While I’m doing reading on some subjects related to the freedom of speech, I decided to put up a post about a subject that can be addressed without much research.
Frequently, when a person is removed from participating in a web forum or from making comments on a particular site, a cry goes up that his or her freedom of speech is being abridged. Some, on occasion, employ the word “censorship”. Although the exact definition of the term is debated, I prefer to reserve it for the suppression of speech by the state. The actions of the state, due to its power, are of a very different nature than those of private individuals or even large corporations. The criticisms against stopping individuals from participating in forums however are frequently expressed in the same sorts of terms as more general arguments for freedom of speech.
Although, I’ve seen other examples, a not uncommon circumstance is one in which participants are enjoined from making racist or sexist comments. The participant who exceeds the standards of a particular site may be warned and, if the behavior continues, asked to leave. The argument against the prevention of such comments is usually phrased in terms of rights: The right to freedom of expression of the person who makes, or might make, comments which are deemed racist has been curtailed, or trampled if you prefer more emotional language.
A person does not have the right to have his or her words published by The New York Times, certainly not as an article, but there is no right to have your letters to the editor published. Similarly, I do not see how anyone has a right to have his or her words published on a site owned and operated by another person or company. To my mind, this is not a question of rights but of fairness.
I like to see a site that has an active online community as being like a pub or a bar which is open to the public, but not a publicly owned space like a park or a street. These places are not selling food and drink as much as they are selling an environment for socializing. An owner will decide what type of establishment he or she wants to have and what sort of customers they want to attract. One thing they will do, is set boundaries on behavior, and the boundaries will not be the same in every place. I’ve seen a man thrown out of bar in Brooklyn Heights for making anti-semitic comments. I’ve been given a free beers at another place for laughing off the sexist comments of another man. The first was a bar popular with young professionals after work and another was a dingy local dive where a friend of mine and I were the only women and interlopers. The owners make a calculation about what sort of people the want to attract and what sort of people will be turned off.
The favor does not always go to those who are the most circumspect. When I was younger, I spent more than my fair share of evenings, nights and early mornings in bars and nightclubs that hosted very loud rock and roll bands. If someone had come in and complained that the places were not welcoming to people whose tastes differed, I would think the request to host a different sort of music was absurd on its face. Similarly, if I happen upon a site where there is more sexist banter going back and forth than I care to hear, usually I simply move onto another site. The main determination of whether or not I convey this to the site’s owner or moderators is whether or not I believe I am the sort of person they are trying to attract to the site. It is up to the owners of the site what sort of environment they want their site to be.
When I first put up this blog, I toyed with the idea of posting a comment policy. As it happens, I haven’t yet had to take down a single comment. However, I think my own judgement would be against comments that would discourage others from reading the comments. Thus, I have no problem leaving up a comment that criticizes feminism, but if it had been rendered incoherent by invectives I would have taken it down.
The world needs all sorts of different establishments, both physical and virtual. One type is not inherently better than another.