Recently a blogger left a comment on my post A grumpy guide to blogging etiquette regarding my statement that if someone leaves a comment on your post that disturbs you, you should go right ahead and delete it. This blogger said that deleting comments that went against your point of view was censorship. That’s not the first time I’ve come across the freedom of speech idea being applied to blog commenting, so I thought it would be worth exploring.
What is censorship?
The Google Dictionary definition of censorship is “the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.” Wikipedia identifies several potential rationales for censorship: moral, military, political, religious, and corporate.
Civil liberties groups tend to be strong defenders of free speech, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) writes that:
“Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.”
Most free democracies have some version of a right to free speech. I think this is sometimes misinterpreted as a freedom to say whatever one wants, wherever, whenever, or however one wants to say it, which is simply not the case. In the U.S., the First Amendment prohibits censorship by government, but this doesn’t apply to private companies or citizens. That means from a Constitutional perspective, the argument that moderating blog comments is censorship is really a moot point.
Your blog is your property
One analogy I can think of is that your blog is your house and the land it sits on. You can put signs up wherever you’d like on your property with whatever message you’d like, as long as it doesn’t contravene any laws. Your neighbour is free to put up signs on their own lawn criticizing yours, but they have no right to come onto your property and erect their own signs.
The person who commented on my etiquette post argued that it’s cowardly to put up a public post and not allow all comments, but like the property example, you’re not preventing other people from commenting on their own space They can rant ’til the cows come home about your post, as long as they do it on their own blog. You’re just saying they can’t comment on yours, and they don’t in any way, shape, or form have the right to unfettered access to your own property. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some overlap between the type of people who argue that removing comments is censorship and the type of people who would be inclined to tell you to get off their property or they’ll go get their shotgun.
Media outlets and censorship
Even major media outlets have no obligation to publish any and all comments they receive, however they receive them. Social media platforms are also under no obligation to allow users to post anything they want. I’ve seen accusations of censorship aimed at social media for taking down images related to self-harm, but as private companies, social media platform are able to restrict the type of content they allow on their sites. Whether that’s socially palatable or not is a separate issue.
Facebook has been quite outspoken in defending their choice not to restrict what users can post; this goes so far as allowing attempts at election interference. The ACLU defends Facebook’s stance, arguing that the government definitely shouldn’t have the power to separate fact from faction, and Facebook probably wouldn’t do much better:
There is no question that giving the government the power to separate truth from fiction and to censor speech on that basis would be dangerous. If you need confirmation, look no further than President Trump’s preposterous co-optation of the term “fake news.” A private company may not do much better, even if it’s not technically bound by the First Amendment to refrain from censorship.
For a closer look at Facebook and fake news, The Great Hack on Netflix is a fascinating (though disturbing) documentary.
One area where censorship can be an issue in blogging is through copyright abuse. In 2013, WordPress published a blog post about its attempts to fight back against the misuse and malicious use of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a piece of legislation in the United States. If a copyright holder files a complaint through the DMCA, WordPress essentially has to take down the material associated with the alleged infringement, or they risk being legally liable.
Your blog, your call
All said, I suspect that it’s not the people in the mental health blogging community who feel they have a right to trample over other blogs and bloggers. Our blogs are our own spaces, and we can run them in the manner we see fit. My message from my original post remains – if a comment disturbs you, delete it without hesitation. It’s not worth sacrificing your own mental wellbeing for some blowhard looking for an outlet.