Reader responses to news and analysis Web sites is one of the key features of online media. "Talkbacks" break down the barrier between writers and readers that exists in the printed press. They not only allow consumers of news to express themselves, but create an instantaneous debate over issues in the public forum.
The authors of online comments are entitled to remain anonymous, a fact that sometimes encourages them to send strident, invective-filled responses which turn Israeli Web sites into particularly raging arenas of confrontation.
This verbal online violence raises a dilemma: Does the public interest in allowing talkbackers to conduct an open, uncensored debate override the right of their targets to protection from libel, threats and lashon hara, negative talk?
Israeli courts have struggled to answer that question, and have lamentably sent the public mixed messages on the issue. One ruling may completely reject the exposure of respondents' identities, upholding the right of the individual to free expression. Another calls for their names to be revealed when their comments contain libelous content and legal cause for filing civil suits for damages.
A compromise position leaning toward freedom of expression - initiated by Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Amit and followed two weeks ago by Nazareth District Court - holds that the identities of talkbackers may be revealed only if their remarks are believed to have been made with malicious intent to harm another individual.
Respondents' identities may be exposed only if their comments could lead to criminal complaints over libel or incitement, are widely distributed and cause serious repercussions.
The Supreme Court has yet to arrive at a definitive decision on the issue. Court President Dorit Beinisch, referring to Monday's arson attack against Haifa District Court Judge Moshe Gilad, made a call the same day to rein in the "language of incitement" in online comments.
Beinisch's remarks were widely perceived as support for freedom of expression, but they also reflected the necessary caution over protecting the fundamental rights of the individual. Online freedom of expression is intended for those who do not have the tools of traditional media at their disposal, and every unnecessary limitation of it must be made circumspectly.
Freedom of expression is often the solution to cooling an exacerbating war of words, and the disproportionate limitation of it is liable to lead to much more dangerous confrontation, and potentially physical violence.
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