Saturday, November 28, 2009

Strange Ideas About Freedom Of Speech

As many of you have undoubtedly noticed I do moderate comments on my blog. If you've read the comments you know that I almost always publish what people have to say even if they strongly disagree with me. On rare occasions I hold a comment to check something before publishing or to compose a thoughtful response. However, if someone is abusive or offensive I do reject comments. A person who wrote such a comment then accused me of having a "strange idea of free speech" and censorship. It's actually nothing of the sort.

If you write something is the New York Times obligated to publish it? Must the Washington Post run a sharply worded op-ed? Can I compel Fox News to give voice to my liberal opinions? The answer to all these questions is an unequivocal no. Private media is permitted editorial control of their content. Websites and blogs are no different. They are simply a newer, different form of private media.

O'Reilly Media editors have deleted comments to things I've written once in a while: comments I would have accepted. It's their website, they own it, so it's their choice. Thomas Holbrook II recently complained about the Terms of Service on in a post on his The Nixed Report blog. He finds their prohibition on political discussion "ridiculous". I happen to disagree but I certainly recognize Mr. Holbrook's right to express his opinion on his website. He, too, discussed this prohibition in terms of "freedom of thought and expression" and it is no more a limitation on his freedom than a refusal from a local paper to publish something. The owners and editors of have a right to manage their site as they see fit.

I'm not preventing anyone from voicing an opinion or expressing themselves. I am merely exercising my right to editorial control on my blog and websites. If someone wants to post something I won't publish they have every right to do so... on their own blog or website. Everyone has a right to setup their own proverbial soapbox and voice their opinion. Nobody has a right to take my soapbox and appropriate it for their own use. Those who argue otherwise are the ones who have strange ideas about freedom of speech.


Anonymous said...

Some people just don't get free speech. They don't understand public and private. Don't get me wrong I'm all for free speech but it is conditional. I looked at your profile and seen you and I have alot in common. I am currently working as a Unix admin in Israel and just resigned for another year.I think I'll look into some of the music you have listed. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right. Freedom of speech was originally intended to allow individuals to speak out against the government without fear of retaliation. This same freedom, however, has nothing to do with allowing one to freely chat about gardening in an IRC channel which was intended for official Linux support. Some people just don't understand the meaning of "freedom of speech".

Anthony said...

I implemented the same policy after some foul mouthed and really nasty comments from some Linux haters.

I do automatically pass regular commenters without moderation. This lets the comments be more "live" while still keeping out the disruptors.

Anonymous said...

I would have to agree that the prohibition on political posts is ridiculous... though being on the opposite side of the fence from you politically, maybe it isn't so bad. Intelligent liberals are dangerous =P

JeffH0821 said...


Far too many people believe "freedom of speech" guarantees the right to a soapbox. It does nothing of the sort. It only ensures you cannot be persecuted for your beliefs. Not even the government is forced to give you a forum. If people want to be heard, then they should take it upon themselves to create the forum.

gagy said...

As you said, a blog is a bit like a newspaper. You own it, so you edit what goes out. It's your reputation.
It has nothing to do with freedom of speech. It's more like freedom of private property, that you are willing to share with others.
People can always express themselves. They simply need to have their own blog, although they also need to be coherent enough and interesting enough so that people might want to read what they have to say.
Thank you, because your blog fits the description.
All the best.

sinecure said...

This is a tired argument - parties on both sides frequently abuse it.

Visitors to the site may post abusive comments, and then start complaining that their 'free speech' is stifled when the blog owner moderates their comments.

Blog owners delete the posts that make them uncomfortable (though the posts don't violate any published guidelines for comments), and then start claiming that they exercised a legitimate right to moderate their own web site.

The only way to be sure about who is telling the truth is, if the blog owners don't actually delete the comments, but keep them with their content hidden and the comment title flagged as violating the site guidelines. If anyone wants to see the post, they can click on a link to read it.

Caitlyn said...

@sinecure: You seem to have missed the main points. Free speech protections protect your right to express yourself. They don't guarantee *WHERE* you can express yourself and they don't give you the right to demand access to a website, newspaper, TV or radio station, blog, or whatever to have your ideas or views published.

Blogs are private space. Blog owners are under no obligation to set "standards". They can be absolutely arbitrary about what they publish and choose not to publish. It's their private space. There is no obligation to allow you or anyone else to read anything.

sinecure said...

@Caitlyn: The blog owners are certainly free to do what they like with their blogs. And it's incorrect to say that one's free speech is stifled when one's comments are deleted. There's no disagreement there.

I was talking more about onlookers judging the credibility of the blogger versus that of the complainers. You have a right to be arbitrary, but if your visitors suspect you are, you may not have too many visitors left. (I am assuming you care about your credibility - why even write a blog if you don't care about being read?)

Caitlyn said...

@sinecure: It seems I misunderstood your first comment. My apologies.

I have the advantage of already being a well established writer (some paid and professional, some not) on some other websites so that probably guarantees me a certain level of readership. For me accepting or deleting comments is a judgment call. If someone finds my judgment "arbitrary" I've decided I can live with it. I just keep the number of comments I do delete to a minimum.

Rev Egg Plant said...

What most people don't understand is the concept of private ownership of a web page, a computer server, or a printing press. Because I post a board where I allow people to comment -- note that key word in there, *allow* -- doesn't give anyone license to take that board over for their own use. It's mine, you can use it until I say otherwise.

Brandon said...

"Freedom of speech" isn't limited to the First Amendment. Nor is it restricted to government action. I don't see how it can possibly be maintained that capricious comment moderation is perfectly compatible with freedom of speech. Your argument allows this compatibility even if you don't personally censor capriciously (there's another term people like to abuse: it's not censoring when I do it). Assuming you agree that capricious moderation is no good, you then have to say why. The answer to that "why" question is freedom of speech. You can call it by another name, but it's the same value.

Blogs are different from print and broadcast media in many relevant ways. The space for views and opinions is limited. It is the media company's job to ensure the presented views are representative and considered (no straw men). Otherwise, they are biased. Space on blog comments is practically unlimited. Many discussions online generate thousands of comments without any undo burden on the publisher.

Caitlyn said...

@Brandon: Your argument about the "amount of space" is totally irrelevant. In private media the editor is allowed to be as "capricious" as he or she sees fit and is under no obligation to explain him or herself. What you are arguing isn't free speech: it's the right for you to dictate what is published and what is not.

Brandon said...

@Caitlyn: I don't have the authority nor desire to dictate anything. I'm simply making a moral judgment. There's a large difference between having the legal or physical freedom to do X, and X being free of negative value judgments.

All I'm saying is that there is a value corresponding to "freedom of speech", and that even on privately owned sites, there is variance on how well this value is satisfied. A value can be anything as long as it's coherent. Once a coherent value has been noted, one can agree or disagree with it, but you can't deny it's existence.

It seems what you're saying is that the value of "freedom of speech" as it pertains to private sites is not worth adhering to. This is a coherent position, but so is it's negation. So when someone criticizes you regarding freedom of speech, this criticism is substantive--they aren't just confused or spouting nonsense.

antonio_vertigo said...

One thing to remember, the right to voice your opinion is guarenteed to me by my constitution, the right to infringe on someone elces medium is not. You arent stopping these fine folks from voicing their opinions, your only not allowing them to use your medium to voice those opinions. I can step in front of a taping news anchor and shout "titty sprinkles" but wheather that makes it to air is a seperate matter, and if my comment gets beeped, that is not an infringement on my right to free speach, only someone limiting my use of their medium to convey that message.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your position. Freedom of speech is a political right in a taxpayer supported forum. It is also a right for a user in a forum of THEIR OWN creation. It is not a right on a forum they do not own.

The one right a user of a private forum, like this one, has is to not post if they do not like the position of the forum owner.

Politically, personal liberty was greatly extended when the franchise was extended to people who did not own property, because they productively contributed to society by their labor and charity, in place of property.

While folks who have purchased blog space from ISPs have PAID FOR "property rights" that folks who merely browse do not have, extending the "franchise" to allow the browsers to run rampant over the blog "property" and destroy its value or subvert the intent or purpose of the blog owner in creating the blog is not a wise course of action. The activity of vandals must and should be deleted.

It becomes a little more dicey when a blog owner makes a political statement and then allows only posts favorable to the position, or comments from inept posters whose writings draw ridicule to the opposing position. Ergo, if discourse is the goal, then the blog owner has an obligation to allow thoughtful posts for all positions.

Caitlyn said...

@Brandon: I think we have a very serious fundamental disagreement. Your "moral judgment" assumes that moral values are universal or, at the very least, that your morals are the correct ones I should agree with. I also don't believe that freedom of speech is a moral issue at all. Some speech is morally abhorrent to me and protecting the right to say things which are harmful and abhorrent to society as a whole is not a positive or moral value.

I don't believe there is a "coherent value" that can be assigned to freedom of speech, so yes, I can and do deny its existence. I also do believe that someone claiming they have a right to "free speech" on someone else's media (blog, website, TV station, whatever) is pretty much nonsense and, as I termed it, "a strange idea about freedom of speech."

You are, of course, free to disagree and I never moderate out respectful disagreement on this particular blog.

Purple library guy said...

The Fox News example made me prick up my ears. I'm not an absolutist about freedom of speech, and don't have a problem with judicious moderation of blog comments. But the particular argument that it's all about whether the speech limitation is done by a public or private entity is getting into terrain that's not so simple or absolute as people seem to think.

Up until not so long ago, there were laws in the US about what you could and could not do if you wanted to claim to be a news outlet. News media had to tell the truth and adhere to some notion of balance or neutrality. The implication is that owners and editors did not have complete control over their decisions of what to publish and how to present it. This was considered a responsibility news providers had to live up to in return for the "freedom of the press" privileges they received.

Something like Fox has only been possible since those laws were repealed due to lobbying from media outlets who wanted to be allowed to behave like Fox. But private speech and private control over the speech of others certainly can be regulated and still is in many areas.

Caitlyn said...

@purple library guy: I am old enough to remember the Fairness Doctrine and similar FCC regulations. I would say that such rules where necessary when every area only had a few broadcast media outlets and that was it. With the multiplicity of cable and satellite services I really think such rules are outmoded and it was correct to repeal them.

I used the Fox News example because their politics was opposite my own on everything except foreign policy. Would you have accepted it better if I had said MSNBC?

Kevin (aka Padma) said...

Put simply:

You have a right to your beliefs.

You have a right to express those beliefs.

You do NOT have a right to use someone else's medium (newspaper/TV/blog/whatever) as a soapbox for your beliefs.

If you are rude, crude, hateful, or otherwise obnoxious, that someone else has the right to deny you access to their medium.

Purple library guy said...

What multiplicity? Any proliferation is more apparent than real. Ownership is more concentrated than ever, and more politically involved than ever. However, while I do happen to think repealing those laws was a bad idea, my point doesn't hinge on the notion.

My point is just that the issues are complex, and that something being private does not make it so completely separate from the public realm or public regulation as is often supposed. The notion that the private is or even should be completely separate and inviolable is a current fashion, primarily in the US or at most the English speaking world, but it's not realistic.

Perhaps a better example--take common carriers, such as telephone or mail services. They do not normally have to take responsibility for the speech people send across them. At the same time, they cannot normally regulate that speech; they aren't even supposed to eavesdrop on it. So they have to allow freedom of speech. These rules don't change much depending on whether the service is privately or publicly provided.

Now I'm certainly not arguing that a blog is or should be treated as a common carrier. I don't in fact have a problem with you moderating your blog. I'm just saying the "It's private and simply and purely because of that the concept of 'free speech' cannot possibly be an issue" argument is an oversimplification.

Caitlyn said...

@purple library guy: The issue of concentration of media ownership is a separate issue. It's an issue we'd probably agree on since I think it is problematic at best. Diversity of views is important in a free society so that people can make reasoned, intelligent choices.

Having said that, there is a multiplicity of channels, often hundreds, where there was a handful before. There are also alternative media which are carried by cable and satellite providers. Think Free Speech TV on the hard left (and the related Pacifica Radio outles) to the so-called Christian conservative media of the far right. We also have international networks available where they weren't before. So, even within the media concentrated market we have today more diversity is available than ever before.

We'll have to agree to disagree on regulation of media content. A heavily regulated media can and at times has been used in countries to make sure the ideas of the ruling party are the only ones available or at least the only ones which seem credible. I prefer having Rupert Murdoch's right wing empire, even if the we'd agree that his "News" channel doesn't broadcast news but rather non-stop editorializing and propaganda, than have the government compel broadcasters to air specific viewpoints.

Alan Jones said...

I don't think those are really examples of limitations on free speech. Those people were free to say those things.

It's just that freedom of speech does not give them immunity to the consequences of that speech.

The distinction is important. Freedom is not being taken; Accountability is being enforced.



Adam said...

I like your post. Thank you.