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Our website will undergo a significant change beginning Monday. Readers who want to comment on news, columns, editorials, features, sports and all other content at www.thesouthern.com will be required to log in through a Facebook account.

The change is intended to eliminate offensive, profane and threatening comments from our website. We believe if online readers are required to identify themselves publicly to express an opinion, as print readers do for a letter to the editor in The Southern Illinoisan, the overall tenor and tone of website debate will improve.

Publisher Bob Williams explained the change:

“The very foundation of what we do is for the protection of the freedom of speech and expression. This includes open and constructive dialogue between opposing viewpoints within our print and online products,” Williams said. ”But that right does not extend to those who want to hide behind anonymity to make hateful or spiteful statements. We will continue to solicit and encourage comments from our readers.”

This decision was not reached hastily, or with little discussion. We long have been concerned about the name-calling, taunting and impolite language on the website bearing our name. It is our goal to provide a forum for thoughtful, energetic debate, not personal attacks and emotional screeds that are hurtful – not informative.

Facebook requires users to supply their names, just as we do for letters that are printed on the Opinion page. We believe that any-one who wishes to make comments in a public forum identify themselves. It’s just that simple.

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This change is consistent with the best practices at a growing number of newspapers nationwide. I’ve tracked this transition for months, and talked about it personally with other top editors last week in a national gathering of the Associated Press Media Editors in Indianapolis. Some already require Facebook registration; others are moving in the same direction. Not a single editor spoke in favor of retaining anonymous comments.

Lauren Siegert, the online director for The Southern, said it still will be easy for readers to leave a comment.

Readers will need to click “Add a comment” at the bottom of any story, Siegert said. Those who are already logged into Facebook will see their Facebook profile photo with an empty box next to it. Comments can then be typed into the box.

Readers who are not logged in will see a box pop up, asking them to log into their Facebook account. Siegert said after logging in, the readers will be able to leave a comment.

For those who don’t have a Facebook account, it’s free and easy to get set up. Just visit www.facebook.com.

Gary Metro is the editor of The Southern Illinoisan. He can be reached at 618-351-5033 or gary.metro@thesouthern.com.

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