The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Comments & Censorship

I promise I’m going to get back to some actual writing soon, but there’s something I’m still mulling over from the whole story about Kathy Sierra’s death threats.

The threats against Kathy, the picture of her with a noose around her neck, appeared on someone else’s site, someone who defended his decision not to remove those comments, instead putting the responsibility on the commenters, and eventually removing the sites altogether rather than remove the comments.

I don’t know what standard of integrity includes allowing people to post death threats against other people in a forum you own, any more than I can imagine leaving comments on my blog containing the kinds of threats (throat slitting, etc.) and images that were directed at Kathy Sierra. Free speech? Deleting comments is no violation of free speech. First, no one has a “right” to threaten anyone. Second, no one has “right” to do so on my blog or anyone else’s. If I delete their comments, they can start their own blogs in about five minutes. They can take it to another forum where that’s tolerated. Obviously, those forums exist.

As I noted earlier, it’s not the first time that questions of censorship and freedom of speech have come up in relation to comments in online forums.

The law-school board, one of several message boards on AutoAdmit, bills itself as “the most prestigious law school admissions discussion board in the world.” It contains many useful insights on schools and firms. But there are also hundreds of chats posted by anonymous users that feature derisive statements about women, gays, blacks, Asians and Jews. In scores of messages, the users disparage individuals by name or other personally identifying information. Some of the messages included false claims about sexual activity and diseases. To the targets’ dismay, the comments bubble up through the Internet into the public domain via Google’s powerful search engine.

The site’s founder, Jarret Cohen, the insurance agent, said the site merely provides a forum for free speech. “I want it to be a place where people can express themselves freely, just as if they were to go to a town square and say whatever brilliant or foolish thoughts they have,” Cohen said.

… AutoAdmit.com, which also uses the domain name xoxohth.com and which hosts Google-served ads, was launched in 2004. Cohen and his partner, Anthony Ciolli, cite First Amendment ideals. “We are very strong believers in the freedom of expression and the marketplace of ideas . . . and almost never censor content, no matter how abhorrent it may be,” they wrote in a posting on someone else’s blog. The vast majority of chat threads, they wrote, are school-related. “The only time you’ll see 20 or so racist threads on the site is if you proactively search for them.”

I’ve already given my thoughts above, but I’m still not sure to what degree I consider this a free speech issue. The first thing that comes to mind is the practice of boycotting advertisers when a media personality makes offensive statements. I’m reminded of the the gay & lesbian community’s boycott to stop Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s television show. Advertisers listened, and the show was cancelled.

Now it’s arguable that a boycott isn’t the most effective way to respond to people like Dr. Laura, but one of the criticisms of the boycott was also that it curtailed freedom of speech. I thought at the time, and I still do now, that Schlessinger has a right to express her beliefs, but she doesn’t have — and nobody does — the “right” to a media platform from which to express her views. In other words, she doesn’t have a right to a television show or a radio show, and taking direct action to stop her from having either one doesn’t take away her right to freedom of speech.

By the same token, if someone’s comment is deleted from a blog, or someone is banned from commenting on a particular blog, I don’t necessarily think their freedom of speech is curtailed, since they can comment on any number of other blogs, or easily start one of their own. It’s kind of the same principle as “my house, my rules,” meaning that I’m not obliged to allow someone into my home who insults or attacks me or my family, or who can’t abide by what I do or don’t allow in my house.

At the same time, blogs are somewhere between private and personal space. Some are diaries read only by friends and family of the blogger. Some are full-fledged media entities. And still others hybrids of the two, to some degree or another. Which standards apply? Even groups like the Klan or the American Nazi party have the right to air their views in the public square, no matter how abhorrent. Neither, however, has a right to hold forth in my living room.

So, my question to readers is this. Does deleting comments and/or banning someone from commenting on a blog censorship?

You can vote in the poll and/or leave answers in the comments. I’m interested in hearing what other people have to say.

7 Comments

  1. My comment policy clearly states:

    Comment Policy: If you post pointlessly inflammatory comments, you will be censored. I reserve the right to determine what constitutes “pointlessly inflammatory.” There is no appeals process. Complaining about what a dick I am for obliterating your pointlessly inflammatory comment will only get your complaints censored.

    It’d be nice if it didn’t have to, but I don’t like humoring people who get off on causing strife.

  2. I would say civility of discourse demands that offensive and inflammatory posts get deleted.

  3. I would say civility of discourse demands that offensive and inflammatory posts get deleted.

    Interesting. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like at least some of the arguments for not deleting any comments hold that there is some virtue in uncivil discourse.

  4. There can be. I think that most often there is not. Strong rhetoric is all well and good, but we’ve had 20 years of experience on the ‘net behind us that says it all ends up garbage.

  5. As I’ve understood it, “freedom of speech” has never meant anything more than that the government cannot censor your speech. Criticism of the government is a vital and necessary part of any democracy, and as such the constitutional framers made sure to mention it specifically.

    I have never understood how this basic right to criticize our government (which seperates us from dictatorships and the like) has been interpreted to mean that, as you say, people somehow have a “right” to air their views on a television or radio show, etc. Or that people can post whatever garbage they want on a blog comment thread without criticism.

    So, yeah…I voted “it depends” in the poll, but overall I would think it is up to the blog host to determine what is appropriate in their comments.

  6. The question seems odd to me. By definition, the only answer that I could give is “yes”. But it’s rather like asking “Is the Pope Catholic” – there can be no other answer. However, if the question was “Is such censorship a good thing”, then it opens up for debate…

  7. I have a blogging policy (you can read it here)

    I delete comments–without warning. I also edit comments to remove or disemvowel statements I find transgress my blog’s boundaries.

    I don’t forbid or prevent commentors from saying the exact same thing on their own blogs, or in other online spaces.

    Geoff, it is not censorship, it is moderation and management of my own online space.

    Censorship would be if I could somehow prevent people from writing and posting the comments I find objectionable anywhere in cyberspace.

    I also direct you to Teresa Neilsen Hayden’s official certificate granting a moderator the right to moderate.

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