Deleting blog comments: exercise of Property Rights vs Free Speech

m0tt0 for Teresa Nielsen Hayden's moderation principles

No-one's Obliged To Listen To You If You're Being A Jerk | Teresa Nielsen Hayden

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Hire your own hall. We paid for this one.
(Robert Heinlein)

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 –


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

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, media, social justice

Tags: , , , ,

14 replies

  1. I like the addendum. When I recently had the temerity to disagree while female, on a blog which shall not be named, it ended up with the usual commenters on that blog discussing what they believed my sexual mores to be. It was funny from my perspective because they were hilariously wrong, and also endlessly fascinating seeing how people think of themselves and how they appear to others. Of course I am guilty of this too. I prefer moderated blogs. So much nicer to interact in.
    But yes, I can’t understand how someone can demand to be allowed to comment all over your blog and claim censorship if you don’t allow it. If someone were shutting down comments on all blogs on the Internet you might be able to make that argument. But even then you have other avenues of expression.

  2. I’ve added a few extra links to the post to some of the recent posts about cyberbullying/harassment etc.
    I wish more bloggers appeared to grok how much they’re letting others control their blog, instead of acting like this is just shit that happens and has to be dealt with on the public record. Of course you can’t keep the shitheads away from your blog entirely, but you can deal with their shit by filtering it out before publication rather than having it stink up your blog for the readers and the commentors you actually enjoy hosting.
    Note that I’m not saying that deleting the obnoxious shite is a castiron rule here. As Stephanie Zvan posted earlier this year, Don’t Feed The Trolls is Bad Science (and also often used as just another silencing tactic) – responding dispassionately so that their shite can be debunked/deconstructed for the lurkers is an effective countermeasure. But only if it doesn’t derail the thread from the original topic, which gives their obnoxiousness more power than it deserves.
    Don’t Feed the Trolls can still, IMO, be good advice as a self-preservation tip if all they’re doing is engorging the obstreperal lobe. But if you’ve gone beyond anger into productive clarity, then engaging them rigorously (ideally on a new thread to avoid derailing the original) is not only useful for clearly delineating boundaries/standards/ethics etc, it can often be invigorating.

  3. As the blog owner/author I think you can do that TT. As a mug commenter being yelled at for ‘lying’ i.e. disagreeing, not being listened to, being called all manner of things, being told I was an insult to feminism (as if somehow they are the arbiters of feminism) etc. made it really difficult to engage. Even the commenter who did engage a bit still indulged in a lot of slagging off. Then said later on another thread how nice it was when we got along! Later discovered this was their M.O. – disagree and nasty, agree and ‘oh isn’t it nice when we get along’.

    • That’s exactly the point, Mindy – it’s only really the blog owners/moderators who can set the tone and when necessary cut derails/attacks off at the knees. Regular commentors can be supportive auxiliaries in a best case culture, or over-sensitive wagon-circlers in a blog under attack, or gleeful way-too-soon pouncers in a badly guided culture. Mistakes get made by all the parties – bloggers, newbies, regulars and dissenters.
      I’ve sometimes been less engaged with the blog than is ideal for fostering a well-regulated sense of care and attention on all the comments threads. It’s generally been because of Reasons, but when that happens I need to do what I’ve been doing lately – post less, think/lurk/respond moar.

  4. Yes, please excuse me while I step off my high horse here and start listening to what is actually being said.

  5. I thought I needed to get over myself. I think I’ve done that now.
    Anyway, bluemilk finds the best stuff on the internet. I really like this post.

  6. Agree with what you said. The example of Ann Coulter was off, though. There, an event had been organized and sanctioned by those who owned the private property (the University). However, a secondary group intervened (the students) and silenced the original speech that had been approved.
    That seems more like a parade or speech (original event) that is derailed by protestors (secondary speech). Usually in that situation, the government has stepped in to protect the free speech of the original event. And – in truth – it’s pretty bad form to effect a form of protest that silences an event lawfully scheduled for a venue and where others genuinely want to listen.

  7. ElliseEllie, are you absolutely sure about exactly the version of events you’re repeating there about what went down at Ottawa University when Anne Coulter visited on her speaking tour? Because I read rather a lot about it before I wrote this post: Ann Coulter loves competition in the free market, except when it’s competition in free speech

  8. What a good post! Should be repeated, copied, plagiarised, on every blog which values civilised discussion. And that link@7 is really worth the trouble of a close read as well.

    Thanks tigtog.

    • Thanks yourself, kvd, for reminding me to thank Mindy for that link at #7. There’s a terrible lot to chew on in that discussion thread, even though that particular ethical problem is one that we’ve sidestepped here at Hoyden by thus far not monetising the blog, basically because of exactly that huge can of worms .

  9. I can’t take credit for bluemilk’s work!

  10. *basking* cough cough blergh *basking*

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