Saturday, June 9, 2007

“Free Speech” on Message Boards

I participate in a message board for web-based community organizers. We’ve been having a discussion about people trolling, and otherwise disrupting, discussions on message boards. I figured my latest contribution to the discussion would make a good post here:

I’m extremely tired of people claiming “free speech” as their excuse for disrupting a discussion, particularly when they go “off-topic”.

The thing is, free speech does not apply to message boards (or email lists or what have you) unless those boards are specifically set up as open free-for-all’s. Message boards are private spaces, even if you can freely join and anonymously read them on the net. Would it be “free speech” for me to walk into a public church and start shouting down the preacher with an attack against the evils of religion?

Without rules of order and constraints of topic, there can be no reasonable communication on message boards. If someone has something they want to say that is outside the scope of a particular message board, all their “free speech” gives them is the right to go to, or setup, a different message board where their message would be on topic.

Also, it’s like with the principle of “the rights of my fist end where the rights of your nose begin”—free speech does not extend to statements that cause harm to another person. That is why some countries have explicit laws against “hate speech”, for example.

I sometimes setup an “off-topic” board on sites where I setup message boards so that I can readily point people to a place where they are free to post on subjects not covered by the ‘main’ boards. That helps in making it clear that they can say what they want, but it has to follow some constraints in order to facilitate a reasonable flow of dialogue. Without those constraints, all we would have is noise and communication would stop.

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Bob McInnis said...

I am with you Grant - free speech only needs to be defended when it is challenged and it doesn't justify vileness, mean spiritedness, bigotry or other disruptions without purpose. I am following Seth Godin's suggestion that we need an Internet where anonymity doesn't exist, then if you have something to say or a threat to make it is tracked back to you. If something is worth saying, it is worth standing for.

Grant Neufeld said...

I think there is still a place for anonymity. It can be a literally critical protection for whistle-blowers, for example.

However, I am, in general, in favour of non-anonymity. I try to “lead by example” on that by always registering under my own name on websites and discussion forums. I don’t use the pseudonyms and codenames that seem to be the popular way of doing things.

The only place I don’t use my real name is in fantasy video games where the whole point is to play an unreal character. I haven’t done much of that in recent years, though.

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