Comments and the Myth of Free Speech

Read a Czech translation of this post prepared by Vera.

Recommended reading: The fiction of “free” speech and Yeah, what *about* your free speech “rights”?

Comment moderation.

Any website which moderates comments is familiar with the inevitable accusations that free speech rights are being violated. Lots of folks have written on this subject, very well, but I think it’s worth discussing again. It’s certainly something which is going to keep coming up over and over again, because this is the nature of the Internet. Sometimes it seems like we have the same circular arguments over and over again, sometimes even involving the same people.

Free speech is considered a basic human right, but it’s not actually universally protected nonetheless. Some people live in nations where freedom of speech is, in fact, severely restricted. Other nations have very strict libel laws; Great Britain, for example. Something important to note here: It is governments which determine how much speech is permitted and it is governments which engage in censorship or lack thereof.

A website is not a government.

Comment moderation is sometimes called ‘censorship.’ Except that it’s not. The right to refuse publication in individual publications is actually quite well protected, along with free speech, in many nations. That’s because it is understood that refusal of publication in one location does not pose an insurmountable barrier to freely expressing opinions. I’ve had lots of publications refuse to publish me; just last week, I sent a letter to the editor which was not published. Did the Press Democrat restrict my free speech? Absolutely not.

If refusal to publish was a violation of free speech rights, my old comments policy used to say, then the New Yorker has been infringing on my free speech rights since 1993. (It was a damn fine poem, I tell you! Damn fine!) Magazines, newspapers, and other media get to decide what they do and do not publish/air. Sometimes these decisions are rooted in issues like quality of the proposed content or lack of space. Sometimes there are more sinister things going on, like fear of losing advertisers or pressure from government officials. This is one reason we need to protect freedom of the press, so that fear never becomes a barrier to publication (or is removed as a barrier, in some cases).

A single website isn’t capable of suppressing someone who wants to express an opinion. If I comment at, say, Shapely Prose and one of the mods deems my comment offensive and refuses to publish or deletes it, I am free to publish that comment elsewhere, including on my own site or on a free blogging platform. Single websites are capable of deciding how they want to curate and direct conversations which take place. I can think it’s unfair that my comment was deleted or not understand why it was deleted, but one thing I can’t claim is that Kate Harding is restricting my free speech rights.

There are a number of reasons why websites moderate comments. The most obvious reason, of course, is to remove material which is offensive or abusive. Especially on social justice sites, such content is unfortunately very common. Moderation is also about the fact that site owners feel personally responsible (laws vary) for the content on their sites. If comments are libelous, the website owner is going to have to deal with that. If comments sections are being used to foment flamewars, the website owner is going to be forced to deal with the repercussions of being used as a middleperson. If comments make other commenters feel unsafe, the website owner is responsible for that.

And it’s also about wanting to shape a conversation. Sites with tough moderation policies are actually the sites I like to frequent most, and the sites with comments which I am most likely to read, because I know that the conversation will be interesting. The comments which are allowed through add to the conversation in some way, whether by challenging it, adding facts, extrapolating, or expressing thoughts which were provoked by the post or other comments. It’s the difference between a well organized tea party and a bunfight.

Free speech on the Internet is absolutely an important issue. I firmly support net neutrality, for example. I am very disturbed by abusive use of content takedown orders and other tactics which are used to suppress free speech whether they involve misuse of the law or technology. These are issues which we should be talking about and fighting for; not least, I want to make sure that sites like Blogger and Tumblr continue to exist so that people who cannot afford their own servers can still have a platform online.

But let’s stop calling comment moderation censorship or an abuse of free speech, because it quite simply isn’t. It’s fine to have opinions on how sites handle comment moderation, but one thing which cannot be claimed is that a site’s power is equivalent to that of a government. That a tough moderation policy is just like a repressive political regime. That moderators who are attempting to curate a conversation are horrible people who just want to suppress discussion and disagreement.

This post is dedicated to all the sites with tough moderation policies, and all the tough moderators, out there. It’s a rough road to follow and I have the utmost respect for you (as a tough moderator myself). And many of the people who cry most shrilly about free speech ‘rights’ have never actually been faced with the challenges of moderating a heavily trafficked site which is fighting for social justice and equality; they have no conception of the kind of abuse such sites can attract, the kinds of things which people think it’s perfectly acceptable to say in comments, and the amount of sheer work which goes into creating a community where most users will feel reasonably safe.

One Reply to “Comments and the Myth of Free Speech”

  1. As someone who has been accused of denying people their freedom of speech when I refuse to publish virulently oppressive comments, I do appreciate this post.

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