Apr 2, 2007

Insults and the right to free speech

Bloggers all over are currently discussing the suggestion of a blogging code of conduct, where bloggers are required to refrain from insults and threats, or get their blogs yanked.

The debate is generally anti-code, justified by the claim that it is freedom of speech to say what you want, and said freedom is protected by the US constitution. The thing is, we aren't discussing political blogs or racist blogs or pornographic blogs or blogs that in general have some kind of inflammatory material on them. We are discussing blogs much like my own: One person's personal outlet offered to the world because it's a rewarding thing to do (get to write, get to share, get feedback). But on some blogs, commenters are leaving insults and threats, including death threats.

The general reaction to this, that I have seen so far, is if you can't tolerate some sicko comments on your blog, you are too sensitive for blogging so just stop blogging. Don't bitch about the internet being all mean and harsh and evil and stuff because it's Free Speech, man!

In other words, the right to free speech equals the right to insult, to badger, to threaten. Too bad if it upsets the recipient.

That got me thinking. Is that really free speech? Is that sort of writing really a right? All of our laws are generally about getting people to be nice to each other, about getting along and not harming each other in any way. So why would the first amendment in the US constitution be an exception to that?

I don't think it is. I think the first amendment and any laws that protect the right to free speech are about protecting the right to speak your mind without being ridiculed or persecuted. That means that insulting or threatening someone because of something they wrote goes against the spirit of the first amendment.

As well as being wrong.


Paula said...

I disagree that the right to free speech means one is protected from ridicule. That doesn't seem to be the intention at all, and it certainly hasn't been the courts' interpretation. Parody, for example, is almost always protected, no matter how "mean" it is. So is picketing and protesting, complete with ugly signs and yelling. Death threats, of course, are in a different category.

And who decides what is insulting? The person supposedly offended? Who is going to enforce the code and throw people off the internet for being rude? How much is too much? Maybe I would be breaking a rule right now by disagreeing with you, even though I'm not calling you names or using swear words. What if you're just feeling down generally and cry after reading my words - is that MY fault?

Keera Ann Fox said...

You're right about the parodies, etc., but those are activities done with the understanding that the rhetoric is meant to prove a point. And they are usually targeted at public figures who have public influence. I fail to see how a person who writes a blog falls into that same category nor why it is necessary to justify insulting such a person.

And who decides what is insulting? The person supposedly offended? Of course. Who else? This is like asking who should define racism - the victim of racism or the racist.

Don said...

Protection of free speech means the government can't tell you what to say without a dang compelling reason. Death threats (and everything milder than that, natch) are not compelling enough. If the threats get serious, then the police look into it. But blog comments are like sidewalk conversations. I could tell my neighbor every day that I'm going to kill him, but if I never raise a hand or weapon, the police can't do squat.

Nor should they, or else the police would end up thrashing back and forth within everyone's little neighborhood spats.

Also, I completely reject the idea that someone besides me can decide if anything I'm saying is, say, racist.

Nasty blog wars aren't a free speech issue, they're an issue of maturity, and choosing what playground to play in.

Keera Ann Fox said...

Fine, I'll have to scrap my first amendment interpretation. :-)

But thank you for this: Nasty blog wars aren't a free speech issue, they're an issue of maturity, and choosing what playground to play in. Some folks seem to be claiming that it is a free speech issue and that's what bothers me. It is an issue of personal choice, not constitutional rights.

Nobody said...

I always come down in favor of the internet not being treated any differently than any other public space. If a threat or harassment is severe enough to be actionable, it's actionable regardless of where it's made. If OTOH I can call you names when you tell joke that offends me at the corner bar, I also get to call you names when you do the same on your blog. We already have all sorts of very nice laws and rules that cover this sort of thing. Let's use those.

A code of conduct is a different thing I guess. That's a group of people getting together to say, "We agree to behave this way, and not this way." Which is fine, for the people who agree. They of course don't get to tell anybody else what to do.

It's like any other space. If you're within the bounds of the law, you have a right to be a jerk.

JennyJinx said...

I could tell my neighbor every day that I'm going to kill him, but if I never raise a hand or weapon, the police can't do squat.

That depends on how threatened your neighbor really feels and if a judge would agree with him. At that point your neighbor would have a restraining order placed against you "just in case", and he'd have a right to do that.

The general reaction to this, that I have seen so far, is if you can't tolerate some sicko comments on your blog, you are too sensitive for blogging so just stop blogging. Don't bitch about the internet being all mean and harsh and evil and stuff because it's Free Speech, man!

I said this on another post and I'll repeat it here. It's not censorship or cowardice to delete unwanted garbage from your own blog. I've read a lot of posts that say that bloggers who don't allow personally offensive comments on their blogs are cowards and don't promote free speech, etc. etc. Bullshit. Censorship is the stifling of all of that kind of speech, whereas a commenter at a blog can easily start their own blog to bitch and moan all they want - no one's shutting them up, we're just cleaning our own spaces of the muck. No shame in that, as far as I'm concerned. And why would it be brave and strong to read a nasty ad hominem in my own comments? Blah!

Recently someone said that a blog can't be like a home because it's too public. Ok, I'll give on that. But my blog is my establishment and everyone that plays there is subject to my rules- just like if you walked into the neighborhood bar and grill. It's not a matter of free speech. A commenter is invited to that blog and should be respectful at least.

At any rate, after all of this ranting, it comes down to the fact that I agree with you, Keera.

Keera Ann Fox said...

Whew! Well, thanks, JennyJinx. FTR, I have deleted comments that weren't what I wanted found on my blog. My blog is an extension of me, not somebody else, so I was my usual "Oh, there's some rule about removing comments? I didn't get that memo" when I first heard about the not-done-thing in the blogosphere. Not that I ever followed the crowd. :-)

To all: FTR, I am not for any code of ethics being forced on us bloggers. I do, however, have a problem with justifying the right to general assery by saying it's the law. Justice is blind because she doesn't see where laws and morals don't mesh.

Joe the Troll said...

"Recently someone said that a blog can't be like a home because it's too public."

That may have been me. (I know I wrote it, I just don't know that I'm the one you saw.) I do agree, though - if someone was spouting racist crap or belittling me for my opinion in my living room, they'd get tossed out the front door sans ceremony. I put up with a lot of crap online that I wouldn't take in my home. Still, though, I would not call it censorship, even though I don't do it myself.

I agree with Don, also. I've been accused of everything from racism to socialism on these blogs. It's in the eye of the beholder. As the "kerfuffle that never was" at Lucy's illustrated last week, the fact that someone CLAIMS to have been insulted or "attacked" doesn't mean that they actualy WERE. Neutral parties are quite valuable in these instances.

Paula said...

I'm fine with people moderating comments or deleting any that bug them. I haven't yet, but I might. That isn't censorship cuz anyone can start a blog and babble on as they please, so no one's voice is being squelched here. And Joe has a great point about allowing the allegedly offended person to decide someone's intent, with a perfect example given of a total misinterpretation last week. Just as with that old AOL IM "report" button, people will complain about others just to complain. Some like thinking of themselves as victims.

Paula said...

P.S. I don't mean that a person's feelings should never be taken into consideration WRT insults, racist remarks, etc. Guess I disagree a bit with Don there. The subject's POV is part of the equation, along with the reasonable person/group test. Maybe I'll blog about this later...

Nobody said...

If we're just talking about doing what you want with your own blog, deleting comments from sucksters, etc. I misunderstood. I'm all for peeps doing what they want with their own blogs. I thought we were talking about the wider blog-governance code of behavior thingie. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the spirit of the First Amendment is about protecting speech that is quite unacceptable to others.

When ole Patrick Henry for instance said, "Give me liberty or give me death!" I suspect he actually hoped for someone else's death rather than his own. His words could be construed in a society that was sensitive about such things as a threat against the established state.

Such speech is protected.

I have only been reading blogs for a while so I don't know much about them.

This blog is a nice peaceful blog with nature photos and mellow thoughts, with a few gripes every now and then.

It seems Keera or any other blogger may keep her house as she chooses. It seems a blog is sort of like a house without curtains. Anyone can peep in.

Actually that gives me the shivers. I am a shy person and will probably never have a blog, but if I did I would run it as I chose and censor whomever I chose.

That is a sort of freedom too.


P.S. Inexperienced as I am, I put my first post in the wrong place. My apologies.

gekko said...

Coupla things, then. One is that people absolutely do have an inherent right to be childish and insulting. Their right to do that stops with me, my space, my livelihood, my family. IOW, if what they say causes harm to something other than my feelings, then I get to prosecute them. I, however, do not have a right to be free from feeling offended or hurt. That's a personal issue and I get to deal with my own hurt in my own way. Just as someone has the right to be insulting and mean and even threaten to kill me, I have the right to react. I can insult them back. I can call the cops and report a death threat. I can take precautions. I can withdraw from the Internet. I have a plethora of options, and it is my responsibility to use them, not some governing body's responsibility to use them on my behalf.

Secondly: I have a clearly worded comment policy on my blog. Anyone commenting on my blog takes a risk with what they write. I may delete it. I may change what they wrote to make it seem like they wrote something else. I "own" their words as soon as they choose to post them. I even get their IP information and can use that to track them down if I need to. I can block them from ever commenting. I have loads of power.

Chances are good I'll never touch the comments left on my blog. But anyone commenting needs to understand when and why I may do something to the words they leave me, and then choose what they want to do.

Keera Ann Fox said...

*sigh* Yes, all well and good and I agree, but why doesn't anybody seem to get that I don't see why anybody just lets bad behavior slide. All I'm hearing (reading) is "people gotta right to act like jerks". I'm not hearing "but it's not OK".

It's not OK to spew vileness and aggression and ad hominems in blog comments, on Usenet, or wherever. It's not. It's not OK to stoop down to that level because "they started it". That's my position.

BossMack said...

Refreshing, you can actually get your blog yanked?

gekko said...

'course it's not "okay" to spew vileness and aggression, unless reasonably provoked, yadda yadda. The thing is you asked, "Is that sort of writing really a right?" and we all answered that question.

Keera Ann Fox said...

You all did answer? Could you clarify the answer, please? I didn't get anywhere that the answer was "of course it's not right to behave like that", only that "it's protected by the law".

I don't even agree with the "unless reasonably provoked" bit. That sort of response is, IMO, childish and does nothing to defuse the situation or prevent it from escalating.

Paula said...

I didn't say it, Keera, because I don't believe it. Threats are out, of course, and not just death threats, but any threat to take things out of cyberspace, such as telling someone you're going to mess with their kid or report them to their employer. Even any veiled mention of stuff like that is over the line, IMO, such as when certain lusers say, hey, why are you visiting my site at work, hmmmm? But ridicule, insult, parody, sarcasm, swearing, namecalling, etc. are all fair game in an argument of words. That isn't to say I immediately engage in them at first disagreement - sometimes I never do - but it's an option I feel free to use if I want to, expect that others may as well, and neither strikes me as a big deal.

Keera Ann Fox said...

Well, to me it is a big deal, which is why I don't condone it and why I don't act that way. It's not that I can't tolerate insults flung at me. Quite the contrary: I suspect my skin is actually thicker (or my ego is smaller) than most people's in that respect because I rarely feel the need to respond in kind. So I tolerate just fine. What I don't find tolerable is the attitude that that sort of vile discourse is something to be accepted in general - that it is seen as appropriate, somehow. It isn't.

Paula said...

And I respect that, Keera, because I like you. (But I don't think people automatically deserve respect just because they happen to exist.) I wouldn't engage in that here. There are blogs I like where the blogger has asked people not to cuss, and I respect that as well. I'm sort of a chameleon that way.

Keera Ann Fox said...

Why, thank you, Paula!

I don't think people automatically deserve respect just because they happen to exist. I think you just gave me a topic for my other blog. :-)

Keera Ann Fox said...

Oh, poo, already did that topic.

JennyJinx said...


I don't engage in that kind of behavior. Yes, I use colorful language, but when debating or in a disagreement I refrain from vileness and, especially, ad hominems. As far as I'm concerned, the minute someone uses an ad hominem they've lost the argument and there's nothing more to say to them. Of course, sarcasm is the biggest weapon in my arsenal, so I'll use that. But I won't attack someone personally, unless they're an admitted and proud pedophile/rapist, then it's on. And if I feel that I'll get out of hand on someone else's blog, I'll take it to my own spot.

I don't think being an ass is right, but it's still protected and I'm a big proponent of protected speech. So, I won't sign on for anything that truly censors speech. I won't engage those people that just can't function with other people. I certainly hope that I don't find myself stooping to their level.


I hate Google word verification and I'm pretty sure it hates me too.

Keera Ann Fox said...

Sounds like pretty much what I do, JennyJinx. I don't want to hinder free speech; I'm bothered by folks using it as a justification for meanness, lies, etc., i.e. hiding behind the first amendment. I'd like to see more bloggers call those on their BS rather than shrug and say, "Yeah, but it's their right". (I know, I'm dreaming the impossible dream.)

PS: Word verification is OK. It's logging on that sucks. Why does "tab" take me back to my message and not to the next field (password)? Google, do you know how many times my password almost ended up in my comment?