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There’s always something to howl about

Want to make sure you can defend yourself from internet bad guys? Aim for the body, not the head . . .

This is Tim O’Reilly on the Kathy Sierra persecution:

There’s an attitude among many bloggers that deleting inflammatory comments is censorship. I think that needs to change. I’m not suggesting that every blog will want to delete such comments, but I am suggesting that blogs that do want to keep the level of dialog at a higher level not be censured for doing so.

I’m not crazy about some kind of quasi-official clean comments pledge, presumably accompanied by a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The more webloggers look like Babbitts, the less I like them.

However: Policing comments in your own weblog is not censorship.

With the bogus legal standard, “Shouting fire in a crowded theater,” Oliver Wendell Holmes did incredible violence to two fundamental American liberties — the right of free speech and the right to private property.

You have every right to free speech at your own expense on your own property or on public property. Holmes invented his specious standard to outlaw activities that should have been — and since have been — upheld as constitutionally protected speech. Not surprisingly, the perverse standard he proposed is used ubiquitously by thoughtless people to justify all manner of suppression of private property rights.

The owner of a theater has every right to shout, “Fire!” on his own property. He has every right to host a “Shout Fire!” party on his own property. If someone is injured in consequence, he’s subject to lawsuit — but none of this has anything to do with free speech. It would make no difference if the exhortation had been, “Excelsior!”

But: You do not have the right to free speech at someone else’s expense or on someone else’s property. The issue in that circumstance is not the speaker’s right to self-expression but the property owner’s right to condition his hospitality on the behavior of his guests. You do not have the right to shout, “Fire!” in the theater because you are a guest of the owner, not because your right to free speech is being suppressed.

In other words, if someone is acting like a jackass in your living room — or in your theater — you have every right to throw the bum off your property. Does he have the lawful right to be a jackass. Absolutely — on his own property, on public property, or on the private property of someone else who does not object to the behavior. But he has no right to abuse your hospitality against your will. Your property is yours to do with — and to make available to others — as you choose.

The exact same principles apply to a weblog or internet forum. Excluding bad behavior is not censorship of that behavior, it is the proper and perfectly just expression of the property owner’s right to extend or withhold his hospitality as he chooses.

This particular case is exacerbated because the hostile and threatening comments were originating on another weblog. I can police my own comments, and a coalition of Babbitts can agree to some arbitrary standard of comment policing. But none of us can rightfully impose a standard of comment policing upon third parties. That would be censorship, the use of force or the threat of force to prevent people from behaving as they choose, either on public property or on private property where the owner does not object.

Kathy Sierra’s particular complaints are probably civil torts and possibly even criminal offenses. The problem is that the offenders are anonymous posters, so she doesn’t know who to bring lawsuits or charges against. The owners of the weblogs hosting the comments are morally if not legally culpable, but you can bet they will fall back to the idiot rationale that inhibiting their jackass guests is “censorship.”

The Babbitts will do what they do, and as long as it doesn’t turn into legislation, I don’t care. Freedom — liberty — means freedom from other people. While it were well to be free from particular bad guys with particular bad designs, it is almost always better to be free from the whole gang of everybody — in the form of the Nanny State — bearing down on all of us with all of its merciful firepower. Crime is bad. Government is almost always worse.

I do feel for Kathy Sierra, and I wish her peace and solace. My own experience is that anonymous internet snipers are cowards to a man in the real world. But if she and the Babbitts really want to do something to find peace of mind, they would probably better off investing their time in martial arts, self-defense and firearms training. I doubt anything will happen, but if a war of words does turn into a war of weapons, it’s good to know where to aim…
 


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  • 6 comments

    6 Comments so far

    1. Todd Carpenter March 31st, 2007 8:10 pm

      Interestingly enough, the main straem media polices comments every day. If the New York Times printes every letter to the editor they received, they’d have to triple the size of their paper.

      This is not censorship, it’s editorial prerogative. The abusive commenter could excersize the same power by starting their own blog.

    2. Galen April 2nd, 2007 10:33 am

      Whatever your take on trolls (my take: don’t feed them even by deleting their comments), Creating Passionate Users is one of the best written, least fluffy blogs out there. It’s definitely worth poking through some of the older posts if you have a chance.

    3. [...] No one has a right to free speech on another person’s property. Zillow has decent rules on bad behavior, but, from a spot check I did this morning, they’re not being enforced. This again is a curse of a forum as opposed to a more-proprietary kind of salon: The ratio of crooks to cops can be unworkably high. If the discussions on Zillow were broken up in weblogs, then each weblog “owner” could establish his or her own tolerance levels — just as I do here. [...]

    4. [...] Greg Swann presents Want to make sure you can defend yourself from internet bad guys? Aim for the body, not the head . . . [...]

    5. [...] I think I’ve probably told you this before, but I have a great respect for you, Dave. I’ve always found you to be open minded, and I don’t think you are one to be swayed by what one might call political considerations — looking good (or bad) in someone else’s eyes. I don’t think this was intended to be a softball question, but, who, practically speaking, tolerates intolerable behavior on his or her own property? [...]

    6. [...] But wait! “Good fences make good neighbors!” We have now sunk to the level of the hack newspaper columnist, cribbing from Bartlett’s to sweat out another inane screed. But what’s interesting is that Frost puts the lie to everything Inman didn’t quite say: Walls and fences need not exclude. Instead they can establish the political, moral and psychological boundaries that make true social concourse possible. In the context of weblogging, the only people who complain about “censorship” on private property are the ones who intend to abuse the hospitality of their host. I’d write about that — except I already have. [...]