Freedom of Speech Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

This came up, again, and I swear I’ve written about it many times. Apparently it needs saying again. And again. So here it is again, although I’m quite convinced that the people who need to read this aren’t ever going to look.

You do not have the freedom to say anything you want on someone else’s website.

Was that clear enough for you?

When people say ‘It’s a free world! I have the right to say what I want!’ are usually referring to the two main types of Freedom of Speech. The most well known is the US Constitution’s first amendment. The other is the generic one the UN has. Now, while the Supreme Court has extended the full protection of the First Amendment to the Internet (see Reno vs ACLU), that still doesn’t mean you can say what you want on someone else’s website.

I keep saying this and emphasizing that I’m not talking about your website.

I have the right to blog whatever I want on my website (right here), provided I don’t violate the contract I signed with my webhost. I’m using their service to host this site, and I’m legally bound by my contract. They said ‘No porn, please.’ among other things, so while I could talk about porn, they’d probably shut my site down if I posted porn on this site. It works the same way with the newspaper and books. If you can find someone willing to take the flack for publishing it, you can write and distribute just about anything.

By that extension, I get to enforce my own rules on my website, provided they don’t violate my webhost’s rules. I can’t allow you to post porn pics here, because I can’t do it myself per my host’s rules, but I can say ‘And no pictures of baby elephants’ if I want to. This is usually where people jump up and say they can post whatever they want. And this is where I get a brick, hit them in the head and ask “Are you paying for this website? No? Shut it!”

See, I pay my webhost, and I have to follow their rules. You come here, for no charge, and you have to follow mine. It’s actually remarkably fair. I’m under no obligation to treat everyone the same. I have some people who are ALWAYS moderated before they can comment, and others who are free to comment anywhere. Basically, this is my website, these are my rules.

If that’s confusing, I’ll give you an analogy.

You have a party at your house and you invite your buddy Bob over. Bob acts like an ass. He doesn’t break anything, but he’s just annoying and you realize ‘I like Bob, but not when he’s acting like this.’ So you ask Bob to shut up or leave. Bob refuses. You tell him to leave or you’ll call the cops on him for trespassing. Bob leaves. Was any of that illegal? No! Not a bit of it! It’s your house, it’s your rules. It’s that simple.

When you post on someone else’s website, you are a guest in their house. If they decide you’re no longer welcome, they have the legal right to do so. And if you circumvent their blocks, it’s like breaking into their house. Which you would never do. So why are you doing it online?

Yes, there is a legal protection of freedom of speech and expression on the internet, but it’s just not the way people seem to think it is. The freedom to say what you want doesn’t mean you can say anything (there are clauses to censor hateful or otherwise intentionally harmful speech, in specific situations (see porn)), and it doesn’t mean you can say it anywhere you want.

Blaise Grimes-Viort wrote a great blog post asking Does free speech apply to Online Communities? While I learned a lot of the advice there by trial and error over the last 15 years, I wish I’d had a resource like that back then. Blaise rightly raises the most salient points to remember when posting on someone else’s site:

  1. Online or offline, same rules
  2. Protect your community at all cost

That second one, as a moderator, is really hard. It’s hard to be mean and ban someone, but it’s also hard not to get sucked into their drama. You can’t argue with people about these things. If you say ‘No baby elephant pictures,’ then that’s the rule and you must enforce it. Consistency is your mantra here. The other issue I’ve always had is knowing when to draw the line. “Here’s a teenaged elephant!” Okay, that’s not against the rules, but …

The people who frustrate me the most are the ones who clearly know right from wrong, understand the meaning of the law and it’s letter, but demand that you clarify, codify and otherwise delineate every single possible option and regulate everything. I want to hit those people with my brick a few more times.

I often write the following quote on my cube’s whiteboard “If you know what to do and you don’t do it, there you bloody well are, aren’t you?” You see, I have no illusions of the existence of common sense, or any faith that people will do the right thing for the greater good. I’ve learned that people will do that which seems right to them, and generally this isn’t a bad thing. But somewhere along the way, there’s this disconnect where people think that just because they think something’s right, they can do it anywhere and everywhere.

Keep your pants on in my house, keep your hatred off my websites, and yes, I get to decide if short-shorts are too short to be considered pants and if ‘you suck’ is hatred.

These are my sites.

My rules.

Live with it or go away. Make your own blog and post how much I suck there. I may not agree with you, but I will defend your right to do so with my dying breath.

That is freedom of speech.

Of note. I permit posting of images and links to baby elephants here. Also, I don’t have a brick. This is probably why.