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When speech is TOO free

Community members dragged into court



8:56 pm on Feb 17, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator rogerd is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

This is one of the most in-depth articles I've read in the mainstream press about an online community, in this case telling the story of an umoderated site that allowed rather disgusting personal attacks to be posted. Now, some members are having to defend themselves in court, although the site operators seem to be in the clear.

Slimed Online [portfolio.com] by David Margolick, Conde Nast Portfolio

Cyber-bullying has reached a new low—at the highest levels of the professional world. So when anonymous attackers went after two Yale law students, they struck back and filed suit. Their case may help change the rules.


10:52 pm on Feb 17, 2009 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

We're a newspaper, and we have a board. There have been times when members were threatening each other with bodily harm, and the police had to be called. I'm a huge advocate for freedom of speech, but you CAN cross the line (yelling fire in a theater, for example).

Running a board can be a major pain in the backside, especially when you have to maintain a sense of integrity as a business. People need to learn how to behave in a civil manner (I know, when pigs learn to fly and dance on the clouds with pink elephants).


11:29 pm on Feb 17, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member wheel is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

As a wise friend once told me, a forum IS the moderation. I detest moderation as much as anyone but the alternative is worse.

Community websites often get compared to free speech venues. They should more properly be compared to public rallies. If you hold one, you need to control the crowd. If the crowd decides to burn cars and loot stores, you can't go complaining about free speech - because that's not what it's about. You organized it, you take some ownership of the success and the failure.


12:16 am on Feb 18, 2009 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

I've never understood the free speech comparison - I can certainly kick you out of my home if you curse me, and I can kick you or censor you out of my online community if I decide to do so. I pay the bills - I make the rules.


6:13 am on Feb 18, 2009 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

These disputes are more about pride than actual defamation / loss. I think the people who matter (people in business, etc. likely or not to cause by their reactions damage to the defamed party) can draw quick and easy conclusions regarding the strength / accuracy of a published statement simply by the wording and evidence offered. I learned a long time ago to welcome such puerile defamation as it invariably linked to my web site(s) and thus gave me extra link popularity.

I do partly disagree with US law indemnifying the forum owner / web hoster; I think there should be some easy free process to have clear defamations removed. The problem comes when you have some oik in a far away country abusing US web sites to defame others, with them claiming jurisdiction rests in their own country which is devoid of justice through corruption. This then makes the US and its law as corrupt as the defamer’s.


7:29 am on Feb 18, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

I agree with civgroup. Having some rules in place in a forum that someone owns has nothing to do with free speech. If someone has something to say, they can always put a web site themselves. See, they're free. In the meanwhile, you're a guest on someone's web site and his rules are law. You can't go in a restaurant and tell the waitress she's a biatch, be rude to other customers, or even annoy people with your loud political or religious views. You'll get kicked out if the owner thinks you've broken the house rules.

Now, on the other hand, you can say that X site is "freer" than Y site. For example, this site doesn't allow links while others do. But it's not censorship. If you want to put your links somewhere, you can do it in the proper places.


10:22 am on Feb 18, 2009 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

I used to work as a moderator on some pretty high profile sites, some of them aimed at teenagers or even pre-teens, some of them government-owned. It's unfortunate that as a moderator you often have to think like an oversensitive politically correct psycho, because you know there are people like that out there. On the other hand, some people just don't have a clue.

We used to get people coming onto a company's site, slagging it off with lots of swearwords and then saying company x had far better products and you should buy those instead. Why would any company allow that on a website that's predominantly aimed at promoting their own products?


11:08 am on Feb 18, 2009 (gmt 0)

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Terms of service terms of service terms of service.


11:39 am on Feb 18, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Why would any company allow that on a website that's predominantly aimed at promoting their own products?

The company has indeed every right to delete the posts they do not deem appropriate, but if they manage their forum like if it was a commercial, don't expect it to get any credibility from discerning consumers who will most likely jump to a more impartial forum and tell everyone how the company's forum is just for shills.


12:16 pm on Feb 18, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator rogerd is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

In this case, the site's claim to fame was that you could post anything and it would never, ever be censored. Good up to a point (if you like flames and vulgarity), but the operators' steadfast refusal to assist the female students who were being attacked is what took this to the legal system.


1:40 pm on Feb 18, 2009 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

I know of several sites that have the same problem rip off is one.

Point in case. I shut down a large number of sites that were scrapping content, descriptions, with domain names and doing using affiliate sites CM to 302 to pages that they would get a comission on if a sell was made. Being the domain name was copyrighted I was able to get the affiliate site to shut off their accounts. The affiliate site used us as the reason in an email to the account they said (X site has filed a complaint against etc and your account has been cancelled) and not their activity violated company policy. This led to a huge attack on us some of them posted lies to rip off that continue to show up to this day if the domain is entered in a search.

I asked for the post to be removed and could prove the statements were false but they say anthing posted stays. I filed rebuttals to the post but if you view the pages the rebuttals are in the bottom of the page were the complaint is in the fold.

I can see this will one day lead to a big suit on them and the posters as it is just to easy to file false statements and lies and harm good business. What is intended to be a good helpful site is then used as a way to slander and file false statements.

Free speech is good and I believe in it but were is a line drawn to free speech and free abuse is the question.


2:04 pm on Feb 18, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

We do not tolerate such abuse in our community. We have a very strict terms and conditions when it comes to what users can post. We hear it from the fraction of a percent of users that don't like being censored, but so what... They are 10 users out of 40,000 that visit our site daily...

We also have a zero tolerance if folks go over the line with comments. Their account will be banned instantly, no warning.

We don't waste our moderator's time dealing with problem users that join just to get under people's skin. They always cry freedom of speech, and we simply tell them if they don't follow the site rules, their account will be terminated. End of story.


4:16 pm on Feb 18, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member farmboy is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member Top Contributors Of The Month

I think there is a huge misunderstanding and misapplication of the concept of "Freedom of Speech" among the general public.

If you read the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it reads, in part "Congress shall make no law..."

The First Amendment is putting a restriction on government not to restrict speech, there is no such restriction on a private business or an individual, for example, operating a forum.

Further, even within the confines of the First Amendment which prohibits government from restricting speech, the Amendment does not grant those who are speaking the right to be heard.



9:45 pm on Feb 18, 2009 (gmt 0)

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Along with free speech comes libel and defamation laws.

While those are usually pretty hard to prove or get anywhere with in court, they have been used on occasion.

I am pretty sure that things like threats also fall outside of any free speech interpretations by the courts.


11:44 pm on Feb 18, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member demaestro is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

Liable/Slander has never been protected under free speech. Nor have verbal threats.

Some of the posts in this thread suggest that the site is at fault. These girls aren't going after the site. They are going after the posters, and are asking the site to help i.d. the posters.

In my eyes the site isn't doing anything wrong.

[edited by: Demaestro at 11:46 pm (utc) on Feb. 18, 2009]


1:44 pm on Feb 19, 2009 (gmt 0)

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The site provided a venue for these people, so yes, it is in the wrong. I don't think that a company would have to believe stupid statements like some of those made in the forum; it is enough to see that this person has attracted a enormous amount of viciousness for a company not want to hire them. And why do you think these guys were posting this stuff? Just for fun? Just to make a girl cry? I am sure they hoped it would have an effect in the meat world, because reading the nature of these posts, they are all about wanting to drag these people down for being women.

I would be sympathetic to the forum if the threads were in some way, even an inflammatory one, attacking some principle or a moral wrong or wrongdoing of some kind, but calling for someone to be raped as a "joke" is not defensible on any grounds.

The site owner said, "Looking back, I was naive and a weak leader.” But in fact he was just greedy. He didn't want to lose his AdSense income. People came to read the troll threads, and he knew it. He was making money off it. He said himself that what attracted people to the site was anything goes. At the end of the article he said that he would have pulled the threads if he had been asked more nicely. It is clear from that remark that he kept the threads going not only because of the money but because he enjoyed them. He is himself a bully.

I am glad these trolls were outed. I have heard trolls putting forward this freedom of speech argument ever since Usenet. Over the years it has become less and less convincing. Having the right to do something doesn't mean you should go ahead and do it.


2:39 pm on Feb 19, 2009 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

When your taxes are made payable to Dave Bailey, only then can you complain that I am infringing on your frreedom of speech.


12:58 am on Feb 20, 2009 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

Farmboy, I was just about to post the same thing when I read your post.

99.9% of people who scream "Free Speech" don't even know what the 1st Amendment says. That's the real sad part about American society today.


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