#trending

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This Sunday, in our weekly #trending column, I take on the First Amendment and Internet trolls. To be more precise, I look at how freedom of speech applies to our online activity and interactions in open forums.

One of my focal points is how few people seemingly understand the First Amendment and the rights it guarantees.

(For the record, I’m definitely one of those people who can be caught screaming, “Are you kidding me?!” when people fail to identify the five parts of the First Amendment in TV interviews. Come on, people. There’s really no excuse for that.)

After I finished writing my column, I stumbled across a story about how registered sex offenders are fighting for the right to use Facebook — and successfully so, in many cases.

The issue at hand here is that restrictions placed on sex offenders and their social networking use could be viewed as unconstitutional. The bans tend to prohibit use of social media sites, chat rooms, etc. — “just a few of the online tools that civil liberties advocates say have become virtually indispensable to free speech,” the AP reports.

In my column, I insist we all must remember that our right to free speech is not absolute — we have restrictions we must follow. This particular instance seems, to me anyway, like a possible example.

But even more, don’t we have something more basic than that? What happened to common decency and mutual respect?

Just today, my colleague Lauren and I were talking about some of the knoxnews.com comments we’ve had to remove lately. One in particular criticized the weight of someone in a feature photo on our site. “What exactly did that poster hope to achieve?” I asked. Because, for the life of me, I can’t even fathom what the purpose of such an attack would serve.

One example I draw on in my column is how a BBC journalist tracked down and confronted a real-life, vicious Internet troll named Darren Burton. The interaction was something I was not prepared for: The man was beyond irreverent. He seemed to have not a single shred of regret or remorse for the mental anguish he causes regularly.

Burton even so much as said he wouldn’t be at all bothered by having to serve jail time, if it came down to it, for his offenses. “No big deal,” he claimed.

In reality, this has happened before. The incident referenced in this BBC clip refers to the sentence served by 25-year-old Sean Duffy. Duffy was convicted of causing “untold distress to already grieving friends and family” after extensive Facebook trolling and posting of malicious comments. He was sentenced to 18 weeks, though he only served nine of those. 

I guess this is something I’ll never understand. But what I do strive to understand, and hope others do as well, is what exactly freedom of speech means — and how important is to be responsible for our actions and never intentionally abuse these freedoms.

Interested in testing your knowledge of the First Amendment? Check out this great First Amendment quiz. Or, if you’d like, take a peek at the First Amendment Center’s site, which is rife with excellent resources.