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Free speech meets newspapers, web

There seems to be a real and very worrying misunderstanding of what ‘freedom of speech’ is really about. In my mind, free speech is about adding to a dialogue, not subtracting from and diminishing in such a way as to make the dialogue meaningless.

I have to be selfish for a moment, and indulge my own right to think and speak freely, expressing my own thoughts put forward in the conclusion of an earlier article on the freedom of speech:

“While I will always defend the rights of the individual to exercise their individuality, if those individuals are incapable of recognizing their failure to offer something of value to everyone else, or to remain at least reasonable and calm, then someone has to make that decision for them.

That’s not censorship, that’s citizenship.”

You see, the lingering problem with free speech on the ‘Net is one of the free-for-all free-fall effect which effectively uses the rule of the law to break the spirit of the law.

Some actually don’t mind this. Personally, I don’t agree, but I have no problem whatsoever with someone else’s opinion of free speech on the web:

“Jim Boyd, one of the few readers who identifies himself in his online comments for The Tennessean, loves the rowdy, no-holds-barred exchange of ideas on the Web site, calling it a ‘new Renaissance.’

Of the hateful and vulgar remarks that sometimes appear online, he said, ‘I really think that’s part and parcel of the freedom. If somebody’s going to make a fool of themselves, just let them go.’”

So I disagree, OK. Personally, I don’t think people should just be allowed to say what they like if all they’re issuing is a tirade of pointless, tiresome, boring abuse.

And I imagine this is where someone reading decides to halt their progress through this article right here and fire off some tirade against me and my ‘narrow-minded’ and ‘Big Brother’ mentality.

Am I right? Hope not. In any case, I urge you to read on. I might just blow your mind, or something…

Wipe your feet on the way in, this in my house

If we’re to replicate society on the ‘Net, then we must do so completely, not half-heartedly, or why do it at all?

Also, to do so incompletely would probably leave behind some very important social norms that are essential to the whole social web thing.

When I talk to friends, I do just that. I don’t invite random people along, nor do I ask other people’s opinions of our collective views, should they be in any way aligned.

When I’m in mixed company, I try to keep a civil tongue in my head and hold off turning the air blue with expletives.

Right now, I get the very distinct feeling that some hot-head reading this is already at boiling point ‘coz I’m gittin’ all preachy, ‘n’ stuff.

Well guess what? This is my house and these are my rules, OK? Fortunately, these rules are shared by almost everyone else in the civilized world.

See what I did there? I exercised my right to free speech.

But the really important point here and it’s more relevant than ever, given prevalence of ‘blogging the freedom of someone to speak should not exceed my freedom to act, which is equally as important, and is neither in contradiction to, nor superceded by a persons freedom of speech.

And in what way might I act? To remove what I feel are offensive comments on this ‘blog that add nothing to the dialogue.

All sounds like a contradiction, but then the context is all-important, here. The context is the venue and the rules of those venues.

To distill the issue of censorship into even simpler words: if we accept that we cannot simply act as we like, why should we think we can just speak as we like?

After all, don’t we have laws to bring to book those people that think and / or act in ways that are illegal?

Just to pre-empt the obvious answer that being words never harmed anyone words are often the precursor to actions. And history is a sobering reteller of those who have used words to rouse nations into war.

In lieu of proper, better, more socially aware constructs being put into place to prevent this free-for-all thing taking the web out like a well-placed sniper shot, we have to make do with what we have.

Well, it’s lucky for us that there’s already a place on the web where free speech and accountability for ones’ words sort of get along. It’s not a perfect solution, but I think there’s plenty of room for improvement, which can only be a good thing:

“It’s possible that Digg may well have started something, by way of introducing a certain democracy to the web which has an interesting way of solving the problem of web censorship that could potentially placate both parties.

On the one hand, if someone’s just talking crap, they get marked down and their comments are greyed out and collapsed down so that they’re only revealed by actually clicking a disclosure button. But uniquely, their comments remain.

Sure, there’s room for abuse here, too. But it’s a better system of regulation than the non-system of regulation that exists right now.”

Certain quarters of society manifest themselves in digital form. Some less desirable than others.

Some of these ‘voices’ are ones of intolerance, of hate, of racial bigotry and speak of unpleasant views that few will ever agree with. But aren’t they entitled to their views, too?

To be continued…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

6 replies on “Free speech meets newspapers, web”

“But aren’t they entitled to their views, too?”

That is such a loaded question, when you are dealing with issues of free speech and censorship, but I thought I would respond with my own take on it.

While I am usually of the opinion that every individual has the right to ‘be heard’ so to speak, I find that there are times which I simply cannot ignore, when perhaps some type of censorship is indeed called for in an open forum.

I don’t think the question is really whether or not someone is ‘entitled’ to their own views on a specific subject, but more importantly whether they should be allowed to ‘express’ it in a manner that could be considered abusive or offensive. And I for one, would not hesitate to purge a comment on my site if I found it to be such. That is my right.

As far as the matter of ‘Digg’. I think their solution only offers to hide the problem rather than to take an active role in resolving it. As you said. The comments remain. And where there’s fuel…there’s fire.

But that’s just my opinion! 🙂
– Anna

Hi Anna!

Clearly then, we agree.

And as I mention in the opening paragraph, there’s a certain confusion as to what this newfangled free speech thing is all about.

I’ve had this discussion before many times, mostly under exceptionally heated circumstances because there are those that think they have the right to say just what the hell they like and not be in any way either responsible or liable to question for those views.

That rarely exists in the really real world, so why should it exist here on this interweb thing?

What begs to be answered then is… Just who would be responsible for deciding ‘what is considered acceptible’ and what is not. I think every individual has their own perceptions of what that would be.


There are those common social values that most are aware of, if not observant of.

However, it’s a question of venue.

I’ve seen all kinds of stuff being said on certain ‘blogs and forums, what wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere.

So if we take the ‘houses’ idea, clearly a lot is being said behind closed doors.

But in more public venues, there are those who have to enforce the broader social norms and ensure those not following those shared, polite values are kept quiet.

As I’ve said before, this isn’t censorship, it’s citizenship…

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