Michelle Turnberg: I’m For Freedom Of Speech Except When I’m Not

Former television reporter Michelle Turnberg pens a column for the Fargo Forum in which she slams anonymous comments.

As a journalist, I am all for freedom of speech and being able to speak one’s mind. However, I believe comments ought to be attached to a name. Using an anonymous “username” is cowardly. It’s easy to talk about others when you don’t attach your remarks to your identity. It’s disturbing to see how anonymity causes people to gleefully indulge their dark sides. And how sad is it that so many people are willing to toss mud when they don’t know the truth?

I welcome feedback and suggestions. If you have ideas for this column or wish to offer a comment, good or bad, feel free to contact me by email or on Facebook. I will not read comments without a legitimate name, so speak your mind but stand by what you say.

I have a hard time believing that Turnberg doesn’t read anonymous comments, or won’t be reading them going forward. In fact, I’d suggest that it’s probably all the anonymous comments Turnberg read related to her DUI arrest and very-public dismissal from her previous job that informs her current position on anonymous comments. And to be fair, I can understand why she’d be irate. As the target of no small number of nasty comments from anonymous internet users, I can empathize.

That said, since when must one attach their name to speech in order for it to be free? There’s a rather proud tradition of anonymous commenting in this country. The Federalist Papers, for instance, were written with pseudonyms. Ben Franklin was rather famous for writing into various news publications anonymously. Here on Say Anything my co-blogger, The Whistler, writes anonymously about Grand Forks matters and has broken some big stories. He writes anonymously because he fears retribution for his work, but who he is doesn’t really matter. What he writes does.

But at the end of the day, you really have to wonder why it matters who wrote a particular comment. To me the comment is about the substance of the comment, and not the person. Usually those who want to know who is posting a comment have that desire because they wish to make their response to the comment about the person and not the comment.

Anonymity, far from being the negative Turnberg makes it out to be, can be a positive. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,” Oscar Wilde once wrote. “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

I believe that.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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  • ec99

    It’s lamentable that people feel the need to write under screennames.  But when one sees the fate of whistleblowers who get shellacked, while perpetrators go free, it’s understandible.

    I don’t know Michelle Turnberg from the Man in the Moon.  But it’s interesting how she, along with other talking heads of the media, adopt a holier than thou attitude, when it comes to those ho disagree with them.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      There are a ton of anonymous comments here, often saying very nasty things about me, but it’s never really bothered me.  I take the comment for it’s face value, and I think people who need to know who the commenters are are usually looking for fodder for a personal attack.

      • ec99

        We may not agree about everything, and Lord knows we have had our spats.  But I admire the fact you leave this forum open to comments from across the spectrum.

        I once posted on the Herald sports blog, asking how much UND pays for hockey, and it was deleted in 30 minutes.

        • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

          It’s not always easy.  It’s tempting, sometimes, to just ban somebody.

          But I think the blog is the better for the open commenting.

          • robert108

            There is a moderate position, which would consist of editing out comments that are devoid of relevant content or are wildly off topic, or which consist only of personal attack that adds nothing to the discussion at hand.  You don’t have to “ban” people, just bad content.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            The thing is that I don’t trust myself to be a fair judge of what is and is not bad content.  And I banning it because it’s bad, or because I just don’t agree.

            I’d rather do it the way I’m doing it.

          • robert108

            “I’d rather do it the way I’m doing it.”

            Obviously.  I thought another idea in an open forum might interest you.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            It does, I’m just not convinced you’re right.

          • robert108

            It’s not about right or wrong, port; it’s about your values on your blog.  I know you think the “let it all hang out” policy relieves you of responsibility, but it doesn’t.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            I don’t think I’m responsible for things other people say.  I am responsible for allowing them to say it here, however, and I choose to allow it.

          • robert108

            Of course you’re not responsible for the choices of others, and I didn’t say you were.  You’re trying to distract from the fact that you are responsible for what you publish on your blog, whether you make an effort to keep it clean or not.  It’s your choice to publish some of the crap that appears here.

          • http://ndgoon.blogspot.com Goon

            I would be glad to moderate for you :)

        • Rick Olson

          That’s because it’s no big secret that UND and the Grand Forks Herald are “in bed” with each other.  The Herald’s current editor and publisher, Mike Jacobs, is probably the biggest UND Rah-Rah’er” around as I have noted previously in these comment threads.

          Jacobs worked his way up the ladder from part-time copy boy at the Herald, when he was a student at UND, to being the head man of the Herald today.  He’s spent his entire professional journalism career with the Grand Forks Herald in one capacity or another.

          Therefore, the Herald bends over backwards to give UND more than the benefit of the doubt; and as what happened to you, it frowns upon anything negative against UND.  They print whatever the university media relatioins office spoon feeds them.

  • Jimmy_Wildcat

    In theory, I agree with Ms. Turberg that identified commenters are preferable to anonymous ones. Not because I think something substantive needs to be somehow bolstered by attaching a name to it. A good argument is good with or without a name attached. The real problem with anonymous commenting is that it allows people to say highly inappropriate things and baselessly attack the character of others…with little fear of any repercussion. People should be accountable for their words and actions. Anonymous commenting makes that very difficult.

    Pragmatically, however, I think that every private forum has the right to dictate their own terms. If Rob wanted to, he could require some sort of verification and use actual names. He has decided otherwise, and that is his choice. Which I respect.

    Just a note to add: free speech (and all constitutional protections) are meant to protect the individual from state action. Not private action. There is no violation of free speech if Rob simply decides he does not want me to post on his blog. It might be an asshole thing to do, but Rob is not a government actor, and my “free speech” is clearly NOT being violated. Just a thought.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      It’s fair to point out that private forums are under no legal obligation to protect free speech.  The government cannot suppress speech, but I could certainly pick and choose which comments appear here.

      But there’s the legal issue, and then the philosophical issue.  Philosophically, I am for free speech. So that’s what I practice here.

      BTW, kind of funny to hear support (“in theory”) Turnberg’s position on anonymous commenting from…an anonymous commenter. ;-)

      • Jimmy_Wildcat

        Yeah…I realize the irony of my comment after posting it.

        Let me clarify: some people use anonymous commenting because they want to contribute to the discussion without irrational/emotional responses from people in their work and personal lives. Others use anonymous commenting to bully other people and smear their character. Most people are in the first category. Some are in the second.Why can’t we all just get along and sing Kum-by-ah? ;)

        • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

          Both the best and worst things about free speech is that everyone gets to have their say.

        • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

          By the way, I’m not sure what difference it make if some nasty attack on me comes from someone posting under their own name or someone who is anonymous.  It doesn’t change the substance of the comment.  All it adds is that I guess I know who I can hold it against.

          • robert108

            No one who comments here is anonymous to you, port.  All the more reason to weed out the trashy, irrelevant comments.

          • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

            Some are anonymous.  Most aren’t.

            I don’t see that as a compelling reason.

          • robert108

            It’s really a question of quality.

    • Bingo

      “I agree with Ms Turnberg that identified commenters are preferable to anonymous ones”–I certainly see this point; however, a large large problem in the Fargo Area is that the Forum opinion editor is so publicly nasty to anyone he disagrees with–that he will target and use speech to try to destroy people, reputations,etc. SO anonymous posting in the Fargo area–is the only way to get ideas out without being targeted by the Forum and abused by Zaleski. Anonymous posting protects the reputations of those in the sights someone like Jack or others who are bent on destroying those who disagree with them–that would include Heitkamp in my book, and Ed S.  North Dakota is especially bad for this. Especially Fargo. With the addition of another public newspaper with a little more open editorial staff, things might be different, but for now, it’s only safe to say many things under an moniker. HPR would be an ok place to write a letter, but Cindy Gomez is as nasty as Zaleski to anyone who disagrees with her, so here we are, with monikers because the intellectual  climate is so destructive in Fargo.

      • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

        What’s particularly ironic about that is that Zaleski writes the Forum editorials…but not under his own by-line.  Unlike Tom Dennis at the Grand Forks herald, who at least has the integrity to put his name to what he writes.

        • Bingo

          Yes, that is a difference!

  • awfulorv

    If an entity such as S. & P. can be investigated for their opinions what chance would you, or I, have if we opined of something found unpopular with the regime?  There are too many blogs, at present, to effectively check for unfavorable, to those in power, themes, but that time is, surely, coming. After all, those, innumerable, Czars don’t spend all their time in the back rooms of the White House, or wherever they’re quartered, playing Pinochle.  Oh my goodness!  Not till a moment ago did I think of the old Retroactive reading gambit.  Woe is me…

  • http://nofreelunch.areavoices.com/ Kevin Flanagan

    Turnberg is just reflecting the culture she is part of; the first amendment only applies to elites like themselves.  

    • VocalYokel

      It is the age old shell game of, rather than refuting the anonymous commenter or defending one’s position, simply portraying the anonymous commenter in a derogatory manner and attempting to nullify their opinion by inference.
      It is often used by folks who would rather not deal with an issue, but fear by not responding it will lend credence to the statement.

      • http://nofreelunch.areavoices.com/ Kevin Flanagan

        And anyone who raises an eyebrow is branded as an “anti-government type” by Jack-the-Hack, who has a chequered financial history.
        http://www.inforum.com/event/article/id/331207/group/Opinion/

        • ellinas1

          You just raised your eyebrow.
          You are an anti-government type.

          • http://flamemeister.com flamemeister

            Some revisionist Greek history (children’s bloopers):

            • The Greeks were a highly sculptured people, and without them we wouldn’t have history. The Greeks also had myths.  A myth is a female moth.

            • Actually, Homer was not written by Homer but by another man of that name.

            • Socrates was a famous Greek teacher who went around giving people advice.  They killed him.  Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock.  After his death, his career suffered a dramatic decline.

            • In the Olympic games, Greeks ran races, jumped, hurled the
            biscuits, and threw the java.

          • ellinas1

            Heh! Funny.
            Ya made me laugh.

        • Bingo

          Amen. And didn’t Jack Zaleski have an affair with someone he supervised in the newspaper business? I believe that is the case–at least it’s what I have heard–maybe Turnberg could do a story about that just to set the record straight.

  • 308T

    Lets say Rob makes it policy that everyone commenting must use their true first and last name. Some liberal turd doesn’t like what I say and googles me, gets my address, comes over to my house all pissed off and gets his face caved in by me. Or the libnut comes over with his revolver and gets turned into swiss cheese by my “evil” 30 round detachable magazine semi-auto. Then I get into all kinds of legal issues because I pummeled some aggressive libturd for getting all bowed up and coming over to my house and rightfully getting his ass beat or turned into a watering can. Shit’s working out just fine the way it is. Doing what TURDberg wants is only going to get people hurt and into unnecessary legal problems.

    • ellinas1

      Lets say Rob makes it policy that everyone commenting must use their
      true first and last name. Some conservative turd doesn’t like what I say and
      googles me, gets my address, comes over to my house all pissed off and
      gets his face caved in by me. Or the conservonut comes over with his revolver
      and gets turned into swiss cheese by my “evil” 30.06  (7.62 x 63 mm in metric)  bullet  from my detachable “banana” magazine semi-auto. Then I get into all kinds of legal issues because I
      pummeled some aggressive conturd for getting all bowed up and coming
      over to my house and rightfully getting his ass beat or turned into a
      watering can. Shit’s working out just fine the way it is.

      • robert108

        Let’s say that, when you threaten someone with rape, then lie about it, someone already knows how to find you, and just hasn’t done it yet.
        You wet yourself in fear, and post some more lies about being armed.  With your commenting style, you should be armed, btw.
        Just a thought.  You’re not always at home.

        • Heather

          Yes, for the sake of ellinas1 things should remain anonymous.  If things get to out of hand, Port can show the cops where to find the perp, or in the case of ellinas1, the pervert.

          • ellinas1

            Hello darling!
            I’ll make your dreams come true. I’ll make you feel like a real woman.

          • robert108

            You offering to share your frilly undergarments, little princess?

          • ellinas1

            Pervert? Hah!
            Why? Because I offer to treat you like a woman?
            Come on darling. Don’t play hard to get.

          • Onslaught1066

            No, it’s because she can recognize a pederast from Hell-A$$ when she sees one.

          • ellinas1

            Hey! It’s the gay guy with a dickhead for an avatar.
            How are you Mr. dickhead?

      • 308T

        I would refuse to let any liberal beat my ass or kill me but they’re welcome to try, they have tried and failed more than once in my life.                                                                                                                                            There is no semi-auto .30-06 available with a “banana mag” thanks to the control freaks in your party. Unless of course you own a BAR from WAY back, but then you must be a class III permit holder, which I seriously doubt!

        • robert108

          The little princess is a compulsive liar.  His only gun is a toy gun, or just his guilty conscience fueling his imagination.
          There is a very good reason why he fears that conservatives might be coming after him.  He has richly earned whatever comes his way.

        • ellinas1

          Hey killer!  I was just joking.

          • robert108

            You’re the one threatening conservatives with a gun, little princess.  Guilty conscience?

        • ellinas1

          How about a Bren.

          • 308T

            I don’t have a class III permit to own one of those but it would be fun shoot.

  • Christopher Crosby

    I would like to lead by example and use my real name.

    • 308T

      Your my Efing hero!!! 

      • Chris Farley

        OK, I guess your not a Chris Farley fan.  His real name was Christopher Crosby and he’s dead:(

        • 308T

          I thought CF was pretty funny but I didn’t know that was his real name.

      • Chris Farley

         I would not really use my real name, Hannitized and Ellinas1 would look me up in their quest for group gay sex that Port would call a wedding.

        • ellinas1

          Nah! I don’t do gays. Robert180 though will fellate you, and pay you for your services.
          He offered me $1000.00. I told him I would not touch him with a 10 foot pole.

          • Onslaught1066

            Nah! I don’t do gays.

            Just 12 year old boys and goats, right?

          • ellinas1

            Hey! Once again it’s the gay guy with a dickhead for an avatar.

            How are you Mr. dickhead?

          • Bingo

            Clean up your act!! Disgusting talk is just not interesting.

          • ellinas1

            Onslaught1066 8 minutes ago in reply to ellinas1
            “Nah! I don’t do gays.”

            Just 12 year old boys and goats, right?

            Onslaught1066 10 minutes ago in reply to ellinas1
            “No, it’s because she can recognize a pederast from Hell-A$$ when she sees one.”

            When you find the courage to equally apply that which you preach, will talk.
            Until then………fuck you!

          • Onslaught1066

            Bingo’s right.

            E, I apologize for you being a goat raping pederast.

          • ellinas1

            Hey! Once again it’s the gay guy with a dickhead for an avatar.

            How are you Mr. dickhead?

          • robert108

            Still trying to sell your perverted fantasy, little princess?  I offer you absolution, when you repent your lies and atone for all the sins you have committed on this blog.   That’s my only offer to you.
            Just remember: “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”

    • robert108

      An example of what?  You’re free to do whatever you want, and so is everybody else, unless you’re a liberal who isn’t comfortable when people make individual choices.

  • Rick Olson

    It should be noted that everyone is responsible for what they write as a seemingly “anonymous” comment on a blog like this one.  Remember, it is fairly easy to trace the I.P. address of the computer you used to make the comment right back to you.  Therefore, it seems to me that the same legal standards apply in blogosphere as far as libel, slander, etc. would go as what applies to the broadcast and printed media.  Therefore, my caution has always been.  “Be careful of what you say even in cyberspace.  Because it could come back to bite you right in the wallet, or hind end, or both as the case may be.”

    • Bingo

      Good point. Good to be reminded of this.

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      Yeah, individuals are responsible for what they write even if they think it’s an anonymous comment on the blog.

      But the courts have pretty consistently held that forum operators (me, in the case of SAB) aren’t necessarily responsible for what people write here.  So if you libel someone (it would be impossible to slander someone in written form) here on the blog, that’s your problem.  Not mine, unless I refuse to remove the libel.

  • Jimmmypop

    i thought we were supposed to prize un-named sources and unseen whistle blowers?

    • http://sayanythingblog.com Rob

      It’s only ok when they do it.

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