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Freedom Of Speech And Civil Discourse -- Are They Mutually Exclusive?

Have you caught wind of the absolute hysteria over the suggestion that that online discussion may have devolved to the point where a code of conduct might be needed?

Patricia Keefe

April 13, 2007

5 Min Read

Have you caught wind of the absolute hysteria over the suggestion that that online discussion may have devolved to the point where a code of conduct might be needed?Codes of conducts have been suggested before, but the most recent uproar is over draft guidelines proposed by Tim O'Reilly and Jimmy Wade, based in part on the BlogHer Community Guidelines.

Mind you, what BlogHer, O'Reilly, and Wade are pitching are voluntary guidelines, and a draft at that. But you would think from the outraged reaction -- which seems to sum up most of the feedback I have seen in response to this idea -- that these guidelines are akin to tearing up the Constitution or eliminating the Bill of Rights.

People, take a breath.

The fact of the matter is, a lot of what passes for discussion online is nasty and mean. And never mind that weak-kneed comeback about people needing to have thicker skins. It's like talk radio on wireless steroids at times out there. This is no doubt fueled by the ability to post anonymously - oh what fun to bully and hurl unsubstantiated accusations, charges, and threats when no one knows who you are! What a power trip. What self-importance. And how irresponsible.

Yes, the Constitution guarantees free speech (and that's a very good thing). And it doesn't say it has to be responsible. Or even nice. The legal system, however, does have a thing or two to say about some forms of speech and where they are used. In certain cases, it will punish irresponsible or mean speech -- like shouting fire in a crowded venue, slander, deliberately making false accusations, making false claims, publishing pornography in some cases, hate speech, sexual harassment, inciting riots, or sedition. These are all examples of where the law regulates -- nay, censors -- free speech, and it seems to me, anyway, that this, too, is a good thing.

On a less formal basis, society censors itself every day by operating according to unwritten codes of conduct, such as how you conduct yourself in the office, in a meeting, at a funeral, at a performance, etc. And yet, democracy has not fallen by the wayside. It lives!

The protesters who are fussing that Internet was built on freedom (I thought it grew out of early efforts to foster communication within the military, scientific, and research communities) should take a deep breath and relax. Nothing that is being suggested will stop anyone who wants to say whatever they want from saying it. It just might stop you from posting wherever you want. And I would say your freedom to post ends at another person's freedom to run a site as he or she sees fit.

At the end of the day, the people who run these discussion forums, blogs, and chat rooms are the ones who are responsible for what happens on their pages. Some of them are saying, "We don't want a certain level of discourse on our sites," and they are willing to agree on certain rules, and even a labeling of their sites so anyone who comes will know what to expect. If that's censorship, so be it. The people who follow these guidelines will do so because they want to, not because anyone is forcing them to. We live with, and each practice, various forms of censorship every day, whether it's allowing or not allowing people to express certain opinions or listen to certain music in our homes, cars, or presence, or blocking our exposure to things we don't want to know about, hear about, see, or be bothered with.

People who think these rules are a bunch of hooey, unnecessary, or even dangerous are free to run their sites as they please, and to post in like-minded sites that welcome their comments and mode of expression. Most site traffic is self-selecting anyhow. People who like shock-jock commentary aren't going to spend much time chatting congenially at a tea party.

The one thing I have mixed feelings about is anonymous posting. On the one hand, whistle-blowers, people who are being persecuted for political and religious beliefs, even people who might be afraid for their jobs or retaliation for speaking up certainly have a need for anonymous posting. On the other, anonymous posting is the most abused capability on the Internet today. I would suggest people who are concerned about the latter might want to allow anonymous posting, but just be more diligent in policing their site. If the function is being abused, they can always delete the comments or block the source.

If some sectors of the online community want to band together and agree on some rules of conduct, well, why can't they? If you don't like the idea, hang out in your corner of the Internet. But remember, all wild and woolly territories seem to get tamed at some point -- and it's usually when things get out of control or most of the inhabitants don't feel safe.

Do you feel threatened by the idea of a code of conduct? If you think it undermines the defining principals of the Internet or hurts the Internet community in some way, explain why. Are freedom of speech and calls for civil discourse diametrically opposed? What do you think?

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