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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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Public editor: The delicate balancing act of when to close comments Add to ...

I’ve heard from a number of readers through e-mail and Twitter this week wondering why comments are closed for legal reasons on a number of articles on globeandmail.com.

They tend to be stories on official investigations of named individuals, arrests, charges laid or ongoing trials where publication of any content, including reader comments, could affect a person’s right to a fair trial.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” says Jim Sheppard, executive editor of globeandmail.com. “We want to provide our readers with the most accurate, most up-to-date information on fast-breaking and important stories, as well as investigative pieces. We also encourage readers to debate the serious issues of the day on our site. But our legal advice on what’s known as contempt of court has been consistent for years now – the right of any person to a fair trial, untainted by advance publicity, is a fundamental cornerstone of our judicial system and we generally err on the side of caution to protect that right.”

Readers often ask: Why can your staff write about these issues but I can’t comment?

While reporters and editors aren’t lawyers, they are trained in what they can and cannot say, especially during a trial or police investigation. In serious or high-profile cases, stories published in The Globe or on its digital products are often vetted first by legal advisers. There is no assurance that the generally anonymous commenters on our website understand or would follow the same basic legal rules if comments were left open on such stories.

The guidelines for comments are clear and at the top of every comment page on our site. They cover this topic as well as stating that personal attacks, offensive language and unsubstantiated allegations are not allowed.

If you have any comments on this or any other question about The Globe’s journalism, please email me at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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