This accusation of suppressing speech online keeps on coming up (it’s a fundamental plank in the ongoing FTBullies smear campaign): the allegedly terrible awful no-good horrible “crime” of deleting comments on a blog rather than letting them stand as some sort of monument to Free Speech. To which I say bah humbug pish tosh harrumph and quote a 2010 comment on an earlier post on this issue:
you have a right to access the Internet, not to access my audience via my resources.
Regular readers know my response to this already, but let’s lay it out:
- Freedom of Speech is a right given to citizens as an act of expression “in the public square”, and various legal decisions in many countries have extended this right to the freedom to publish whatever one chooses on any “press” to which one has access.
- See that last clause? The one about access? “Freedom of Speech” does not oblige somebody who owns a press to give anybody else access to it. Just like one cannot force the owner of a house to let one come inside, one cannot force the owner of a press to publish one’s words.
As Pavlov’s Cat noted many years ago, that it’s mostly self-identified “libertarians” who play the “suppression of my FREEEEE SPEEEECH” card on other people’s blogs is obtusely ironic:
interestingly it’s always the private-property cheer squad that seems to squeal the loudest about exercising their freedom of speech on someone else’s blog, which indicates to me a fundamental incoherence about their world view in general.
Publishing a blog is rather like hosting a party (or for some of the larger blogs, hosting a multi-seminar conference): the hosts/organisers are perfectly within their rights to require guests/attendees to abide by a code of conduct, and to eject anybody who disrupts the experience for other guests/attendees.
A blog is emphatically not a public town hall meeting open to all comers: after all, even your local town hall can be hired out for private events, and when it is? Those who have hired the room have the right to decline entry to and/or eject people who indicate that they want to take over the stage.
Of course there’s an argument that by letting readers see the most obnoxious comments that a publisher is shining a light on people whom less obnoxious people should beware; this is a valid choice for a publisher to make for their own reasons, but it’s not an imperative for each and every blog owner. When a comment submitted for publication contains in any way/shape/form content with which the publisher does not wish to be associated, then the publisher is perfectly within their rights to decline to publish that content, up to and including deletion of the submitted comment entirely.
Newspaper owners do this all the time with Letters To The Editor (and arguably should do much more of it on their online platforms); blog owners who don’t exert some form of control over their comment threads often find they no longer feel comfortable on their own blogs, leading some of them to give up blogging altogether. When this happens, it means that demands from others for the free hosting of their speech has actually silenced the blogger’s speech. For some of those making these demands most loudly, the silencing and intimidation of those bloggers is in fact their goal. Bloggers do not have to let them win.
Addendum: some corollary arguments from others regarding blog owners’ responsibilities with respects to setting commenting boundaries -
THIS IS A SOLVED PROBLEM
As it turns out, we have a way to prevent gangs of humans from acting like savage packs of animals. In fact, we’ve developed entire disciplines based around this goal over thousands of years. We just ignore most of the lessons that have been learned when we create our communities online. But, by simply learning from disciplines like urban planning, zoning regulations, crowd control, effective and humane policing, and the simple practices it takes to stage an effective public event, we can come up with a set of principles to prevent the overwhelming majority of the worst behaviors on the Internet.
If you run a website, you need to follow these steps. if you don’t, you’re making the web, and the world, a worse place. And it’s your fault. Put another way, take some goddamn responsibility for what you unleash on the world.
If publishers will not accept the responsibility of leadership in their communities, they should at least shut down their comments and defer that leadership to other publishers within their community, instead of letting that leadership fall to the cranks, bigots and profane who pollute unmoderated comment sections online.
N.B. this post has been lightly revised to add links and increase clarity