In November of 2009, an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch decided to show his readers who was boss. After a commenter persisted in posting “a vulgar expression for a part of a woman’s anatomy” on a “Talk of the Day” feature asking readers to name “the craziest thing you’ve ever eaten,” the editor, Kurt Greenbaum, observed that the comment originated from a local school’s IP address. Greenbaum called the school to inform them that somebody had been posting obscene comments from one of their computers. Shortly thereafter, officials at the school deduced that the comments had been posted by an adult employee. After being confronted with the evidence, the employee resigned.

Greenbaum told this story in a matter-of-fact Post-Dispatch blog post titled “Post a vulgar comment while you’re at work, lose your job.” The post, along with a follow-up, elicited over 600 responses from readers, overwhelmingly upset at the heavy-handed move and Greenbaum’s perceived smugness in defending it. (On his Twitter account, Greenbaum professed amazement “at the readers who comment in defense of a jackass who posted a vulgarity on our site — and lost his job.”)

He may well have expected praise for his actions. A jackass had posted a stupid comment. In the interest of civility, Greenbaum removed both the comment and the jackass. But the community made it clear that they found Greenbaum’s presumptions of authority far more menacing than any tasteless remarks:

“You have now set a very confusing precedent to the community, and one that I hope will give people pause about whether it’s really worth posting here to begin with.” - Andrew

“What troubles me most is that you seem to have forgotten is that journalism dies when we lose the public’s trust. You have destroyed your credibility and trust with your readers. As a result your have gravely damaged the credibility of this newspaper, and of this website in particular. That you are free to post a glib and disingenuous “follow up” demonstrates that the paper’s management has forgotten, too.” - Jim Logan

“Your success, and the success of your paper, is predicated upon the trust of your readership. It is immaterial if you did not violate the letter of the law in regards to your privacy policy. What matters is that, clearly, the vast majority of your readers feel that you have violated their understanding of your privacy policy.” - Slueth Me

TRUST is a big deal between the media and public.. that’s why other journalists have gone to jail rather than reveal their sources. Why should we trust you any longer?” - Guest

“This makes me think much less of the P-D as a news organization, and it certainly makes me less interested in continuing to read your site or participate in your conversation.” - mccxxiii

“As of this morning, I was working on my application to the University of Missouri’s grad school for Journalism…. And the essay question was ‘what are the greatest threat[s] to American journalism in the next decade?’ My original answer was the decline of paper and literacy but I have decided to change my answer to you.” - Wilson

There are limits to what you can generalize from the Greenbaum affair. (As one commenter put it: “What you’ve done, Mr. Greenbaum, is so far from what almost any other journalist would have done that you are nothing but an outlier, not worthy of generalization. You’re a cautionary tale.”) Yet there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the Post-Dispatch commenters’ near-uniform hostility to Greenbaum’s actions. Cumulatively, those reactions are a case study in how newspapers no longer wield the monopolistic authority they once did in the communities they serve. For decades, by deciding what stories were covered and how they were covered, newspapers set the boundaries of acceptable discourse in their communities. They reinforced normative community manners—and those communities allowed them to do so, with (for the most part) little complaint.

For many reasons, readers are no longer as willing to let this happen. Rather, they are empowered as never before to define community manners and standards themselves—and to reject any heavy-handed efforts to influence those definitions. In attempting to “teach a lesson” to a commenter who had overstepped the boundaries, Greenbaum misinterpreted those boundaries himself—and miscalculated the extent to which he was authorized to set them.

In a follow-up blog post addressing the comment controversy, Greenbaum admitted that, before deciding to call the school about the vulgar comment, he probably should have “walked the idea around the newsroom.” While that move wouldn’t have hurt, it still presumes that the newsroom is the ultimate authority in setting community boundaries. What he really should have done is walked the idea around the Internet.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.