Bloggers Discuss ‘Free’ vs. Abusive Speech at Comments Sections

Although it goes without saying that Internet denizens of all colors, shapes, and sizes typify the concepts inherent in the First Amendment, conceivably nothing incites more ire from bloggers than out of control comments sections.

As this issue came to a head last month in the midst of the Kathy Sierra debacle – a computer programming instructor that ended up canceling speaking engagements due to death threats – a debate has ensued throughout the blogosphere concerning what should be done to increase civility without jeopardizing free speech. This has even gone so far to evoke discussions of creating a “bloggers code of conduct.”

In reality, comments sections can be so hostile that many bloggers debate the pluses and minuses of having them at all. Law professor Ann Althouse posted a deliciously comic view on this issue Saturday that is much like John Kerry’s position on funding the Iraq war (emphasis added): “As for me and blog comments, I was against them before I was for them.”

For those interested, here’s a fabulous video of Althouse discussing this very matter at Dartmouth College on Thursday.

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds, who doesn’t have comments at his blog, shared this view Friday:

People just tend to get nasty on the Web; the subject at hand, whatever it happens to be, isn't so much a provocation as an opportunity.

Making Light’s Teresa Nielsen Hayden wrote the following on Tuesday (h/t Glenn Reynolds, emphasis added):

The problem isn’t commenter anonymity; it’s abusive behavior by anonymous or semi-anonymous commenters. Furthermore, the kind of jerks who post comments that need to be deleted will infallibly cry “censorship!” when it happens, no matter what O’Reilly and Wales say.

Anyone who’s read ML for more than a couple of months has watched this happen. Commenters who are smacked down for behaving like jerks are incapable of understanding (or refuse to admit) that it happened because they were rude, not because the rest of us can’t cope with their dazzlingly original opinions. It’s a standard piece of online behavior.

John Scalzi of Whatever fame wrote on April 10 (h/t Ann Althouse, emphasis added):

Indeed, the reason that we're now at a point where some self-appointed guardians of the discourse have decided it's necessary to tell the rest of us slobs how to talk to each other is that people apparently forgot they have the right on their own sites to tell obnoxious dickheads to shut the hell up. Honestly, I don't know what to say to that, other than I'm sorry that other people's muddled-headed conception of what "free speech" is has allowed obnoxious dickheads to run free in blogs, and allowed busybodies to wring their hands in the New York Times about how mean the blogosphere is. It's idiotic.

What the blog world needs is not a universal "Code of Conduct"; what it needs is for people to remind themselves that deleting comments from obnoxious dickheads is a good thing. It's simple: if someone's an obnoxious dickhead, then pop! goes their comment. You don't even have to explain why, although it is always fun to do so. The commenter will either learn to abide by your rules, or they will go away. Either way, your problem is solved. You don't need community policing or a code of conduct to make it happen. You just do it.

Hayden marvelously concluded her piece on this issue (emphasis added):

Anonymous nastiness is easy to write, and will always find an appreciative audience. I don’t care. It’s not a manifestation of the free and open discourse of the internet; it’s a thing that destroys that discourse. To be specific, it’s the same old trashmouthed bullying we all know from junior high and high school. Putting it on the net doesn’t cause it to develop any novel complexities or interesting emergent behaviors. It’s just the same old sh*t.

If you have a weblog or live journal, or you administer a website that has comment threads, stand up for yourself and your readers. The jerks are never going to like you, or praise you, or admit that you’re doing the right thing. And if you’re waiting for someone to give you permission to suppress and thereafter ignore malfeasants, you have it right now. If you want, I’ll make up a certificate. Go forth and civilize.

Nicely said, Teresa.

In reality, this issue is multi-faceted, and has no easy answers. As NewsBusters has its share of flame wars, I'm sure there are times when "management" wonder why they added comments sections to this blog.

For myself, I have found discussions with NB members to be a delightfully surprising addition to the blogging experience. I have gotten a lot of writing ideas from folks in the comments sections, and have absolutely enjoyed the largely ungoverned give-and-take that occurs.

Of course, like any blog, we have our controversial figures that step over the line once too often needing to be shown the door so to speak. Though this might not happen as often or as expeditiously as some would like, I actually find it rather refreshing that such a member has to really be belligerent to meet with such a fate.

As a whole, I think the moderators here have done an outstanding job dealing with this issue. Are we perfect? Certainly not. However, as it is our ambition to encourage participation and membership by folks on the opposite side of the aisle -- a commendable goal that few political websites honestly strive for mind you -- we have a difficult balancing act to navigate.

On the one hand, we don't want just conservative members. What's the fun in that?

On the other hand, as this is a conservative website, we certainly don't want such members to be offended by comments emanating not only from a clearly disparate point of view, but containing a debasing, condescending tone that is intended to insult rather than inform.

This has been particularly dicey with spouses and family members of folks serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. As discussions here about the war can become particularly passionate, some military family members wonder how we allow anti-war sentiments to be posted when they have the appearance of being disrespectful to those serving.

I have actually had numerous e-mail and private message discussions with such family members assuring them that we are tremendously sensitive and understanding of their position, and that such comments are being closely scrutinized. At the same point, if we banned every member that posted a comment that someone found offensive, I daresay that even I would be tossed.

In the end, there is no perfect solution. All we, or any blog, can do is hope that the overwhelming majority of members agree with the censorship decisions being made, and try to miminize the number who don't.

Despite the obviously inherent and impeccable logic presented herein by yours truly, let the flame wars begin.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.