In an attempt to foster the type of community togetherness of yesteryear, Michael and Valerie Wood-Lewis launched their web-based community gathering site, Front Porch Forum (FPF), in 2006. Like the telephone party lines of yesteryear, FPF allows residents of neighborhoods to communicate via posts on the forum that are visible to everyone, much like an electronic bulletin board.
The idea has blossomed in Burlington. Many city officials and city services use the forum to post notices or updates on Burlington events. Many users of the forum rave about the user-friendly e-bulletin board that keeps them appraised of their neighborhood happenings — everything from block parties to lost pets.
Building on this success, FPF recently announced that it is expanding to other parts of Vermont. However, the operation is not without its critics. Dr. Jeffrey Kaufman of Burlington sees a double standard and an agenda hiding under the Porch.
Kaufman knows Michael Wood-Lewis personally, serving with him on the Burlington Telecom Cable Advisory Council. Kaufmann actually helped Wood-Lewis establish Front Porch Forum as “one of the first to not only contribute financially to help them grow, but to contribute written praise when Michael wanted national recognition and exposure after entering an industry ‘popularity contest’.”
But since then, according to Kaufman, Wood-Lewis has censored postings, citing various rules of the Forum and applying those terms very broadly. “Michael has changed the rules midstream and has become quite a dictatorial censor of posts and ideologies he disagrees with,” says Kaufman. “His policies and rules apply when and to whom he wants them to and are used to prevent publication of words he doesn’t want made public, while fostering the wide publication of words (and ideas) he prefers people read.”
Kaufman provided an e-mail exchange between Wood-Lewis and himself as evidence. After Kaufman attempted to post a YouTube video of an interview with prominent Islamist, Anjem Choudary. Wood-Lewis refused to allow the posting. His reasoning was, “Introducing contentious global conflicts into FPF can lead people in the opposite direction…. That is, the people get stratified into hardened political positions… us vs. them. This is the opposite result that FPF is pursuing.”
Yet in November 2010 Wood-Lewis allowed a posting on Front Porch Forum that promoted an anti-Israeli point of view, and urged the protest of a presentation by Rabbi Yosef Jacobson, a respected Torah scholar who was scheduled to speak at an America-Israel Solidarity event held at UVM.
The post that offended Kaufman and many others in the community read in part:
“STORIES OF LIFE IN PALESTINE NOV. 11, By Peter Lackowski, Tue, 09 November 2010, Post your note to neighbors:firstname.lastname@example.org…
… Emily’s story, from being shot during a nonviolent demonstration to living on the streets with evicted Palestinian families, exposes and puts into political context the brutal reality of Israel’s occupation…. After Emily’s presentation, many may wish to go to Ira Allen Chapel to protest a presentation by Yossi Jacobson, an apologist for the occupation and the siege of Gaza, sponsored by the Israel Center of Vermont.” (Emphasis added)
Dr. Kaufman and others protested the posting of such inflammatory material, given the rules Wood-Lewis had used to censor Kaufman’s own pro-Israel postings to the forum. “As you’ve prevented numerous posts I’ve submitted from being published on the FPF saying you will not publish posts which deal with non local issues or which are divisive and inflammatory as such posts do not build the neighborhood or community closeness you are trying to achieve, I’m appalled that you’ve permitted the post,” Kaufman wrote.
Despite the appeals for an equal application of the rules, more anti-Isralei posts were allowed to run without the benefit of an contrary position.
So why does Wood-Lewis continue to allow inflammatory postings on FPF, in direct violation of his own rules? Why has he allowed personal attack postings against certain people or groups of people, and then prevented those who are unjustly attacked to respond?
If Front Porch Forum is privately owned as the website claims, Wood-Lewis is within his rights to monitor what is allowed on the site, no matter how unfair or dictatorial it may seem. However, according to his list of sponsors, Front Porch Forum receives money from the City of Burlington, Burlington School District, Burlington Police Department, the University of Vermont, and the Burlington Mayor’s Office. The website makes no distinction between sponsors who donate and paid advertisers.
Also of note on the list of sponsors is Burlington Telecom, and Michael Wood-Lewis served on the Burlington Telecom Advisory Committee (BTAC) as well as the BT Cable Advisory Council (CAC).
Wood-Lewis comments about his position on the BTAC here in July 2007. After giving a glowing report on the success of Burlington Telecom, he declared, “BT is one of the reasons Front Porch Forum is possible.”
In the interests of full disclosure, the author of this article had a similar difficult experience with Front Porch Forums as a Republican candidate for the Vermont House of Representatives.