Urbandictionary.com defines a “troll” as:

“One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.”

Anyone who has participated on the various news and information websites in Long Beach, particularly those which invite public commentary, has likewise become intimately familiar with these sorts of commenters. Most trolls post anonymously (of course) and seem to take special delight in being verbally abusive or, at the very least, incessantly disruptive of the general flow of the conversations in progress.

The ability to express ourselves publicly is something we all tend to value and are loathe to limit where others are concerned, even those who meet the definition of “troll” provided above. As annoying and insulting as such people can be, to limit their ability to exercise their choice to behave foolishly and offer their incessant childish insults seems even less desirable.

Enter Ms. Sarah Jones, a former high school teacher and Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader who, according to Cincinnati.com, recently filed a civil suit against local gossip website “TheDirty.com” and its operator, Nik Richie, for defaming her character, when “two posts appeared (on the website) in 2009 that said she’d had sex with every Bengals player on the team and likely had gonorrhea and chlamydia.” Richie -who personally screens every comment before he publishes it- allowed the posts to remain and even added his own sub-commentary to one of them, allegedly saying: “Why are high school teachers freaks in the sack?”

Ms. Jones actually won her defamation lawsuit…to the tune of $338,000 in damages. Richie, of course, is appealing the ruling, arguing that a law called the “Communications Decency Act of 1996”, specifically section 230, provides legal protections to operators of websites and other types of interactive computer services, effectively shielding them from defamation and privacy claims, as well as negligence and other tort claims associated with publications.

Many website operators are watching this case very closely since, if the trial court’s ruling is not ultimately reversed, this could have extremely adverse impacts for local internet news and commentary sites like the Long Beach Post but also for monster social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and others. These sites and others have apparently filed briefs with the appeals court warning that, if the trial verdict stands, the legal precedent it sets could damage the free expression and commerce that has flourished on the Internet.

I used to participate quite regularly on a local Long Beach site that had more than its share of trolls. Most of them posted anonymously, made it a point to offer childish insults to anyone with whom they disagreed, and consistently refused to meet others in the arena of ideas in a more respectful and mature manner. They reminded me of nothing so much as young, bratty children, scampering about and kicking at the ankles of the adults in the room who were trying to maintain a more courteous and mature dialogue.

Once, while I was out of state on a business trip, the publisher of that website called me and asked my opinion on whether or not I thought he should continue to allow such people to post anonymously on his site. I told him that, in my view, being able to post anonymously makes it far easier for such people to spew their nonsense but that I believed he also most likely captured a lot of great and constructive “off the record” commentary from people whose names we would all probably recognize (government officials, etc.) but who were also posting anonymously for that very reason. I told him that, on net, he probably gained far more than he lost by continuing to allow anonymous posting.

The appeal of the Jones’ decision, if unsuccessful, could ultimately prevent website owners and operators from enjoying the freedom to make such journalistic decisions. If that proves to be the case, I think we all lose in the long run.