28 March 2010 ~ 16 Comments

Does free speech apply to Online Communities?

The First Amendment does not cover burping.All Community Managers will have faced this statement at some point in their careers: “What about my free speech!”

One of the aspects of effective Community Management is user content moderation, ensuring that a clear code of conduct is adhered to to ensure the health of the group developing in your community. Of course, this means removing content which at times is skirting the edges of your guidelines, and this can result in unhappy participants claiming their right to free speech has been impinged upon.

Regardless of laws governing different countries, should we as Community Managers work on the principle that free speech is an absolute right within an online community? Or should we always endeavour to enforce a code of conduct?

The bottom line is this: As a human being, the participant has a basic right to express whatever they wish. However, this right is always framed within laws of acceptable behaviour when exerted in public, and rules imposed by the owner of the space when expresses privately.  An online community space is very rarely public (unless run by a government agency), which means that it cannot be compared to a nation-state and its participants to citizens.

To use an analogy, the communities I look after for a company I represent are an extension of our offices. We put on a little daily party, everyone is invited, but we set the basic rules. If we ask you to take your shoes off on the way in, you would as you wouldn’t get in otherwise. If we ask you to restrain from using certain types of language or discussing some topics, we can expect adherence to this rule as well if you want to stay at our party. The concept of “free speech” is null and void in the context of a private space.

Online or offline, same rules

If one of your participants suggests they have an unalienable right to express themselves online, you can agree with them and point them to free hosting and WordPress. They can be express themselves till they are blue in the face online, just not in your “house”. Those accusing you of censorship are a bit like those friends of friends who appear in your house, smoke in the kitchen, turn the music up a little bit too loud and suggest you should chill out when you challenge them. By allowing your boundaries to be tested and not reacting firmly, you run the risk of your community participants losing their respect in your code of conduct.

The participant is a guest in the host’s community; this invitation is extended subject to the host’s discretion at all times.

Similarly, walking into a cinema or bar automatically results in you giving up some of your freedom of expression. Any behaviour which the owner or manager deems socially unacceptable (beyond  legal obligations) such as talking too loudly, using profanities or aggressive behaviour will result in a warning and/or being ejected from the venue. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to spend time in such an environment, either by accepting to behave in line with the code of behaviour in place, or petitioning for a change in them. Otherwise, you’ll watch a film at home or throw a house party.

Protect your community at all cost

As a Community Manager, your role usually veers between anarchy and tyranny, usually settling on benevolent dictatorship most of the time as it’s virtually unheard of to manage to please everyone. Once you have put your code of conduct in place and publicised it, you can allow your community to get on with it, but must ensure you intervene when necessary to enforce your rules, fairly or course but firmly to maintain the direction you wish your community to take. Your Terms & Conditions will most like have a section like this:

We reserve the right delete any material posted by users in the community, or to restrict or terminate your access to all or any part of the site at any time in our sole discretion and without notice.

If you witness behaviour on the part of one or more participants which you feel is harming the health of your community, you have a duty to protect those who accept and post within your terms. Unless your rules are in fact overly restrictive and need reassessing, you must act swiftly and decisively in dealing with damaging behaviour. Above all, be fair, consistent and impartial in your actions.

It is common to be accused of being a Nazi dictator or likened to African despots when enforcing your community rules. This should not be taken as a sign of failure; in fact, it is a sign that you are ensuring your community maintains a standard of behaviour congruent with the type of user you want to attract.

Have you been accused of trampling all over someone’s right to free speech? How did you handle it? Or do you think the community should have full ownership of the code of conduct?

[photo by wfyurasko]

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  • http://www.sueontheweb.com/ Sue

    I've lost count of the times I've been called Hitler, etc etc. My response is that the community is there for the many, not the few who shout the loudest and try to drown out everyone else. I've found those type of people are usually the ones who break the community posting rules/posting guidelines, and then resort to the “free speech” line when they don't agree with the enforcement of those rules/guidelines. In the same way that if a person in pub exhibits inappropriate behaviour .. the pub landlord has the right to remove the person from the pub (and possibly ban him) in order that other patrons can enjoy their conversation, and their pint of beer, in peace.

  • RachelHappe

    This is a great topic but one of the key things that I think needs to be discussed along with this is the tone that is used to enforce the rules of the community. In my mind, it is the overwhelming differentiator between good and poor community management. Good community managers – while they still will not please 100% of people – rarely get a spiraling negative pile on that you see from those managers with a more heavy handed communication style.

  • http://blaisegv.com/ Blaise Grimes-Viort

    Thanks for your comment Sue!

    The pub analogy is definitely an old classic.

  • http://blaisegv.com/ Blaise Grimes-Viort

    Good point Rachel – definitely a topic worthy of further discussion.

  • LorraineSiew

    Well, that depends on the type of community you're in and the type of Page you're running.

    For instance, we run a Page for an athlete, and once in a while, when the athlete doesn't 'live up to expectations', we'd have some nutty fans come in an throw a few insults on the Wall, etc. Do we delete it? Hell yea. Even though the criticism may not be that 'harsh' and it may not contain vulgar language, we have to delete it in case the athlete sees it and may be affected. A few of those fans actually noticed that they were being censored and came back to post again and again, we simply banned them. Sorry, but its a fan club. Beat it.

    But if its a.. say, community site for sports enthusiasts, and they started a forum thread hating on some athlete, we'd let them. As long as they don't go too far and don't get too aggressive. Just like how we can start ridiculous groups and pages on FB (e.g. I slept with Tiger Woods too), its okay and i doubt facebook will ever delete those groups.

    “Protect your community at all cost” – thanks for the great post!

  • http://blaisegv.com/ Blaise Grimes-Viort

    I agree that different contexts require tailored codes of conduct – there is rarely a one-size-fits-all approach. I've worked with UGC centered around a “personality” and it very much depends on their sensitivity – some cannot tolerate negative comments, others are more easy going.

  • Greg Hollings

    I have to agree with Rachel’s comment on the tone of voice used by CM to manage a volatile thread. The situations community managers often find themselves in are not always black and white and so a flexible approach, whilst not undermining your core community principles, is one to bear in mind.

  • Greg Hollings

    I have to agree with Rachel’s comment on the tone of voice used by CM to manage a volatile thread. The situations community managers often find themselves in are not always black and white and so a flexible approach, whilst not undermining your core community principles, is one to bear in mind.

  • http://alisonmichalk.blogspot.com/ Alison Michalk

    Great post Blaise. Australia has no specific provision catering for freedom of speech (although freedom of speech relating to political discussion is *implied*), so in my case my role as Community Manager is made a little easier. Although I'm still often barraged with 'what about freedom of speech' comments! Clearly we watch too many international TV shows :P

    I agree with Sue too, the members most likely to use this line are often too vocal and a one-on-one dialogue to explain/resolve the issue is a good approach, which is also in keeping with Rachel's suggestion.

  • http://blaisegv.com/ Blaise Grimes-Viort

    Thanks for your comment Greg, and totally agree.

  • http://blaisegv.com/ Blaise Grimes-Viort

    Hi Alison!

    Same with the UK, but like you we get plenty of people conmfused about their whereabouts :)

  • jeffreythompson


    I couldn't agree more with your post!

    I manage several communities and often have to been on the receiving end of a member who was unhappy at the request to rephrase or edit their submitted posting.

    When I need to reach out to a member because of the content of their posting, I make it a point to accentuate the positive aspects and help guide them away from the negative. I have found it to be relatively successful, especially if it's dealing with a new voice within the community or a “lurker” who hasn't posted before.

    Great conversation!

  • Steven Hall

    I agree entirely with Sue. I am a mod on a big consumer site and we enforce the rules pretty stricktly. Habitual offenders are banned pretty quickly. The site has a job to do and we want 'the many', often vulnerable people, to benefit. Egos who can't see that have no place on the site IMO.

  • http://blaisegv.com/ Blaise Grimes-Viort

    Well said Steven.

  • http://www.seoconsult.co.uk Jack

    Hi Sue
    You have given a tremendous comment here.I agree you for.

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