On comments

PHOTO: Anita Ritenour, FlickrCC

I’ve often spoken about my stint as the 21-year-old editor of a small daily newspaper on the Iron Range. You could argue I was too young, too inexperienced, and too pie-eyed for that whole thing to work, and that’s all objectively true, but I sure learned a hell of a lot.

One of the duties I had back then was to handle the letters to the editor. Now, that’s built into the name. I’m the editor, these are letters directed to me. But at the same time, they weren’t about me. They were comments on the stories in the paper or things going on in the community.

Sometimes you got a letter from someone who was directly involved or affected by a story. Sometimes you got many letters from one person over an extended period of time. Writers penned a letter in a one-time desire to say something they felt was important. Alternatively, some were consumed by the belief that they needed to comment on everything.

I ran almost all of these letters regardless.

We did have rules, though. For instance, we ended up limiting the number of times one person could write a letter per month. We also held letters to the same standards of libel law that our stories were subject to. After all, newspapers were liable for libel.

Libel is a damaging falsehood published with actual malice. In other words, something knowingly false printed with the intent to harm the subject. The First Amendment makes it hard to prove libel in most cases, which is a good thing for free speech. Public figures, a legally defined term, find it particularly difficult to prosecute libel claims. But the threat of a lawsuit often is a enough to merit a settlement, which is something that can have a dampening effect.

Anyway, at the newspaper we endeavored not to print libelous letters. I spiked letters that I felt could have been libelous. I was also threatened with a libel lawsuit over a letter to the editor we ran about a community organization. In fact, I take some pride in the fact that we handled this diplomatically and that I was later asked to perform a public role with this organization, sans the lawsuit.

But mostly I was just trying to keep the page decent and as local as possible. We had all kinds of opinions in our community. We provided a robust forum for those opinions.

This experience is what has informed my policy on comments here at MinnesotaBrown.com since I started blogging in 2006.

Getting to me my reason for writing this post, I have made the difficult decision to block a longtime commenter on this blog. If you read the comments here, you know which one. This is the first time in the 13-year history of MinnesotaBrown that I’ve outright blocked a commenter. And I hope never to do so again.

To be clear, this decision has nothing to do with this person’s political leanings. I am proud of the fact that readers here span the political spectrum, and I welcome comments from all points of view. Rather, this has to do with a violation of two things: truth and empathy. Comments from this person were needlessly misleading and needlessly mean.

And that’s where my policy has to change. The legal definition of libel is inadequate to govern how we speak to one another. The social convention that might help us be kind when disagreeing in person simply isn’t kicking in when we communicate online.

So, I’ll do what I can to change that.

If you’re a conservative or a liberal or an independent or a weird offshoot of some radical philosophy or maybe lack any political identity at all, we’re cool. You are welcome here. But I will not tolerate trolling. This includes personal attacks or vitriol that isn’t grounded in the subject of the post. If you can’t focus your argument on the subject matter, or speak with respect for others, you need not comment.

We don’t need to read a shotgun list of partisan grievances unrelated to the subject of the conversation. We don’t need to needlessly invoke questions of character caked with innuendo unless there is clear evidence and relevance.

Moreover, we don’t need to have the same arguments over and over again every time I post something. It shuts down conversation and is particularly discouraging to new people who would like to comment.

The internet is full of places to spew bile. Social media now approaches a level of toxicity that concerns me. I have, quite literally, begun mental health practices dedicated to handling being online. (Such as, until very recently, trying not responding to comments on my blog).

I wish this were not so, but it is. Others have it much, much worse than I do. As the editor of this site I have limited powers to do something. I encourage you to comment on the stories you read here. If possible, I will retain the relatively loose environment I’ve allowed so far. I am hoping that we can continue some of the great conversations that have happened under my posts.

Here are the rules:

First-time commenters and comments that include a link are moderated. I will approve them when I am able.

Once you have been approved for your first comment, you may continue commenting as you like. The only exception is links, which are moderated.

Comments will be deleted and commenters warned if they post comments that state or imply something hateful or obviously untrue.

And here are my requests to guests, in my duty as host:

I encourage you to make substantial comments rather than short or pithy comebacks to other commenters. (Hard to interpret, so this is merely a request).

If a post is about national politics, you may talk national politics. But if a post is about local politics, I advise you to focus on the local issues, evidence and points of view that would promote a useful conversation about this issue.

We don’t have to agree. Someone who does not agree with you is unlikely to change their mind if you call them names, use shame or sarcasm, condescend or lecture. You might find it more effective to try to understand the other point of view, and to share your point of view with that other person’s view in mind.

That means that when you comment you have to have an open mind yourself. If you won’t accept credible evidence that contradicts your claims, you’re unlikely to provide credible evidence that will change anyone else’s mind.

If this all fails, and this thing still gets ugly, I’ll shut ‘er down. Truth be told, the tears would be short-lived. We’re trying to do something good. Or else why are we here?

Finally, please don’t pile on the blocked person in the comments. They aren’t able to defend themselves. And to the blocked individual, I will consider reinstatement when I am satisfied that you understand what I’ve said here and have meaningfully apologized to the person you specifically insulted in the comment I’ve since deleted.

On we go! Happy Monday!


  1. Thank you Aaron. I have been discouraged from trying to participate in a civil discussion about a post when the known response could be predicted. Sadly this isn’t only limited to social media these days, but it is the location of the worst. I avoid the comment sections in most sources (your posts being an exception) because of the heated vitriol that goes back and forth. Until we can have civil discussions and not scream that people are wrong because they don’t agree with us, we can only hope to try and change the system. I, myself, will continue to block people from my FB feed who post nothing but one-sided political fodder and limit my posts to family fun, jokes, and useful community information. Until we can find ways to communicate in a civil manner and compromise and work together, none of the problems that are being fought about will be solved.

  2. Yeah, don’t beat yourself up over this. I’ve banned a few people from posting on Strong Towns and the result is that we have some very intelligent, thoughtful, and respectful conversation. You don’t have a right to be an @ss on my site, and it’s not respectful to others (and I feel a deep obligation to them).

    I like to think that being blocked will be a wakeup call for the person that maybe they need some personal reflection on their behavior. I’m sure the reality is otherwise, but I don’t dwell on it.

  3. Andy Froelich says

    Two comments. First, it’s tough to be judge, jury and executioner and I can understand why it was a tough call. It not Minnesota Brown Green and Yellow. Just Brown. Your call. Second, I haven’t come across a blog with rules. It’s something that should be more prevalent in the wild wild west of online comments and I think it may encourage fruitful discourse. Thank you Mr. Brown.

  4. Man, I was NOT trying to encourage the behaviors. My natural instinct is to keep such a person on the porch, filled lemonade, and no shells in shotgun. Most of us can comprehend that. I am from the Church. Each parish has a few trolls on both sides of the spectrum. I guess I might be a little more used to it. I just don’t want anyone to think I was encouraging the behaviors intentionally.

  5. Thanks, Mr Brown. I read your stuff occaisionally and seldom read the comments. Years ago I had to stop myself from going down the rabbit hole with discussions/comments at the Star-Tribune online. It had become way too toxic. As a (former) Iron Ranger, I enjoy your take on the local news, and appreciate your fair treatment of the many opinions of the current residents, although I’m amazed at how much the politics of the Range have changed in the last 20 years! I never thought I’d have to explain to my fellow Minnesotans from the mid-southern part of the state that of course I support labor, unions, responsible gun ownership, the IRRRB, and the DFL platform. Weird. BTW, loved the ode to your grandpa. It was lovely.

  6. Gray Camp says

    It’s unfortunate that R47 couldn’t control himself a little better. I generally appreciated his opinions to a point.

  7. Bravo, Aaron !

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