Volume 10, Issue 10
This article is a response to comments underneath last week's De Minimis article, MLS’ “Diversity Problem: It’s Just Not Going Away.
Last week, anonymous contributors used the De Minimis comment thread to post deeply ugly content. It is not the first time that a comments section has devolved into sledging. I have written for De Minimis several times. I care about maintaining it as a forum for law students to express themselves with their arguments, their insights and ideas. I am not prepared to see this publication used as a vehicle to anonymously victimise others.
That there is racism, sexism and classism in the law school is not surprising. That law students represent a diversity of views does not mean that those views are reflective of tolerance and equality. There’s a lot of prejudice here, if you bother to scratch the surface.
Some argue that there is merit in allowing these opinions to be aired unmoderated on De Minimis’ comment threads. Doing so exposes these undercurrents and makes them impossible to ignore. Indeed, last week, the commenters’ words proved the author’s point – that racism and marginalisation are real issues in the law school.
I have two concerns with this view.
Firstly, that this means of furthering debate comes at a potential cost to authors of De Minimis articles. Law students are brave, brilliant and ready to fight for what they believe in. They are able to defend themselves and willing to defend each other. However, I believe there ought to be a minimum standard of conduct upheld online to ensure that contributors do not feel deterred from expressing their ideas.
Last week, the comments written diverged from fuelling debate: they were designed to devalue the thoughtful contributions of others and to disenfranchise. In other instances, comments have been used to smear and bully. That kind of discourse should not be tolerated. I think that we have a responsibility to our contributors to provide a forum in which their ideas can be hotly debated without subjecting them to behaviour that is beyond the par.
According to De Minimis, a minimum standard is currently in place to ensure that “grossly offensive or discriminatory” content is deleted. In this case, it was stated that the comments came “close to, but did not breach this standard”. I would differ on that point. Accusing an author of being a liar, especially in that context, is grossly offensive and an unjustified attack on a person’s integrity. In any event, I would also suggest that moderation should extend to disabling the comment function on threads where comments descend into sledging.
My second concern is that commenters to De Minimis should be prepared to be held accountable for what they say, both generally and in particular cases such as these. Last week, I suspect the commenters knew their words went beyond being controversial. I suspect they would not dream of addressing people in real life the way the author was addressed online, because of the repercussions to their reputation. I can think of few people who would look kindly on what was said and I can think of fewer employers who would hire a person who openly expressed such views.
I do not believe De Minimis should be used as a means of attacking others at no cost to the perpetrator. Online commenters ought to own their words. To avoid the disinhibition and vitriol that anonymity enables, there should be a means of identifying commenters in case of future incidents that are not borderline, as this incident was judged to be.
There are two likely issues with this course of action: Firstly, it may not be possible to require commenters to post under verifiable names or to provide their email addresses so they are known to De Minimis moderators. However, I think that difficulty can be overcome. Secondly, it is also possible that removing or reducing anonymity would have an adverse effect: we might run the risk of fewer people commenting altogether. Unfortunately, anonymity is a double-edged sword.
Nonetheless, in spite of the risk of fewer comments being made, tempering anonymity would serve the valuable function of deterring inappropriate behaviour overall. And, if the JD Facebook page is anything to go by, I doubt that debate will actually be stifled. Moreover, if future behaviour amounted to repeated breaches of online standards or bullying, knowing the identity of the commenter would create an avenue for further action to be taken.
There is one last thing I would like to say, and that is to the unkind anonymous commenters, wherever they may be. In the real world, in your professional and personal lives, you will be measured by the content of your character, inclusive of your treatment of others. The person you are online is not divorced from the person you are in reality. It is a part of who you are. Ask yourself if the person you want to be is disrespectful and intolerant. Then ask yourself if you aspire to be someone better than that, and what you should do to make a change.
Alice Kennedy is a second-year JD student
The rest of this week's issue: