In the last two days, I’ve observed three incidents of page administrators or blog owners who have needed to clarify what are appropriate comments or posts on their pages. It is interesting that two of them brought up the question of censorship. Apparently, this accusation was hurled at them by individuals whose posts were taken down. In one instance, the post was unrelated to the stated purpose of the blog and to the material in the particular post. This is an instance of “hi-jacking”, that is using someone’s site to promote an agenda other than the site owner’s or administrator’s. In another instance, it was because of the offensive language and personal attacks used by a person posting on the site.
The truth is that this would fall under some usages of the word censorship. Broadcast media will “bleep” profanity. Magazines will simply refuse to print letters or other content submitted to them that falls outside their editorial purposes. One might argue that there is an appropriate form of censorship that says no particular media outlet must publish or broadcast whatever a person wants to say using their free speech rights. I would argue that this extends to “new media” like blogs, Facebook pages and other interactive social media. Part of the “freedom of the press” of these outlets is to determine what they will and won’t publish. And those whose ideas are not accepted on certain blogs or pages are free to establish their own pages where they can freely express their ideas, and in turn determine what things fall outside the purpose of those pages.
Invidious censorship is different. It is the effort of an outside body, whether a group of citizens or a government agency that seeks to prevent the publication or suppress the expression of ideas considered objectionable. The American Library Association (as quoted on this PBS site) puts it well:
What Is Censorship? Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons — individuals, groups or government officials — find objectionable or dangerous. It is no more complicated than someone saying, “Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it!” Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone.
For the ALA, technically censorship means the “The Removal of material from open access by government authority.” The ALA also distinguishes various levels of incidents in respect to materials in a library which may or may not lead to censorship: Inquiry, Expression of Concern, Complaint, Attack, and Censorship.
What the page admins and blog owners I mentioned above were dealing with is simply bad manners. It is bad manners to “hi-jack” conversations to promote one’s own agenda. It is bad manners to engage in personal attacks. It is bad manners to use profanity or coarse language in mixed company, which is what the internet is. Most of the time, this behavior is simply the result of individuals known around the ‘net as “trolls”. But one of their tactics is to hurl the accusation of “censorship” as a cover for their own bad manners and inappropriate behavior. Blog owners and page administrators should have no qualms about removing content like this. Sadly, I’ve seen some groups that run amuck because absentee administrators refuse to step in.
So far, I’ve personally experienced relatively few instances of this behavior. Here are my own (still evolving) guidelines for dealing with it:
1. I won’t tolerate profanity or ad hominem attacks, either upon myself or others. Let’s disagree without demonizing or using degrading language!
2. I also won’t tolerate posting comments unrelated to a post, particularly self-promoting or commercial material, but also anything that “hi-jacks” the conversation.
3. I try not to include spoilers in my review of fiction. If you include spoilers in your comments, I will take them down. I still like you, but I don’t want to spoil the end for others.
4. When in doubt, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and try to respond graciously. If you are a real person (and not a commercial entity or a “bot”) and have taken the time to read what I write, I appreciate that and hope we can have a thoughtful conversation.
On my “About” page, I write, “We live in an amazingly diverse mosaic of peoples and ideas which can either be the source of endless conflict or the opportunity for rich engagement with one another across our differences in pursuing together goodness, truth, and beauty in our world. My hope is that this blog will contribute to the latter.” I hope you will hold me accountable to that standard in all I write on this blog, even as I hold others to this standard in their comments.
If you blog, or administer any pages, how do you approach “off topic” or otherwise inappropriate comments?