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Web comments test free speech

When newspapers began the grand Internet experiment with Web comments, they envisioned it as a community-building exercise, enfranchising readers who might not be subscribers, but whose opinions nonetheless were valuable insight into the neighborhood we live in.

We were no different. But we can't necessarily say our Web comments have enriched the discussion of community issues at times. And that's been a disappointment, because we are all stakeholders in our future, in the politics of the institutions we report on.

We should be engaging in lively, spirited, thoughtful discussions about who our next sheriff will be; how our schools should deal with budget cuts; how we can preserve our businesses, resorts and economy.

Sadly, in place of an enlightened community, we've seen pockets of slums grow, areas blighted by nasty Web comments, many commenters missing the point of the stories or editorials we've posted. We've seen the feeding frenzy that follows a commenter who has misread, misunderstood or ignored the point of a story.

The lofty theory behind Web comments was that they would drive Web traffic, and in turn, advertising revenue. We're not sure that's been our experience, either.

Instead we've heard from people personally attacked by Web readers who justifiably feel maligned by the anonymous remarks. The nastiness and insults have to stop.

We've also heard from Internet readers disgusted with the tone of the Web comments. They think it makes us look bad, allowing people to attack each other - and us.

Many newspapers, fed up with this extreme experiment in First Amendment limits, have put the kibosh on Web comments. One publication called it "an intractable problem."

While we are reluctant to take that path, we also don't espouse an "anything goes" approach. We've seen how harmful the free-for-alls can be. Our Web-posted jail and sheriff stories have been rife with slanderous personal attacks from commenters.

We have clearly posted rules on comments. They're unambiguous. When they are ignored, we remove the offenders without warning.

We do not have the manpower to police our Web site 24/7 or to edit all the rude comments, so at some point, we must impose prior restraints.

We're posting some stories without readers' abilities to comment because we know the subject matter is prone to disastrous reaction. And that's sad. Because they're stories about your institutions, your tax money, your leaders and the stewards of your money: stories you should have a say about.

But since we want our community of readers, print and Internet, to be a civil society, we could ask some of you to kindly refrain from commenting, or simply shut down your opportunity to spread your incendiary comments.

And that makes us truly sad, because neither choice should have to be pondered.