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The concept of "free speech" in forums: A grand idea vs. reality.
Your experience in having the phrase "thrown in your face". Your response?

 3:32 pm on Aug 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

You know the drill: "You're suppressing (my) free speech!" or some version thereof.

How have you responded? What wise words were chosen to meet the proposition?

Simply "Sorry, but that concept doesn't apply here . . . because . . ."?

Were you fully satisfied by your own explanation or answer? Did you quickly amend the forum's TOS? How? In retrospect did you wish you had "said it better"? How?

Have you ever specifically mentioned how the concept does not apply in your forum's TOS? Such an approach seems to be a double edged sword but would the audience that you intend to attract "get it" and not be irked or thrown off by such a statement?

Feel free to discuss the idea of "regulated free speech" in general or in relation to specific experiences.



 3:37 pm on Aug 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

I had this one from a member once on a potential libel issue:-

I hate censorship!

My reply:-

I hate letters from lawyers!

I think the main point to get across is that no-one likes the concept of censorship, but being realistic, a forums owners need to protect themselves, and their members.

Most TOS rules are there for a specific reason that is not for the personal benefit of the forum owner.



 3:39 pm on Aug 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

Any time someone shouts about free speech in the context of a forum I usually just explain that no one is stopping them from having their voice heard. I point them to free hosting and let them know that they can be heard on the internet within minutes.

Freedom of speech has nothing to do with allowing content on your forums.


 3:42 pm on Aug 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

My observation: Usally arises when a member is hellbent on stepping over the lines of a forum's TOS.

However, I have also seen it drawn as a powerful appeal to member sympathy argument when "the suppression" looks more like a judgment call than a bright line.

In the realm of judgment calls it seems to me that a failure to act judiciously tends to poison the well - just a little bit - or possibly more.

So . . . when delving into the discussion of "Why can't I say that" one needs to 1) acknowledge the speaker's sentiments; and, 2) reaffirm, concisely, why the statement is non-grata.

Still, what's the best "art" that you've employed or read in posts or TOS on the subject of how "it isn't free speech that defines what is allowed, it's . . .?"

Are there any grand principles of speech in forums?

Have you created or read a nicely turned phrase or uber principle that describes the generally applicable limit of speech in a forum?

Civilised? Respectful? How would you define those?


 3:46 pm on Aug 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

Here's a core proposition: Redefine "free speech" as it applies in forum.

Is there a core principle or core of principles that serve as a widely recognized and generally accepted substitute for the principle of free speech?

What are those principles?

What I'm getting at is not simply a list of "does and don'ts" in a TOS, right?

However, in addition to the principles you might also list some of the better stated, widely accepted "does and don'ts". ;)

Please - have at it! It is a free speech after all, isn't it?


 4:16 pm on Aug 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

On the forums that I run/have run (and some of them were quite large), my answer is they will follow the rules of the group and respect the other group members. Our forums are not intended to promote freedom of speech at the cost of losing members, upsetting the group as a whole, or causing problems. They are intended to communicate about certain issues.

Thus, the moderators of the forums have a responsibility to ensure that posts which the group would find upsetting, grossly off-topic or designed to cause trouble (flaming, for example) are deleted and members who continually violate this are removed and banned forever with no appeal.

I've been in and been the "owner" or moderator of dozens of internet groups and forums, and I've watched virtually all of them die horrible deaths due to idiots who were gunning to destroy the group and who were not censored.

A moderator must be ruthless or the group is in danger. In fact, a moderator who is not actively deleting posts on a regular basis and banning unruly members is not doing his job.



 4:46 pm on Aug 23, 2005 (gmt 0)

One definition of community is a group of people who care about each other more than they have to.

--Levine, Locke, Searls, and Weinberger, The Cluetrain Manifesto [cluetrain.com], Chapter 3

I try to espouse rule #1 "Do Right," and I offer the following guidance in support of rule #1 (paraphrased here):

Think about the following before you post text or images:
* Would you show it to your boss (or parents)
* Does it harm someone

I'm interested in this because I have resisted the urge to construct a detailed TOS. My forum is small, but so far rule #1 (which is the only rule on the list) has sufficed. No enforcement ahs been needed so far. The tone of conversation has been set very high (courteous, respectful--errors pointed out graciously) for the first few thousand posts, so I'm hoping that the prevailing climate will help steer things that direction. In my involvement with larger forums, I have found that private reminders of rules have served better than publicly visible enforcement.

Automan Empire

 5:31 am on Aug 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

Borrowing from Heinlein, I consider my leadership role as owner of a forum as a mixture of anarchy and tyranny. I try to stay out of the way and let people do their thing, but must intervene occasionally, and when I do so, it is firm (but fair.)

A forum is not a nation-state, and the members are not "citizens", so the concept of "free speech" is null in the context of a forum.
Perhaps you should think of yourself as a "benevolent dictator" instead of trying in vain to be some kind of yes-man to all comers. Your forum, yes YOUR forum, is subject to your rules, PERIOD.
I have seen very large fora suffer terribly at the hands of a leader subject to public tirades and overkill-bannings. The internet can be more ruthless than reality in deposing the "petty dictator" type- the members leave for nicer fora in a hurry! However, do not allow an aggressive member to ply your sympathies by playing the free speech card. Have firm terms of service in place, and enough of a charter to both guide the discussion in the first place, and to point members to when they post something that needs to be banned. This should help pre-empt a lot of the arguing.
Once you have evolved your TOS and charter a bit, you will probably find that anyone who throws the "free speech" card at you is not a worthy member of your particular forum anyhow.
Don't forget, however, that "edgy" posts (by the standards of a particular forum) or arguements/flamewars (within limits) can send traffic and views through the roof! Whether this is helpful or harmful in the long run depends a lot on the type of community; some should ban at once, others might find it useful to guide such discussions rather than delete them.


 10:00 am on Aug 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

"Free speech" does not exist in a forum - full stop. The only place you truly have "free speech" is in a public place - your own forum - where you're the only one talking. Members that want that should really go write a blog.

Everywhere else we're usually subject to rules of some kind.

I think I know where you're coming from, you're looking for an expression which summarises the concept of speech as free as it can be in a forum?

I would call it "moderated discussion".



 1:35 pm on Aug 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

Free Speech only applies to the government you can censor change delete any thing you want cause its oyur forum and if they dont get that they can take a hike


 2:11 pm on Aug 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

What I'm after is a statement, both an intelligent statement of policy and an intelligent response to cries of "free speech", "censorship" or "police".

Not that I'm asking anyone to write a form of sticky to be sent to people who complain. This is more an exercise in defining exactly "what are we doing when we create a forum and manage a forum" - looking at it from the perspective of the limits of speech.

Alright, "moderated discussion" not free speech sounds close. "Moderated dialogue" saves a letter or two. Sometimes it's akin to "moderated debate" or "civilised argument". Sometimes it's flame wars and then the police . . I mean mods step in.

That said . . is there a distinction to be drawn between the actions of "moderators" and the effect of "the TOS and Charter"?

Is the discussion, dialogue, debate "moderated by" the forum's establishing document (charter) and regulatory document (TOS)? Is the discussion "defined by" the Charter? (Proper subject, limits, etc.) In this context or interpretation then ARE the moderators the police, the enforcers, the editors? Or are mods also the "interpretors" of the TOS and charter? Hmmmm . . then can the aggrieved "appeal" the mod's decision to the administrators? Well, then, the forum is beginning to sound a bit like a civil justice system.

3 concepts: "Free speech", "censorship" and "police/censors". Often flung about with great zeal.

So, a forum is not a place of free speech? Sounds wrong, but true. Not bad, just not right, like you wouldn't want paragraph #1 of your TOS to read "This is not a place of free speech". But . . you cunning fiend . . you know that's a fundamental truth of the given online community . . so why not come right out and say it, up front? Get everyone's attention. Why not? Hmmmm . . chilling effects anyone?

A forum is a place of free speech within the limits of the forum's TOS and Charter?

We don't "censor" anyone. We "edit", we don't censor posts to assure their compliance, conformity with the TOS.

Warm and fuzzy? No. Mature? Civilised? "The way it is. Deal with it." Yes.

How do you define your forum? What goes on? What is the language, the words, the concept of a community that works, that has a level of tolerance?

What is "that" - that tolerance - that bending of the rules a bit to allow something to happen? Is that tolerance "freedom to speak" outside the rules - for a moment? And what is "that something" we're after when the rules are bent?

Is there a special magic in "free speech" that we have to labor to foster and protect?

Community IS dialogue? Business IS dialogue?

Cluetrain manifesto anyone?


 2:31 pm on Aug 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

Moderating is a Contact Sport [webmasterworld.com]

Could it be said that free speech in a forum is a contact sport?

Sounds like it if you read the opinions of WebmasterWorld members. ;) [webmasterworld.com]

Marketing Guy

 2:42 pm on Aug 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

I usually take the line that folks have the right to free speech as long as they accept the duty to use it responsibly (ie no flaming, personal vendettas, etc).

Yeh, you will always get the occaisional idiot who thinks they have the right to say whatever they want, anywhere they want, but you can soon get rid of them. Hell, I've even had one guy maintain he had the right to promote his site on my forums because he allows people to do the same on his! :o

At the end of the day they are discussing topics on your property - I wouldn't tolerate insults, racism, abuse, ignorance, etc in my own home and I'm not going to tolerate it on my forums.

There's no need for excessive rules or paranoid moderation to avoid potential hot topics that might provoke a dodgy response - that's like banning rock music or video games because they *might* cause violence. Just deal with stuff as it comes - chuck out the idiots and move on.



 5:26 pm on Aug 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

Cluetrain manifesto anyone?

Hell yeah. (see post 7)

The Cluetrain POV would be that you are better off being a participant in the conversation versus a subject of it, and that the conversation happens with or without your consent.

Markets are conversations.

The Cluetrain Manifesto sort of emphasises corporate communication, and there are nuances to a general community/forum that maybe aren't accounted for in their schema. But chapter six has something to say about it, but note the business spin:

The simple, if painful, prognosis: organizations must encourage and engage in genuine conversation with workers and markets -- or go belly up.

I guess the inference is that you should coach your forum users, not censor them. Or at least temper the censorship with some personal contact. Now maybe that doesn't scale. But it's more like conversation than like corporate communication.

Sorry this is somewhat tangential, WW. To try to close the loop, I'm suggesting that the remedy for having free speech slogans thown in your face is some personal contact with the thrower.


 5:40 pm on Aug 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

I guess the inference is that you should coach your forum users, not censor them.

Not at all tanential but rather spot on, as that idea - of "coaching members" - is what is taught in WebmasterWorld moderator school. In fact it's one of the paramount lessons.

Still, a person on the receiving end of an edit or post deletion may, despite all gracious explanations to the contrary, insist that actions are censorship.

So, I guess effective mods "coach members in the rules or limits of free speech"? Mods are not censors, they're speech coaches?

[edited by: Webwork at 5:41 pm (utc) on Aug. 24, 2005]


 5:40 pm on Aug 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

Rings true for me.


 5:45 pm on Aug 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

>>free speech

That's what blogs are for. ;)


 6:19 pm on Aug 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

Still, a person on the receiving end of an edit or post deletion may, despite all gracious explanations to the contrary, insist that actions are censorship.

They can insist until they're blue in the face, but someone has to be the grownup and decide what belongs and what doesn't. If it's bad for the community, it doesn't belong on the board. Don't hit your sister, don't call your brother stupid...it's just like being a part of a family.


 6:44 pm on Aug 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

I usually just say something like, "This is the United States of #*$!xxxxxx.com" and direct them to the Forum Rules where everything is spelled out...


 9:59 pm on Aug 24, 2005 (gmt 0)

Most people understand that speech isn't free in forums, but for those who keep crying "censorship" even after several polite explanations, I've been known to suggest that if they start their own forum, they'll have all the freedom they want. ;)

For anyone who thinks forum speech is free, I'll be happy to share my server/bandwidth charges. ;)


 5:40 am on Sep 8, 2005 (gmt 0)

The point is you're paying money. You have the right to decide where that money gets spent, and it shouldn't be a surprise that you don't want to spend your money allowing people to degrade the community you've developed.

If they want to say anything they like, they can start their own forum.

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