Editorial: LebTown offers no safe harbor for hate speech; urges kindness, respect

4 min read691 views and 493 shares Posted June 19, 2020

Last week, in a LebTown column, Amaury Abreu explored the question – Does racism still exist in Lebanon County?

The column was thought-provoking and generated a robust discussion on the page LebTown maintains on Facebook. Much of the discourse remained within the bounds of civil exchange. But not all of it did.

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As I’ve explained before, LebTown will only editorialize if we feel that our ability to report and distribute news to the community is being constrained in some way.

Today I need to address our policy on hate speech, and specifically, hate speech as it relates to members of the public and public figures. I fear that if we are not clear, swift, and consistent in our enforcement of this policy, we risk injuring the long-term trust of our community in LebTown as a publication and news provider.

On our Facebook page, we take a light hand regarding moderation. We believe in having a robust marketplace of ideas on our site. LebTown’s reason for existence is and always will be the production of journalism – my singular mission is to create a business that can sustain good jobs for journalists covering Lebanon County – but, historically speaking, columns and letters have proven themselves to be an important part of the overall value proposition that newspapers offer to their communities.

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The marketplace of ideas is not always a kind one. It’s tough to be a person in the arena, and it’s easy to get worked up or to forget that there are real people at the other end of your smartphone connection. Sometimes a person might say something that falls outside of the boundary of acceptableness. Today I need to address what exactly we find unacceptable, as well as the ramifications of making such a comment on our page depending on the person who posts it.

LebTown categorically rejects and disallows hate speech on our properties. For LebTown, hate speech is any direct attack on protected characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity, or serious disease or disability. Our definition of hate speech is purposefully aligned with Facebook’s overall community standards.

We also disallow threats of violence and gratuitous profanity – there’s no policy against cursing on LebTown’s page though, and we do not think our Facebook page is a suitable place for children. (The website, however, is kept mostly PG, with few exceptions.)

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In most cases of encountering hate speech, we will take one of a few actions. If there’s clear benefit of the doubt that can be applied to the situation, we will message the user and ask them to rephrase or remove the comment, while also providing rationale on why this is necessary. Typically users comply, and we also allow for dissent, criticism, or other snark in the comments if they happen to think that the response was unwarranted. LebTown is not above criticism.

If the message does not allow for benefit of the doubt, we will typically delete it and message the user letting them know what happened. We have seldom run into issues with this approach.

Repeat offenders are subject to being banned from the Facebook page. Very rarely, we might ban a troll as well, but these occasions are limited and persons who end up in this position may always email us asking for a reprieve. At the end of the day, we’re human too, and I don’t believe there’s a business or editorial reason for us to allow individuals to remain in our reader community if they are consistently and actively hostile or dismissive of our journalism without providing a fact-based rationale for what is wrong with an article or editorial approach. As mentioned above, we genuinely welcome and encourage feedback, and I have had lengthy email exchanges with dozens of you regarding different editorial questions and ideas.

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These protocols are, however, different for public figures. If a public figure expresses hate speech on a LebTown property, when does that become news?

This is one of the most difficult questions in journalism – who should be accountable for what? Which people qualify as public figures? And what actions or behaviors does the public deserve to know about?

Politicians and appointed officials certainly qualify. Business and educational administrators as well. Nonprofit and other organization leaders. If someone in this category made a racist statement, would that be news? Our opinion is that it might be.

Last week, Lee Moyer posted a meme to the LebTown page that was overtly racist and bigoted.

Meme posted by Lee Moyer to the LebTown Facebook page.

Is Lee Moyer a public figure? In addition to being a long-time local business owner, Moyer is also a consummate self-promoter, having emailed LebTown dozens of times since our inception seeking coverage of the Harmonia Music Association, the more than 100-year-old organization for which he serves as president, as well as his own one-man band activities. LebTown has previously covered many of these happenings.

Upon seeing the meme, LebTown reached out to the Harmonia Music Association, seeking a formal response from Moyer and his fellow board members. Moyer – who never responded to LebTown’s outreach – subsequently deleted the meme from the page. Here is the response we received from Harmonia Music Association on our inquiry.

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The Harmonia Music Association is non-political. We embrace all people, all faiths, all races. We invite all to be a part of us, as our mission is to spread the enjoyment of music. All members’ political opinions are their own.

Rebecca Duke, Vice President of Harmonia Music Association
Katherine Hoopes, Federation Secretary of Harmonia Music Association
Pat Walter, Recording Secretary of Harmonia Music Association

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In our view, hate speech does not count as political speech. I personally believe that speaking out against hate speech in no way violates our mission to be a fact-based, non-partisan, and independent provider of journalism to the community. LebTown is not a governmental entity; the First Amendment does not apply to moderation of our online discussion forums.

Lee Moyer has been banned from the LebTown page on Facebook. Furthermore, we are sharing this information here as we feel that Moyer qualifies as a public figure.

LebTown is not a safe harbor for hate speech. Rancorous though political debate might be right now, we urge all our readers to genuinely work towards kindness and respect – and we will hold accountable those public figures who feel that the time is right to unleash hidden hatreds and prejudices.

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