During this past primary election cycle, someone in Saline County where I live stole a circuit clerk candidate's letterhead, typed an obviously fraudulent letter above her signature, and mailed it to someone, who then e-mailed it to others.

During this past primary election cycle, someone in Saline County where I live stole a circuit clerk candidate’s letterhead, typed an obviously fraudulent letter above her signature, and mailed it to someone, who then e-mailed it to others.

The person who mailed it has committed a crime, and the U.S. Postal Service is investigating. The person who e-mailed it? That’s just what lots of people do on the Internet these days.

There’s this wonderful clause in the Constitution’s First Amendment that states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

When those words were written, the tools for communication were limited — the spoken word, a handwritten letter, newspapers printed one at a time, and handbills posted around town. It was more difficult to sully someone’s reputation, and if that happened, there was a way for the victim to redress his grievance – by shooting the perpetrator in a duel.

Now the tools of free speech are infinitely more powerful. A lie can race around the world before the truth even has a chance to start its engines. And, thankfully, we don’t have much dueling anymore.

We don’t want government to limit our rights, so citizens must fulfill our responsibilities. So here are a few ideas to consider.

— If you receive an e-mail attacking anyone personally and unfairly, even someone famous who you don’t like, don’t forward it. Instead, trash it. Turn your radar up high if you can’t tell who the original source is. If it presents information that you haven’t seen elsewhere, try to confirm. There’s a great website, www.snopes.com, that researches these e-mails to determine their validity. Some, in fact, are valid. Do all of this even if you are inclined to believe the e-mail. In fact, do it especially if you are inclined to believe it, because that means your guard is down and you are vulnerable to being manipulated.

— Ignore all anonymous comments on the Internet, and don’t post anonymously yourself. We’re more careful with our words when they are attached to our good names. Commenting anonymously or under a pseudonym, especially when being critical of others, is a cowardly way of exercising one’s right to free speech. Don’t be a coward.

— Stick with the facts, online and off. It’s not hard to find empirical evidence demonstrating why any public official should or should not be re-elected. For example, it is a fact that the president of the United States presides over a government that will spend more than $1 trillion more than it will collect this year. It is demonstrably true that he has not done nearly enough in his three-plus years in office to address the nation’s fiscal situation. So why participate in this dark discussion about his supposedly secret religion, his citizenship, his motives and his patriotism?

— Finally, obey the Ninth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Those words are not accompanied by a clause that says “except when someone is famous or running for office.” Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton, LeBron James and Houston Nutt may seem like television characters, but they are real people who cannot defend themselves against someone’s often anonymous accusations. As citizens of a democracy, we have a right to say what we want and a responsibility to hold the powerful accountable. But gossip is gossip.

I’m old enough that I was taught that if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. That’s a little limiting because sometimes things need to be said. How about this? If you can’t say something nice, make sure it is true and fair and accomplishes something besides tearing someone down.

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at Arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com