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Free speech, blogging, and trolls

It is astonishing to me that people of good will find anything to argue about in the statement that hate speech is not on.


Kathy Sierra received death threats and had her address published all over the net. In what sense, exactly, is free speech served by protecting that behavior? There’s Sierra’s speech, which has been shouted down, and a bunch of useless yapping that did the shouting. The argument seems to be about how limits on really bad yapping can avoid infringing on yapping.

Even that last issue is not difficult. There is no valid point of view that requires the expression of personal threats against other people. It’s that simple. It’s also illegal. It’s called hate speech. It’s not free for a very good reason. It needs to be enforced, by the police and by all of us on our individual blogs. It needs to be enforced when it’s misogynist just as much as it does when racist, anti-semitic, or homobigoted. Sometimes it seems that these days the point is debatable only when misogyny is in question.

So, let’s make a start, here in blogland, by rejecting all forms of threats against people. Yes, that includes completely harmless crude threats hurled between commenters in the livelier blogs. Throw them out. I don’t know anyone who would miss them, except the commenters themselves, and they’ll just have to deal with it like men, even if they are highschoolers (whatever their gender). Shutting them up is the price of hearing voices with something to say, voices like Sierra’s.

Would that rule get rid of offensiveness on the web? No, not by a long shot. Bigotry isn’t excluded by that rule. Only bigotry directed specifically at individuals. You have to start somewhere.

And you have to stop somewhere. I’m not sure where, after hate speech is excluded, the line should be drawn. Bigotry expressed as an incitement to riot is already illegal, and should be. But I don’t see how one could make the expression of just plain honest bigotry, so to speak, illegal without at the same time destroying free speech itself.

The test has to be whether harm is threatened against specific people. If not, just turn it off and go pay attention to something else if you’re offended by the sentiments expressed. (Violent porn is an interesting hybrid area here. I would argue that since it does advocate harm against specific people, for entertainment no less, it falls squarely into the hate speech category.)

It gets murkier when one gets deeper into O’Reilly’s and Scoble’s Blogger Code of Conduct. (Intelligently, the Code is up for comment as of this writing, so make suggestions for improvement there.) They would like to excise “misrepresentation.” I agree. I’d like to excise it too. /*Falls into beautiful dream: no more Rush Limbaugh, no more Malkin, no more Coulter, no more Shrub . . . wakes up with a shock.*/ Anyway, yes, it would be nice. No, there is no way to do that short of including critical thinking in everyone’s education and making sure that everyone is educated.

O’Reilly & Co. are confusing the desirable with the essential, possibly because the worst aspects of this aren’t their problem. Women are exposed to 25 times the hate speech online that men are. Twenty five times. 2500% more. Yet, when it comes time to formulate a code of conduct, the names I see on the masthead are “Tim,” “Richard,” “David,” and so on. They adopted the outlines of the code from BlogHer, but then for some reason took the ball and ran with it. Possibly, it would have been easier to keep the priorities organized and to identify the worst abuses if the people who suffer the majority of them had been at the center of the project.

Whenever any limits are proposed on free speech, the shout against censorship goes up. The idea is that any censorship will lead to the end of free speech. This is obvious nonsense, as a simple thought experiment can show. If you’re in a room full of people, all shouting as loud as they can, does anyone have the freedom to speak?

Freedom of speech necessarily includes the freedom to be heard. (I’ve carried on about this before.) That’s why apartheid-era South Africa’s banning laws were a suppression of free speech. Talking to yourself in a room by yourself is meaningless. But an excess of noise works just as well as isolation to drown a message. The great danger to free speech now is not silence. The danger is that by not censoring noise, we’re going to lose the signal that freedom of speech was intended to preserve.

Deleting and silencing threats against people is not censorship. It is the essential volume knob that allows free speech to be heard.

Technorati tags: free speech, Code of Conduct, BlogHer, blogging, hate speech, trolls, censorship