The Claremont city Council meeting of this past Wednesday ought to be an object lesson to all communities: don’t let this happen to you. Trish Killay, the target of online harassment and doxxing by city Councilor Jon Stone, and other residents of Claremont objected to both the uncivil nature of discourse on the subject of the Nativity on the common and the online behavior of Stone and some of his Facebook friends. Knowing what was coming, Mayor Charlene Lovett explained before anyone spoke that the code of conduct policy for Claremont public officials was last updated in 2003 and therefore did not give any guidance for online conduct.
Here we are in the “live free or die” state where we try to keep government rules to a minimum. Why is this the tradition in New Hampshire? It is my understanding that it because we are supposed to be “self governing” to a great extent. There are plenty of other sources of a code of conduct: your religion and your church, your secular education, and your family. All of these things are supposed to add up to an idea of what is right and what is wrong. A couple of weeks ago I cited a 2014 Pew Research Center survey of New Hampshire and the majority (58 percent) of respondents said that they used “common sense” to distinguish right and wrong.
When we talk about right and wrong, it is certainly not the same as speaking about legal and illegal. It isn’t even the same as being inside guidelines set by written policy or outside of them. All of us are to some extent (unfortunately to some of us to a lesser extent) governed by a sense of propriety or etiquette. The idea of moral behavior being important to preservation of a civil society is, like so many good ideas, a product of the Enlightenment.
There have been some comments on social media that Councilor Stone is simply exercising his First Amendment rights in his disagreement with Sam Killay, who has chosen to be the public face of a faction that believes the Nativity should not be on government land. This confuses what is narrowly legal with what is broadly right. It may be legal to go looking for personal information online, repost it and make fun of people, but is it right? You may say, “Well, it was just a bit of fun.” There are two problems with this reaction. First, where is the line between simply teasing and bullying? Second, should an elected official acting on a quasi-public platform like Facebook hold him or herself to a higher standard? What about the people he’s been elected to represent? Should they?
“Doxxing” is short for “documenting” (Word document names end in .docx). It is a good example of behavior that is not illegal but is still bad behavior. Some journalists do it to flush out people or to shame them (shame on those journalists), but anyone who knows how to use a browser and search engine can do it. Mr. Stone trawled the internet and found wedding pictures, a place of work, and an address. He and his FB friends then proceeded to make editorial comments that were judgmental to say the least. Some of the comments were double entendres jokes using the language associated with threats of violence. This kind of thing is funny among people who know each other. When you direct it at people you don’t know, the humor drains out of it quickly.
Doxxing is becoming illegal in some jurisdictions, being classified as a form of harassment, but is probably not illegal around here because as the “live free or die” state we expect people to police their own behavior.
We look forward to the revised Claremont city government code of conduct policy, but most people don’t need a government policy to behave themselves.
Bill Chaisson is the editor of the Eagle Times.