Wednesday, August 08, 2012

What are the Actual Requirements of Free Speech?

Ah, net controversy. Don't you love it? Yeah, me neither.

The latest tiff (that I'm aware of) that flared up within the fantasy community was regarding a Q&A that Jim C. Hines had scheduled on Reddit that he cancelled due to some other content Reddit was hosting on their site. According to Jim's post on his Livejournal page he explains that a thread on Reddit, asking rapists to explain their motivations for their crimes, made him incredibly uncomfortable. He then details the various reasons why he didn't want to participate in a Q&A while that thread existed on Reddit.

A quick search of Jim's site is all one needs to realize that he has good reason for his feelings. He has a page dedicated to the subject of rape and how the personal experience of a friend led him to become a crisis councilor. The man has done his research and I think it's fair to say that he put some thought into his decision to pull the Q&A. But, oh my goodness, the outrage.

I don't know much about Reddit but a lot of people talk about the "Reddit Community" in almost reverential terms. I'm not kidding. As far as I can tell it's just a very large message board but you'd think it was the hub of all things awesome. The rub, it seems, in Jim's decision seems to be the fact that his email to the Reddit coordinator stated that he would not do the Q&A unless the thread was removed-- which resulted in accusations of censorship and sputtering outrage that Jim would deny anyone their rights to free speech.

But is that really the case?

Maybe it's me, but it seems like people are very quick to make accusations of censorship without really thinking things through. Years ago I got into a minor disagreement with another blogger over the links we had traded on our sites. He had emailed me and asked if I'd link to his review site and I agreed. But as we moved into the political season he mostly abandoned his review content and instead started writing some pretty vicious political commentary that seemed, to me, to consist mostly of rumor and innuendo. Not sure what to do, or if contacting him directly would be a good idea, I chose to take down the link to his site for the remainder of the electoral season, which would have been about two weeks at that time, with the intention of reinstating the link after that. Within 24 hours I got an email asking me why I took down the link. Figuring that honesty was the best policy I told him why the link was down and that I intended to put it back up after he moved back to his normal blog content. Boy, was he not happy with me. I got a furious email back saying that I was trying to censor him and that our online relationship was over. I may have sent a snotty reply back, something relating to toys and taking them home, and that was that. Needless to say I was relieved to sever a relationship with someone who stalked other blogs to make sure they had him linked to their sites (he let it slip that he had had the same argument with another blogger).

What got me about that whole exchange was the accusation of censorship. I wasn't trying to shut his blog down, I simply refused to promote it. As far as I was concerned he was the one that had broken our agreement, casual as it was, by deviating from the promised content of his blog. I wouldn't have linked in the first place if I had known it was going to end up being politically inflammatory. I didn't report his blog or bad mouth it in any way and it irked me that the cries of "censorship" came out so easily.

So when I see some people (mostly troll traffic if we're being honest) jump all over Jim with accusations of attempted censorship I think of that famous phrase from The Princess Bride: "I don't think that means what you think it means."

As far as I can tell Jim didn't try to force Reddit to take down that thread, he simply stated that as long as they didn't he would choose not to participate in the Q&A on their site. I don't believe he threatened legal action or intended to start a boycott or anything else that would put pressure on Reddit to censor themselves in any way, he simply stated that he, one person, did not want to be associated with a site that published something he found personally offensive. I can relate to that.

But, for argument's sake, if Jim had succeeded in persuading Reddit to take down the discussion, would the accusations of censorship then have merit?

This is where opinion comes into play and points could be made for both sides. If Reddit had taken the thread down I would say that they chose, as is their right as a private organization, to self-censor. Many of us do that. We're the lords of our own little fiefdoms as blog owners and it's not unheard of to delete objectionable comments as they pop up- I certainly don't worry about the free speech rights of people who spam my blog.

Because I choose to use Blogger to host my blog I am subject to their terms of agreement and can be reported for abuse. But if I felt stifled I could move my blog to my own domain and post anything I wanted to (within the law)-- as could anyone who posts on Reddit. Which is why I don't feel that the free speech argument applies to the whole Jim C. Hines kerfuffle. I don't believe Jim was trying to universally shut down a certain type of speech and he states in his post that he didn't expect Reddit would agree to pull the discussion. I also don't think that Jim was trying to assert that he had the kind of influence that would persuade Reddit to pull the discussion just for him. By all appearances he's just one guy taking a stand.

From my point of view accusations of censorship should be held in check. It's like accusing someone of racism or sexism every time you disagree with something they have to say-- it's basically crying wolf and pretty soon those arguments have no weight. I may be biased because I don't think Jim did anything wrong and I happen to agree with his conclusion that there is no real merit to the Reddit thread despite the article at Jezebel trying to convince me otherwise. I do appreciate that there are free speech laws in effect that give people the right to say things I find objectionable but I don't believe that private enterprise should be forced to give anyone a venue, especially when other venues are widely available.

In an interesting aside I have to note that the most hateful abusers of free speech ever, the Westboro Baptist Church, just prompted President Obama to sign a new law that will severely limit their ability to continue protesting at the funerals of American soldiers.

Maybe I should have some free-speech oriented outrage over that-- but I don't.


The Man in Black said...

I agree 100% with the content of this post. It's amazing how you see a response to "I don't like what you said" replied to with "Stop censoring me!" Usually the latter person turns around and hypocritically deletes the dissenting opinion. Another example that really annoys me is whenever someone dares to state on television that they don't like what someone says, they're labeled as censoring them. I have a feeling more and more people out there just don't understand what the word "censorship" really means.

SQT said...

The one thing I noticed is that the people who were the loudest with their the complaints of censorship weren't actually addressing the merits of the topic at hand. They seemed more interested in making baseless accusations and calling Jim names. Unfortunately this seems to happen a lot on the net and it's a kind of bullying that is, unfortunately, very effective.

Linds said...

Ah reddit. I find the site can provide cool links and find some of the 'forum' discussions and topics to be interesting. But some topics involving the trigger trio (religion, sex, and politics) can devolve faster than the road runner and seem to attract trolls like catnip.

Personally I've never gotten into any forum community, but reddit has done some really neat things with fundraising and random good deeds along with all the vitriol and religious and gender rants. It's a very weird mix of complete jerks and genuinely nice people. PBS's pop culture vlog Off Book did a great short video on reddit that captures some of the wide mix of the site:

The reaction to Jim's comment is not very surprising, given the forum and the topic, but rather silly anyway. I agree with you on that.

SQT said...

Thanks for the link, I'll be sure to check that out. I'm utterly clueless about Reddit but glad to hear that they do some good things. I like the term "trigger trio." Very apt.

Charles Gramlich said...

Censorship requires an active approach to supressing information. Just deciding not to pass it along, or to link to it, as you spoke of, is not censorship in any way. It's just exercising a choice. John did try to exert 'influence" over Reddit concerning the threat, but it still stops short of censorship to me because he has no real power to threaten them and force anything to change. The people screaming censorship today are usually saying pretty ridiculous things to begin with, and even though they have the right to say those things, they also have the right, and I think the obligation, to consider what they're saying before they open their mouths.

SQT said...

"Influence" is a good word. It's accurate without the hyperventilating overreaction a word like "censorship" usually evokes.

It's interesting to me that the first ones to scream "censorship" are usually the last ones to think about the consequences of what they write/say.

The Curmudgeon said...

SQT -- let me recommend a good blawg (meaning "law blog," a little contraction that pretty near represents the high water mark of legal humor), Popehat. The main blogger at Popehat is a California lawyer named Ken; he wrote about this Hines matter last month ( ). I think you will find it interesting.

You ended your post with an aside about new legislation that is aimed at the morons of the Westboro Baptist "Church." You thought this a good thing. The ground opening up underneath these jerks and swallowing them whole would, indeed, be a good thing. But laws designed to suppress them may have unintended consequences, as this post, by another Popehat blogger, Patrick (who I think is a lawyer from North Carolina) points out ( ). You may re-think your position when you read that post.

Censorship is something governments do; when we choose not to participate in something, or refuse to buy or look at something because we find it offensive, we are censoring no one. When you or I flush comments by comment trolls we are not acting as 'censors' because we are not governments. I can freely choose who to associate with in my house... or on my blog.

The person who demands that a 'dirty book' be removed from the public library shelf is not a censor but seeking the government (the public library) to become a censor. I object to that. On the other hand, that same person who passes out flyers to library patrons as they enter the premises warning them of the evils of this 'dirty book' and urging them not to read it is neither a censor nor seeking the library to act as a censor. That person may get people to shun the book -- or may inadvertently make the book more popular than it ever otherwise might have been -- but, either way, that's free speech for you. And free speech is for me, too.

SQT said...

I absolutely believe what you say about Westboro. Which is a testament to how evil those people are. They make people like me overlook trespasses on our freedoms just to shut that one group up.

SQT said...

I was also under the impression that censorship was specifically a government act but when I look up the legal language my eyes glaze over and I forget how to comprehend the English language. I wasn't sure if there was a gray area that involved citizen pressure, as you mention with book banning, or if the issue required government involvement. Thanks for the clarification.

Budd said...

We can freely say what we want, but it does not guarantee that peopele will listen or free us from the consequences of those words. We have a freedom of speech along with a right to remain silent. Just because we can say something doesn't mean we should.

What the author in the post was doing was negotiating terms for an interview. People wanted to hear him speak but he wasn't comfortable with what his speech would be surrounded by. To put it in non internet terms. If he were asked to speak at a conference and another speaker was also scheduled to speak that had views that he was opposed to and that speaker would be loosely assossiated with him, he has the right to say no thanks, unless you get rid of that other guy.

word verification is a violation of free speech. You are trying to keep me quiet! ;)

SQT said...

That's right. I'm the man and I'm keeping you down!