"Our liberty depends on freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."
Wednesday, Oct. 8, 1997
One Web, Many Voices
Twice in recent weeks the issue of Internet web pages has come before the Poplar Bluff City Council, both times on behalf of people seeking "permission" or "approval" to develop Poplar Bluff web sites. While both petitioners are no doubt well intended, that they seek City Council permission for their projects at all is shocking evidence our country's First Amendment is sadly misunderstood.
It is not for the City Council to give or deny such permission in any way, except if the web page in question were to be presented as the "official voice" of the City Council or City Hall itself. I address issues of free speech frequently in this column. Never have I come this close to feeling that the meaning of our First Amendment is lost among those it protects.
The beauty of the World Wide Web is its many voices. Neither you nor I nor my neighbor need "permission" to do a Poplar Bluff web page as long as that page is not presented as something it is not. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Often it is merely an act of omission that we cannot discover a web page's source. I believe all web pages should be signed by their author, much like newspapers use bylines from reporters, not so much to give them credit for their work but, more importantly, to give them the responsibility for its content.
To Dennis Hubbard and the Community Betterment Council, publish away! Good luck with your project! Just be sure you identify yourselves clearly as the authors of your web documents. I look forward to the addition of your voices to the web.
To future Eagle Scout Eric Axelrod who is working to develop more Poplar Bluff web pages, publish away! Again, just be certain to make yourself known as the web author, check your information for accuracy and identify your sources like any responsible publisher would. You may want to seek advice from parents and/or the Boy Scouts as to what may or may not be appropriate for your web site, but advice is a far cry from permission.
In this age of new media, we can all be web publishers and as such we must treasure our freedom or lose it. With freedom come responsibilities: We should identify ourselves and our sources of information. We should verify the accuracy of our information. We should also use discretion and good taste.
The Internet's immediacy and vastness bring new challenges in issues regarding public safety, privacy and standards of decency. These are issues that members of the media have been debating for years and now they are issues facing anyone who has a home computer, a modem and a phone line. To that end, the Bill of Rights, the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual and George Orwell's "1984" should be required reading for any well intentioned web author who takes his role seriously.
When the time comes for Poplar Bluff's city government to have its own official web site, it is my hope the City Council will seek bids for professional web services, giving the web developers in our city the chance to earn their business, just like the city already does with many other professional services. I am hoping the city staff will eventually learn to do their own pages and update them live from City Hall or hire someone to do so. The information age is upon us, and will be even more demanding as our city expands its offerings via the new community center under construction.
Until then, I would be glad to help with any community-minded effort to expand Poplar Bluff's already impressive web presence that has been under development in earnest since the dawn of local Internet access in our town in 1995.
If you are new to the Internet, or if you are not yet "wired into cyberspace," be assured there already are many Poplar Bluff web pages out there and there will be many more. But I hope to God I don't hear of anyone else seeking "permission" to develop them from our City Council. This is 1997, and most assuredly not "1984."
Julie Wolpers dba Webcurrent Communications