Cohasset: Selectmen step away from online comment mess

People say awful things about elected officials–and even not-yet-elected candidates and past officials–every day. Those office-holders choose to respond or not. But, the internet provides anonymity.

A former Cohasset selectman claims her family has endured attacks in the form of comments to stories on the Patriot Ledger’s website. Ronnie McMorris has subpoenaed the newspaper to give up the identity of the commenters. That causes a dilemma for Cohasset selectmen: what if the comments came from one of their employees, on a town computer, on town time?

Outgoing Chairman of Selectmen Paul Carlson investigated.

Tuesday night those in the small, hot meeting room of Cohasset Selectmen heard a mash-up of possible internet bullying, potential liable, electronic First Amendment rights, Cohasset town employee rights, a newspaper’s obligation to protect sources and the legal standing of selectmen in the middle.

Carlson found three options: ask the newspaper publisher for the identities, hire a consultant to inspect every computer the town owns or wait to discover if the McMorris action yields information. He recommended the town step back from the foray, for now.

Selectmen agreed. They have invited town counsel to advise them, in closed session, regarding the town’s legal standing in the developing case. People attending the meeting objected, saying selectmen should press the newspaper for the identities of the commenters. Saying they would step onto a “slippery slope” of First Amendment rights if they did so, selectmen stuck to their decision.

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About Charles Mathewson

Charles Mathewson worked in print journalism for more than two decades as a reporter and editor, and has won several regional and national awards. He resides in Plymouth where he writes fiction and paints, when not producing award-winning news as a reporter for WATD.