When one voice threatens to silence others, it’s time to intervene.

Voice of San Diego thrives off of the members of its community. Giving our readers the tools (and thus, space) to “engage in important conversations” is written into our core identity. We tested our limits on tolerance in the comment section this week, using one particularly divisive user named Jim Jones as a time-sensitive case study.

Jones and VOSD have long had a tenuous relationship. We have frequently had to delete comments of his that violate our stated guidelines – i.e., including “personal insults or attacks, lewd remarks, any hate speech or serious unsubstantiated accusations.”

READ MORE: Jim Jones, Unmasked

Those same guidelines say we will remove accounts if users repeatedly violate our rules about commenting, which Jones arguably has. But we don’t have a black-and-white limit. So how much bad behavior warrants a ban, either temporary or permanent?

This all came to a head Wednesday, when we received the following email (lightly edited and posted with permission, though we agreed to keep the author anonymous):

I no longer wish to be part of VOSD.  Please delete my account or forward instructions on how I can delete it myself.

While I respect the goal of your organization, participating in the forums no longer provides useful dialogue to advance the discussion of important issues.  This is particularly the case in the education section.  For some reason VOSD allows Jim Jones to post insulting, degrading, inflammatory statements seemingly at will, with no repercussions.  I have no problem with people who disagree with me, but being insulted and degraded on a consistent basis crosses that line.

I realize that I am only one member and my desire not to participate will have no affect on VOSD, but I can no longer be affiliated with an organization that allows such disrespectful dialogue.

Quite sincerely, this broke my heart. During debates in the past over whether to delete particular comments of Jones’, my biggest concern had been getting too delete-happy, and whether that might suggest to other readers that we were hovering over them, ready to pounce and remove comments or accounts willy-nilly. This is probably the grossest yet necessary part of my job:

I say “necessary” because of that last bit in the concerned reader’s email — we can’t let bigoted and cruel comments live on our site and shape the discourse.

Keeping one vocal reader in our community — even with frequent wrist-slapping — was now driving others away. If the kumbaya community approach isn’t doing it for you, consider that this simply isn’t good business.

But we weren’t convinced a banishment was the right thing for Jones, or for the community, either.

As engagement editor, I spend most of the day reading the comment boards so our reporters don’t have to, giving them a heads-up when they can offer insight. I imagine (hope) the rest of you don’t do this.

I considered that I might have an inflated impression of the impact of Jones’ comments. I’ve watched the arguments play out between commenters, where other users have called him out for derailing the conversation. Clearly some were negatively affected by Jones’ presence. Meanwhile, VOSD reporters have come to regard our more vocal haters as a part of the gig, so they’re largely unfazed by all this.

I wanted some input from outside the trenches. I opened it up to The Plaza — how much does Jones affect their experiences on VOSD? Would we be a better place if we made a firm decision to delete his account?

It felt a lot like this:

I emailed the link to Jones to let him know it had come to this. He’s well aware we’ve deleted his comments in the past, and has personally responded when other users have complained about his words. Jones acknowledged that his politics are often not well received by fellow commenters in Sara Libby’s Q-and-A earlier this year, and said he didn’t think we treated him fairly:

I also consider VOSD left of center overall, not a truly neutral news source, and many of my posts are censored, often for no reason I can see, often it’s the posts I put the most time into, other times it’s certain subject matter (like mentioning prior to the election that Filner took money from the MEK, listed as a terrorist organization, for a trip to Paris. That was censored any time I tried to bring it up even though it is newsworthy fact).

There also seems to be a double standard. Bob Stein is free to insult me for instance, his latest post certainly does and other posts have as well, some even by name (although he doesn’t use my name this time).

The second reason is I am pretty certain eventually Bob Stein and a few others will get their way and I will be banned from making comments, as there is little doubt in my mind that if public union employees could vote me off the site they would, and the argument that my opinion is hurting membership is a powerful incentive, true or not.

I invited him to speak up (he has not responded to the email), but our intention wasn’t to have him stand trial and personally defend himself. We also didn’t set out to humiliate him (though my wording in the Plaza post did, admittedly, get a little dramatic – “decide Jim Jones’ fate,” for example).

We wanted to hear opinions from the greater community. As Scott Lewis pointed out, we didn’t consider the suggestions to be binding.

The responses came flooding in. I’ve highlighted a few of the more thoughtful opinions and proposed solutions below. First, on Twitter (you might check out the others we retweeted Wednesday: @voiceofsandiego):

[fold-tweet url=”https://twitter.com/alexroth3/status/408349631689400320″]

[fold-tweet url=”https://twitter.com/SDuncovered/status/408352282971889665″]

[fold-tweet url=”https://twitter.com/AshDHarrington/status/408348584254242819″]

[fold-tweet url=”https://twitter.com/jtjordon/status/408354093007007745″]

[fold-tweet url=”https://twitter.com/lucasoconnor/status/408359232157659137″]

And on the Plaza:

What I have seen thus far is someone with strong opinions who is willing and able to back them up in a discussion. … Commenting sections are about as reasonable of a place to come together to discuss these topics. These comments have to be thought out and then typed. Therefore, I feel that comments are at least slightly less fired from the hip than verbal disagreement. He might be raising points for discussion that other readers in agreement haven’t thought of yet. Commenting sections are the battle lines between opposing viewpoints. Shots will be fired and egos may get damaged, it is the nature of mature differences of view. If they don’t happen here where do they happen? — Josh Smith

After about 15 years online and seeing Jim Jones (really, his prototype) appear in various incarnations under the guise of a “differing opinion” or somehow “contributing to the discussion” and crying censorship when his (it has always been a he) comments were deleted, I have learned that the only way to a productive discussion in an online medium is just an outright ban. … Jim (and his ilk) are always very careful to skirt any written rule and thus it doesn’t matter what you create, he will avoid an outright violation of those rules. At some point you have to weigh what you want the comments to be and what he brings to the table and well, ban the guy. — Sam Ollinger

 As there will always be another Jim Jones, this is really a technology problem. … For users whose comments I don’t like, I should be able to add users to my ignore list, and select an option on whether or not to hide the entire child conversation that ensues from a user that I have ignored. However, for users who are consistently posting comments that have to be censored, ideally moderators would use a “probation” option that disables their ability to comment for a set amount of time, which increases with each well-defined threshold event. — VOSD contributor Seth Hall

One fair point raised a few times was that I was asking the community to make a decision without a full evidence file of his deleted comments. A couple users suggested, prodded, demanded I repost the offending comments.

But I couldn’t see any positive conversation coming from digging up things we’d felt all along brought nothing productive to the table.

By late afternoon, it appeared the majority of responders wanted to keep Jones around, at least on principle.

We decided not to delete his account. Though there are some banned users in the back-end limbo of our site, it’s not a move we take lightly. And whether you agree with his politics, Jones does put a lot of time and thought into his comments. He cites research, links to (mostly) credible sources — many of these comments get to stay published. Excluding the more hateful contributions, the extent of his effort is what we would love to see from our readers.

We’ll continue to monitor his comments — along with everyone else’s — and remove those that violate our rules.

I was worried about the reader who launched us into all this, though. I emailed him at the end of the day, and asked if he still wanted me to cut him loose.

His reply:

First, I would like to thank you for all the effort you put into this. I hope people understand that my issue was never that someone disagreed with me, but rather how such comments negatively impact the quality of discussion. That being said, I’d like to keep my account active. I think I will just use the Jim Jones filter.

Again, thank you for taking the time to address this issue. Like you said, it’s the nature of democracy.

(Here’s that Jim Jones filter, created by another VOSD user.)

Frankly, I consider this a successful experiment in engagement. We dug down into the roots of what VOSD is all about — making our readers’ voices heard — and I didn’t have to delete anyone’s account. So what did we learn?

My sense is that many readers who spoke up to keep Jones around did not do so out of compassion — though it’s hard not to like him more after reading this Q-and-A. Their points boiled down to respect for his — and everyone’s — right to be heard.

My job will still be to make sure what you hear doesn’t devolve into hate speech. And we’re not going to do this every time a reader consistently crosses the line. Like I said, this was an experiment.

Catherine Green

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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