To censor or not to censor

There are two major arenas where censorship happens: publicly and privately. When it occurs publicly, it is generally illegal (in fact, by “publicly”, I only mean in instances where the question is a legal one). That is, a person who is prevented from engaging in public speech is a person who has had his First Amendment rights trampled. Of course there are all the caveats – threatening speech and gag orders and yelling fire in a crowded theater and things like that – but I’m not talking about those and they aren’t important for this post. What’s important here is when censorship occurs privately. Specifically, I want to talk about online censorship as wrought by people in administration positions, whether it be on a message board or a Facebook page or, especially, a blog.

Ken of Popehat (and that other little thing) recently wrote about his displeasure at the fact that one of his fellow bloggers had to close a thread due to the lack of civility in the comments. In response, a reader wrote to that other blogger, Patrick, and asked him how he felt about an individual’s role in moderating privately run forums and the like. Here is part of Patrick’s response:

I view Popehat as property: my property, held in common with three friends. For me, the inquiry stops there.

I choose to invest my time into Popehat for one reason, and one reason alone. I enjoy what results from it. I believe that Popehat is a great website, and I gain personal satisfaction from knowing that I have done my part to make it so…

But if I were forced, by compulsion or out of assumed moral obligation, to allow others to use Popehat for purposes I find repellent, the joy that I gain from this site would turn to ashes in my mouth. I would no longer be the master of this house: I would become a slave, working for no reward…

I wouldn’t work on a website that makes me angry, unless I am being paid obscene amounts of money. Since that will never happen, I will not allow Popehat to make me angry.

If it’s a choice between you and me, you will go. So that I can stay.

I’ve pasted his response together in pieces, but I think I’ve captured the gist of it.

I feel entirely different about censorship of this nature. Sure, if someone wants to censor what others write in a privately run space, I’m going to deem it stupid if the censored individual runs to a judge and jury, but I have no issue with the criticism that the censorious individual gets. In fact, I would like to join in: I generally view censorship as cowardly regardless of any legal questions that may exist.

I also find people who are willing to censor to be very untrustworthy. When I visit a new blog and leave a comment, I often have my first comment kept in moderation. That’s fine if the person is looking to filter out all the spam possible (or just too lazy to fix his settings), but if I leave a second comment and that is also kept in moderation, I am unlikely to continue with my posting. I do not spam and I do not troll, thus there is no reason to prevent my (or most other people’s) comments from immediately posting – except for the purpose of making a censor-based decision.

I want to mention another blogger for whom I lost nearly all respect when he not only proved himself inept at his profession, in my opinion, but also a FOX News-like liar regarding a particular issue. After we had a falling out – we aren’t even Facebook pals anymore :( – I continued to comment on a few of his posts, despite the reasonable risk that he might censor my comments. I don’t mean that as a personal jab but rather an acknowledgement of the fact that we are two individuals who do not like each other and I wasn’t allowing his comment sections to go as swimmingly as he might like. As it turns out, though, he has not censored me in the least. He hasn’t even threatened to do so. That I respect. That is how a blog administrator should behave. That is how I run my site.

Shifty gears slightly, one common theme to issues like this is for people to compare their blog or forum to their living room. “Why,” they say, “I would never allow someone to speak rudely to me or my other guests from my couch, so why should I allow it here?” I think that analogy fails. It only works insofar as one’s living room and one’s blog are both private. But my front yard is private property, just as my bedroom is. Does that mean it would be okay to walk about naked whenever I pleased? Of course not. Having one characteristic in common does not make two things equal (Nate‘s mother and bovine specimens excepted). The difference in this cases lies in the fact that a blog is essentially an open-invite to the public. Whenever I make a post, including this one, I am asking anyone and everyone to come into ‘my living room’ and tell me what they think. I would never do that with my real living room.

I want to be sure, though, that I’m not polarizing this issue. Like with most things, it isn’t all black and white. I have banned one non-bot person from FTSOS. He was spamming and trolling and had no interest in any sort of discussion. He was clogging up my Recent Comments widget to the point where he killed at least two discussions that were happening elsewhere. (People had no idea their comments had received a response and the posts only existed several pages deep, so the ability to see recent comments – the only lifeline for the comment sections – was severed.) His comments were also stupid, but that isn’t why I banned him. I banned him because he made my website logistically incoherent.

And there are other instances where I can understand someone censoring a post. If someone posts a link to lemonparty.org (consider context to be your warning), I would probably edit it. Not always, but probably. Or, let’s say, a blogger loses his spouse to cancer. If a person starts talking about the deceased as some evil person and other personalized vulgarities, I don’t think I would consider the blogger a coward for utilizing his “Move to Trash” feature.

All that said, I am against censorship on private forums – forums that are inherently designed as open-invites to the public. That means I have no respect for the closing of threads or banning of commenters at places like FTSOS or Popehat or any blog in 99% of the non-bot instances. “I don’t like what you’re saying” and “I don’t like how you’re saying that” are the two things administrators are telling everyone when they close things and ban people. That impresses me less than Brad Pitt impressed Shania Twain in 1998*. It’s a way to insulate one’s self from the so-called marketplace of ideas. Obviously no one wants to run a shitty market, but allowing others to meet a bad apple at one or two of your corners is a good thing. That’s reality. And if those bad corners turn into bad streets and then bad areas and then a bad market, that probably isn’t a reflection of a lax censor policy. In that case, there is likely something wrong with the sort of posts being made or the sort of people making the posts. Anything on the Internet can attract awful people, but awful things will attract them in clusters. (That is in no way a comment on Patrick or Popehat. I think Popehat is a fantastic site, and I would think that even if Ken had never helped me so much with a tough problem.)

Now, feel free to say whatever you want in my comment section.

*I’m on a 90’s reference kick lately.

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