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Free speech and the Internet

By Scott Tibbs, August 17, 2011

Should people be allowed to make death threats in the comments on Facebook fan pages? That's the question WebProNews asked last week when extremists were saying members of American Atheists should be killed for opposing display of the "Ground Zero Cross" in a museum.

It is true that the threats didn't target a specific person, though staff and volunteers of AA would be right to be concerned about their safety. Whether these threats crossed a legal line and can be prosecuted isn't a question I can answer.

As far as whether the comments should stay on Facebook, the answer is no. It is likely that Fox News staff were working to delete the comments on the fan page, and if they didn't Facebook would be well within their rights to remove the content. The primary responsibility for removing such content, however, rests with the fan page administrator. With the huge number of people on Facebook, they can't be expected to police the comments on every fan page.

Facebook is not under a legal obligation to remove offensive posts and is not legally liable for those posts, because federal law is clear that interactive content providers are not responsible for what is posted on their sites. Depending on how the Terms of Service are written, I could see how an interactive content provider can be sued for breach of contract for not deleting offensive posts, especially on a site with paid subscriptions.

However, interactive content providers should take down offensive content on their own. Fox News was right to remove the death threats from their Facebook fan page. While free-flowing and often heated debate is important and healthy, moderators and administrators should have a set of guidelines - whether it be for a blog, a forum, or a Facebook fan page. For comments on ConservaTibbs.com, I have a few rules, including no obscenity. Different administrators have different ideas about what should be permitted, but there should be boundaries.

It was interesting that anonymity was brought up in this discussion. After all, the comments that were captured and posted to WebProNews and the AA site had a first and last name attached to them. I see no reason to believe that those are not the commenters' real names. But there's no question that (recognizing that politics has always been a blood sport) anonymity has greatly coarsened political discourse in this nation.

The bottom line is that a forum, blog comment section or Facebook fan page is only as good as the moderators and administrators maintaining it. If the moderators and administrators set no rules - or worse, if they are trolls themselves - legitimate discussion of issues and events is impossible.