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When Free Speech is not Free Speech

Non-Free SpeechWhen I first read Kathy Sierra's last blog entry I felt angered and annoyed, to a point of just wishing to stay agnostic to the whole case as a display of primitivism that the collective intelligence of the blogosphere will resolve by itself. But reading Carla Schroder's thoughts on the issue gave me an argument I can rally behind and build on.

It is about mixing freedom of speech with its apparent yet deceiving antithesis, something that certain web administrators seem to be susceptible to. This of course leads to being tolerant towards certain kinds of behaviour under the pretense of protecting and enforcing freedom of speech. It seems that knowing the basics of what freedom really means is a must for every caring web administrator and moderator. Web communities are full of people with varying opinions, mentalities, interests and goals. Failing to apply a moderation policy which takes into account the balanced understanding of freedom on such a community, can lead to dangerous cases like the one we are witnessing today.

Is freedom to do anything that will in any way hurt the freedom of another being, no matter the gender, age or race, really freedom? It's the question we often fall back to when discussing what freedom really is (which we do often on this site). If what you say is a death threat, isn't this a restriction of freedom to speak without fear? Isn't it even a direct implication of a restriction of freedom to live? If this is the case, can death threats really be considered protected speech?

Of course not, and this is no doubt something that Kathy Sierra understands very well as she unfortunately suffered the restriction of her own freedom to even breath without fear, let alone write and speak. If we protect ones freedom to speak against the freedom of another to do the same, we are protecting the complete opposite of freedom. We are protecting oppression. Administrators who don't understand this are in fact condoning oppression on their sites.

So what is the solution to this problem? CoolTechZone suggests abolishing anonymity because people would then be forced to take responsibility for what they say online. While I can sympathize with this motive, I believe this would be taking the real solution to another dangerous extreme. Anonymous posting has its value and when it is not harmful can easily be tolerated.

The solution should not be an extreme sweeping change of any kind. The solution is in recognizing the boundaries between freedom and its oppression, because the line appears to be thin. Administrators of sites should promptly censor and delete posts which are abusing the freedom of others to continue an unencumbered open dialog in freedom, not fear, and not only the dialog happening within the confines of their own blogs and forums, but further too. No website is an island. Everything we say on sure can affect others in some site I may not even know about.

If I were to tolerate abusive speech here, it would be like letting abusers plant the seeds of something much worse that can spread beyond this site, just as it did in the case of Kathy Sierra. And yes, this does make Mr. Rageboy responsible. He basically let the seed grow into something worse, in the end forcing him to close two of his websites down, ending up himself being a scapegoat for this whole affair and not to mention the kind of situation in which Sierra found herself in.

Administrators and moderators should recognize the line between protecting freedom and protecting its disturbance, and as Carla says "grow a spine and hit the delete key". Just look at this Sierra affair and think how much can this delete key save you from.

Thank you
Danijel Orsolic

More:'s Taco Buitenhuis' take on the issue.


Thanks for changing your


Thanks for changing your mind, when I read your first ostrich-like reply to the thread I started I was quite disappointed.

My own thoughts on the matter, which I have been carefully considering ever since I read about it, will hit the net soon.

Yeah, I was wrong there,

Yeah, I was wrong there, especially considering that I'm running a site which should take a stand on such issues instead of bystand it as it unfolds. While I do believe collective intelligence of the blogosphere can work it out, and it is doing just that, we should jump in and this site should be in the process not outside of it. Raising our voice, even if it only emphasizes voice of someone else, can mean something.

I'll try to keep that in mind.

Looking forward to your blog entry.


Hmm. If a death threat is


Hmm. If a death threat is made, does a mod have a responsibility to inform the target of this?

That's a tough question. I

That's a tough question. I think it would depend on how serious and real the threat actually seemed. Maybe he should inform the authorities or someone else who can know more about what to do in such case, before informing the target (in order not to disturb her or him more than necessary, especially in a case when the threat wasn't serious).

Or maybe the best way to go would be to engage the one who made a serious looking threat over email or an onsite personal messaging system explaining why the post was deleted and asking why was such a post made. The goal would be to establish whether the poster really is or isn't serious.

This does lead to more questions though. Even if admins do everything they can to keep their sites clean of abusive posts, the abusers can go somewhere else and start their own sites, not to mention post anonymously on blogs of victims.

I guess, however, that admins have the capability to make the first step. If admins of popular and active sites consistently filter abusive behaviour, it may be discouraged. But when they allow it, there is greater chance of it spreading further as well. So there's no perfect solution, but those who can do something about it should, and at least we'll be able to keep things failry balanced and prevent cases which really could be prevented.

It is quite possible that if RageBoy wasn't so tolerant towards such behaviour, this particular case would have been prevented.

Just a note: death threats


Just a note: death threats and other criminal posts should not be deleted, they should only be removed from public view. Otherwise the authorities have nothing to investigate. But of course that's what you meant.

My blog entry is here, feel free to copy it to or link it from libervis, or send the link to anyone.



I agree the proper way to deal with such things is to give the person no "air time" and preserve the evidence for a hopeful prosecution.

Re: When Free Speech is not Free Speech


Excellent article. It must be, since I agree. Imagine a life where you had no freedom to speak what was on your mind, and imagine what it would be like to live in a world like this. Noam Chomsky, a linguistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a big supporter with the idea of free speech. He is known across the globe for his activism and outspoken criticism. He is also said to be “the most often cited living author” and “one of the most respected and influential intellectuals in the world.”
However, it is not necessary to become a dictator to avoid the expression of different and occasionally unpleasant views; just go into a sound-proofed closet and talk to yourself.
In honor of those who claim that their freedoms of speech have been violated by the expression of opposing (and occasionally impolite) views, I have a suggestion: Let's have a National Do Something Stupid Day. It could be fun. It might even stimulate the economy a (very) little bit.

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