate here.”

Indeed, Herrman quotes Baltimore Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi as saying, “What we’d really like is for people to get engaged in fighting crime, to step up and become part of the solution.”

As a writer, I know I think best when I put words down. For me as for most people, it’s hard to act unless I have thought through something. Allowing blog comments does more, then, than allowing people a forum to state their grievances: done right, by allowing them to “think out loud,” it allows them to clear their heads. Clear heads can plan action.

So yes, it’s OK to delete the truly negative comments, the lies and attacks that do their own damage to others’ free speech. But if law enforcement truly wants community involvement in crime prevention—and what agency wouldn’t, given the limited budgets most are working with these days?—then they have to be prepared for the kind of criticism that tears down so that it can reconstruct.

Image: Mr.Enjoy via Flickr

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7 thoughts on “Censorship vs. soapbox vs. call to action

  1. Christa Miller Post author

    Thanks GX – yes, their comment policy is very up front: “Comments are moderated, and will not appear on this weblog until the author has approved them. We encourage you to express your opinions about current events through respectful and insightful discussion. The Department reserves the right to refuse to post those comments that contain inappropriate language and/or material. Additionally, hyper-links or E-mail addresses will not be posted. To report or help us solve a crime go to lapdonline.org. To commend an officer or report police officer misconduct – click here.” [links removed]

  2. James

    This is a very fine line, and a real concern for departments considering going forward with social media programs (i.e., blogs, facebook, twitter, etc.). I, myself, have to be very careful about what comments are posted on our blogs and Facebook page because I work for CrimeReports.com. We don’t want to appear like we are censoring anyone’s right to express their opinion, but we also need to be careful about who we associate with. For example, every time someone follows us on Twitter, I check them out as soon as possible, so I can to make sure it’s not porn. We don’t need members of the public thinking we associate with that type of trash and neither to PDs—I feel their frustration.

    And because many “older” officers (the ones who generally run the departments, and make most of the decisions) have not grown up with social media, there is a lot of fear and anxiety associated with trying to navigate the minefield. What’s sad is that many would rather shut the whole thing down, rather than try and devote time to making it work in a way that actually acheives true two-way communication.

    But the world is changing rapidly.
    .-= James´s last blog ..A Call for Sex Offender Laws that Make Sense =-.

  3. Christa Miller Post author

    Thanks James, yes, I think by and large people should be able to express opinions as long as it’s not abusive. Just this morning I approved a comment on one of my articles on my writing site: http://christammiller.com/2008/07/30/the-other-side-of-mobile-forensics/ Not exactly pro-law enforcement, but he brings up a good point that fell right in line with some things I read yesterday — which I feel strongly that people DO need to be thinking about.

  4. Alex

    Another solution is to take SJPD’s route and have the blog the official blog of the SJ Police Officer’s Association. Since it’s a union blog, they can still be official without needing to worry about censorship complaints.

  5. Christa Miller Post author

    Very true Alex, the Arcadia Police Officers’ Association does the same thing. I do agree that’s a good “bridge” between an official presence and administrators who are still leery of that official presence. Thanks for bringing it up!

  6. Tom Le Veque

    Hi Christa,
    Any policy that blocks comments in total is defeating the purpose of the use of social media in reaching out to your community. I like Asst. Chief LePere’s policy for Lakeland. It is upfront, to the point and gives fair notice to all. Common sense should dictate and anything off topic or inflammatory should not be tolerated. However, disagreeing with a post and offering your opinion helps build understanding and hopefully a discussion that everyone learns from. I recall reading a line not too long ago on this topic elsewhere; reminding us that if we don’t allow a comment simply because it is in opposition to ours, that the other person will find another source to deliver their comment. They may utilize their own blog, a letter to the editor, speaking out to a City Council…you name it, there are plenty of options. We deal with liability every day in Law Enforcement. This is no different. Do what is right, ethical, within policy and law and treat everyone fairly. You can do that and monitor your comments on both sides of the fence and still maintain a professional social media site that is beneficial to all…my humble opinion.
    .-= Tom Le Veque´s last blog ..Machine Pistol Recovered =-.

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