About the Author
Opinion Archives
E-mail Scott
Scott's Links

The limits of free speech on the Internet

By Scott Tibbs, July 24, 2012

There was some really pathetic whining on HeraldTimesOnline last week, as someone complained that "rights" were being "taken away" after HTO moderators started wildly swinging their Delete Stick in the comments thread for a story about a man behaving in a sexually inappropriate manner in public. By Tuesday morning, 13 of 33 comments on that story had been deleted, including seven in a row.

I did not see the deleted comments but from the context of the story I assume that they were vulgar, crude and/or sexually explicit. I have been very critical of the Herald-Times' comment policy, especially regarding their petulant refusal to enforce the Terms of Service that their paying customers expect to see govern the content of HTO comments. However, they are completely right to zap vulgar and crude comments from the comment section, and suspend or even permanently ban posters who step over the line.

On a side note, what exactly does the Herald-Times expect to happen when there is a story about a man masturbating in public? They are inviting trolls to post vulgar and crude things in the comments. Stories in the Homes section do not have comments, so it is logical that the H-T would be able to disable comments for stories like this one. The Indiana Daily Student already disables comments on certain sensitive topics. The HTO moderators could easily save themselves a lot of annoyance and work by simply not allowing comments at all on stories like this. It is not as if there will be a stimulating intellectual discussion in the comments for a story like this.

As to the whining about "free speech" rights, no one has a right to use private property that belongs to someone else. Comments on someone else's website are ultimately governed by the terms established by the administrator of that site. This is true whether it be HTO, comment sections for a blog, a discussion forum or any number of social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. The website owner has every right to delete content or even ban people from posting for any reason or no reason at all.

Again, HTO is somewhat different because posters enter into a business arrangement in order to post, so the expectation that the Herald-Times would actually enforce their terms of service by deleting posts that violate the TOS is higher than for comments on a random blog site or privately run discussion forum. But the H-T maintains that posting itself is a privilege, so the H-T can revoke that privilege at any time for any reason.

What free speech means is that government is prohibited from punishing you for your speech (within reason) or preventing you from speaking. Whoever posted the crude comments on HTO cannot be arrested and thrown into prison because someone was offended by the posts. No free speech rights have been violated, as people who have their posts deleted by the HTO moderators can continue to speak freely elsewhere, provided they are within the TOS agreement for the other sites where they post.