Showdown at the Blacksburg Corral: Virginia Tech, The Collegiate Times, and Anonymous Online Comments, Part 3

The battle at Virginia Tech over the student newspaper’s allowance of anonymous online comments is far from over.  (Read past posts on this story here and here.)  The tactics now in play- an increasingly dubious blame game, pulled advertising, and, ironically, “professional mediation.”

The latest Roanoke Times report (please read, it will make your eyebrows raise several times) mentions the word “accord” in the headline and the phrase “mediation process” in paragraph two.  But make no mistake: This is still a showdown at the Blacksburg corral.  The school’s Commission on Student Affairs is traveling the mediation route not in search of an agreeable compromise, but to simply try once again to achieve the only outcome it seems willing to accept: “to persuade the [Collegiate Times] leadership to restrict anonymous comments on the newspaper’s Web site.”

Another problem with the mediation attempt: the Collegiate Times and its parent company most likely will not even take part, choosing instead to keep communication open with the commission only in writing for the time being (a legally smart decision).

The final problem is that commission members, including undergraduate and graduate students, still seem to be holding the Collegiate Times accountable for a slew of problems that have little or nothing to do with anonymous online comments.  As the Times piece mentions, “The [online comments] controversy stretches back to January 2009, when a Chinese graduate student decapitated a woman in the Graduate Life Center, and anti-Asian comments were posted at the CT Web site. ‘This is an issue of violence prevention,” said Leighton Vila of the Graduate Student Assembly.”  At the same commission meeting earlier this week, a Virginia Tech professor added: “[It is] reprehensible that African-Americans see that the university has to underwrite an organization that posts something racist.”

Triggering campus violence?  Promoting racism?  I think we all need to take a deep breath, and remember we are talking about a scattered set of inflammatory remarks that are read by a few people and tend to be taken down in a timely fashion.  We also need to accept that anonymous comments, both offensive and inane, are EVERYWHERE on the Web, including YouTube and many major news media sites.  One popular online encyclopedia even allows anonymous entries!  Let’s be rational: If a student is incited to decapitate someone or carry out a hate attack based on anonymous online comments posted after a student newspaper story, I do not think the comments are to blame. (As a snarky colleague told me, “I’d blame video games instead.”)

According to the Times, a growing number of VT student groups have stopped or plan to soon stop running ads in the newspaper as a call-to-arms against the CT’s pro-online-anonymity stand.  In one student’s words, “The power is in our hands.”  That student is a member of the commission.  So much for accord and mediation.

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