Saturday, August 30, 2014
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Puppy-mill law debate turned into dog fight

Jesse Smith did her job when she was Pennsylvania's special deputy secretary for dog-law enforcement.

Puppy-mill law debate turned into dog fight

Jesse Smith did her job when she was Pennsylvania’s special deputy secretary for dog-law enforcement.

In return, she was relentlessly criticized in anonymous blogs whose writers went so far as to accuse her of marital infidelity as they questioned her ethics. How Smith was treated reflects the lack of civility too often found in today’s public discourse, and it’s even worse in cyberspace.

It’s not that the behavior of officials who implement public policy should be excluded from a robust discussion, but the personal attacks Smith endured step over the line.

Because the Internet allows blog posters relative anonymity, they feel free to recklessly spew false accusations against anyone they happen to disagree with. They need to know, however, that they can be traced.

Is Pennsylvania’s 2008 law aimed at shutting down puppy mills strong enough?
Yes, Gov. Rendell worked with animal-rights folks to get it right
No, too many pet operations are still mistreating animals
Yes, law is adequate, but Corbett administration isn't enforcing it
No, stronger law would make up for enforcement lapses

In fact, a Texas couple was awarded $14 million in April after suing bloggers who accused them of sexual assault. A Georgia man last year was awarded $404,000 after a blogger called him a pervert. In each case, the plaintiffs were able to identify their attackers.

The monetary damages may be reduced on appeal, or prove uncollectible. But the fact that the judgments were made sends an important message to unscrupulous bloggers whose vicious attacks make it harder for enlightening discourse to take place among people who may disagree.

The opportunity for expansive argument and thought-provoking discussion should be as boundless as cyberspace. But that prospect is perverted by the purveyors of Internet bile who use their access to large audiences to agitate people who, for whatever reason, can’t tell the difference between fact and fabrication. Consider how many still think President Obama isn’t an American citizen because they read it on the Internet. Of course, such falsehoods are a lot easier to accept if you’re too lazy to do your own homework by seeking clarifying information from credible sources.

Smith has filed a lawsuit in which she alleges that a group of animal-rights advocates were behind the Internet attacks that maligned her reputation so badly that it interfered with her office’s ability to protect animals.

Smith, a former president of the Humane Society of Harrisburg, is an animal-rights advocate, too. She not only lobbied to pass the state’s 2008 dog law, but under her watch 75 percent of the state’s inhumane puppy mills were shut down. Unfortunately, since Smith left with the change in gubernatorial administrations in 2011, the state has been shamefully slow to inspect and cite kennels. Gov. Corbett should see that the law is properly enforced.

As for Smith’s lawsuit, one disturbing aspect is its including the newspapers in York and Lancaster among her attackers because they ran news stories about the blogs and included links to the cruel posts. Like Smith, the newspapers were simply doing their jobs. They reported the blog posts and let readers know how to see them for themselves.

There’s no easy answer to improving Internet decorum. Bloggers argue their freedom of speech is endangered by lawsuits such as Smith’s. Victims of blog attacks argue that their dignity shouldn’t be subject to Web attacks. The case law is unsettled and evolving. Rather than more litigation, people need to learn to have more respect for each other.

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The Inquirer Editorial Board's Say What? opinion blog showcases the work of the editors and writers who produce the newspaper's daily and Sunday opinion pages.

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