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Reconsidering online comment policies

As we move into the new year, we have decided to reconsider our policies on anonymous online comments, particularly those that we have chosen to repeat in our print editions.

Our internal discussion started when we were asked by a reader of the Del Mar Times — which we also publish — to reveal the names of some writers whose comments were published in that edition. We will not do that because we believe their names are protected under the California Shield Law as “unpublished information,” much as notes from interviews that are not published are protected.

As we state in our Disqus policy, which shows when someone posts a comment, we do not have any obligation to monitor this board, although we do review it and, on occasion, remove any “information or materials that are unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane, indecent or otherwise objectionable.” On occasion, we have blocked posters who repeatedly violate the policy.

The postings do permit people to use anonymous nicknames — not real screen names or real names. The thought was to encourage an open discussion on issues that we are reporting on without fear of retribution.

As the attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association says, if we think back to Thomas Jefferson’s day, the old newspapers often included “scandalous” comments about leaders of those days that were decidedly worse than what is said today.

Jefferson believed, Jim Ewart reminds us, “having a vibrant press is better than not having them.”

Even so, we are open to rethinking our policy since some of the comments of late have gone beyond what common decency might allow. At this point, we have already changed two policies: Comments will not be posted automatically, but must be reviewed by an editor, and we will no longer print anonymous Web comments in the paper.

Beyond that, we are reviewing our options, which include not changing the policy further or requiring registration with a full name or, at the very least, a valid e-mail name.

Meanwhile, this commentary can serve as a reminder to posters and subjects of their observations that sometimes we should think twice before clicking “Post Comment.”

Community leaders who, because of their willingness to serve, are public figures — must have thicker skin than others because the rules are different for what can be said about them. But they should be treated with dignity even when being criticized.

We’re all talking about these topics for the same reason — to make our communities and schools better places.