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Tucker: Free speech isn’t absolute

Posted: March 12, 2015 9:43 a.m.
Updated: March 13, 2015 1:00 a.m.

Here’s a good thing about the internet: it gives everyone a chance to be heard.

Here’s a bad thing about the internet: it gives everyone a chance to be heard.

Since the advent of social media -- actually, even before then, back to the early days of the World Wide Web and the first message boards -- idiots have been able to find a forum to say whatever they wish.

Hold on, hold on. I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, Glenn, you’re an idiot, too, and you’ve had a forum in the Chronicle-Independent for nearly 40 years.”

You’re right.

But there’s a difference. I put my name and my mug on what I write. It’s all out there for anybody to see and criticize.

And I’m bound by the libel laws of this state. If I say something scurrilous or untrue, I have to answer for it.

Not so with anonymous postings on the internet.

Much of the verbal back-and-forth that goes on in cyberspace, such as sports message boards, is harmless. Case in point: nobody pays much attention to the morons who continually criticize Steve Spurrier because they’re convinced they know a lot more about coaching college football then he does. They’re just having a good time.

But too much of what goes on in cyberspace under the shield of anonymity is downright vicious.

We’ve all heard about cyber-bullying, which in some cases has led people -- especially teenagers -- to commit suicide after being savaged by cowards who have anonymously spewed venom.

You might be familiar with the recent case involving Curt Schilling, the former ace Major League Baseball pitcher.

After Schilling took to Twitter to congratulate his daughter for graduating from high school, choosing a college and deciding to play on the school’s softball team, there were a number of vulgar, sexually explicit comments posted about her, including one that threatened rape.

Schilling found it wasn’t that hard to trace Twitter accounts, and two New Jersey men were soon identified as the slugs who had sent the messages. Schilling’s considering legal action against them.

Good for him.

So where does free speech figure into all of this? Don’t we all have a right to say what we please?

Yes, within reason. But let’s remember, decades ago, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote the First Amendment didn’t give people the right to shout “fire!” in a crowded theater.

Free speech isn’t absolute.

There are social media sites specializing in guaranteeing anonymity, so users can post whatever they wish without having to worry about legal consequences or reprisals.

They provide havens for cowards to spread their cruel taunts, and the most popular is a smartphone app called Yik Yak.

A news story says since the app was introduced a little more than a year ago, it has been used to issue threats of mass violence on more than a dozen college campuses, including the University of North Carolina, Michigan State University and Penn State.

Racist, homophobic and misogynist “yaks” have generated controversy at many more schools, among them Clemson, Emory, Colgate and the University of Texas. At Kenyon College, a “yakker” proposed a gang rape at the school’s women’s center.  

Because the app’s privacy policy prevents schools from identifying users without a subpoena, court order or search warrant, colleges are largely powerless to deal with it.

This fine piece of work was created in 2013 by Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington, two graduates of Furman University in Greenville. Venture capitalists have poured in millions of dollars as the app has exploded in popularity on campuses across the country.

The two founders have in some cases cooperated with authorities in dealing with messages threatening mass violence and, they contend, with Yik Yak they were trying to “create a more democratic social media network.”

That’s their story.

Mine -- and I suppose I’m showing my age -- is that Yik Yak and others like it provide an anonymous forum to foment the cruelty and hatred already too commonplace in this country.

A half century ago, Bob Dylan aimed the lyrics of “TheTimes They Are A Changin’” towards an older generation.

“Your old road is rapidly aging,” he wrote. “Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand, for the times they are a-changin’.”

Indeed, they still are. I’m just not very excited about this particular direction.

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