Dispatches from a Reporter's Notebook

Uncivil Discourse

Posted May 26, 2011

The court system has a new challenge to contend with – social media.

In cases, especially high-profile ones, judges tell jurors not to read the newspaper, not to watch television news or look at news websites. For the most part, I think, jurors take their civic duty very seriously, including following the judge's instructions.

But the proliferation of social media and commenting online has created an unfiltered threat to the judicial process. It allows people to post what is often irrelevant, inappropriate, and uninformed opinions.

Contrary to what some people say, this is not about the First Amendment, because the speech, which often amounts to libel, is done under the cloak of anonymity.

Real freedom of speech involves people who are willing to identify themselves when they speak their mind, even at the risk of others disagreeing with what they say. Anonymous posters have no real conviction or character because they are making statements without the possibility of retribution for their beliefs.

Consider this: Even attorneys on one side of a case could post their clearly biased opinions without being discovered. Is that fair? Is that right?

This is presenting a real challenge to the judicial system. How do you sequester people from interactive media and when it's everywhere – on their computers, on their cell phones?

You can't.

This potential seepage of misinformation to a jury pool has the power to taint the entire process. I don't have the answer. Nor do I pretend to. But I know that this brave new world we've created doesn't encourage civil discourse, it often encourages hate speech with impunity.

About this Blog:

WRAL's Amanda Lamb offers a behind-the-scenes look at what TV news reporters do, the people they meet and how their jobs affect them.