At Menzies House, Tim Andrews argues that "we should have public debate free from fear of attack, and free from fear of retaliation." According to Andrews, it’s not acceptable for activists to try to influence a media outlet’s editorial policy by targeting its advertisers. And it’s cowardly for blogs like Larvatus Prodeo to withdraw support for On Line Opinion’s publisher Graham Young when he’s under attack — or at least, that’s Andrews’ opinion.
Recently Graham Young’s On Line Opinion and its partner blogs lost a large chunk their advertising revenue after a gay reader complained to OLO’s advertisers. Gregory Storer complained about disrespectful and hateful comments published in response to an article by Bill Muehlenberg. Not satisfied with Young’s response, Storer contacted OLO’s advertisers and sponsors.
Two of Young’s partner blogs — Larvatus Prodeo and Club Troppo — withdrew after Christopher Pearson wrote about the incident in a column for the Australian. According to Andrews, "LP had the choice to stand up for freedom of speech" but "chose not to."
What’s interesting about Andrews’ argument is what it implies about freedom of speech. Some libertarians say that protecting freedom of speech is about limiting the power of government. As long as government doesn’t pass laws that prevent people from publishing information and expressing opinion, speech is free. But Andrews goes further. By insisting that public debate must be "free from fear of attack, and free from fear of retaliation" he acknowledges that freedom of speech relies on social norms as well as the absence of coercive legislation. Tim believes that we all have an obligation to promote freedom of speech.
Obviously free speech doesn’t exist in a society where people who express unpopular opinions are murdered or physically attacked. Governments can protect free speech by preventing such crimes but civil society also has a role. Religious and community leaders can make it clear they do not condone violence and citizens can encourage each other to seek non-violent ways of dealing with disputes. And because even the fear of attack is enough to stifle free speech, it’s important to moderate the language we use when we speak out against opponents.
Andrews’ complaints against LP show that he wants to go beyond this. When he insists that participants in debate must be "free from fear of attack, and free from fear of retaliation" he’s referring to the kind of attack OLO suffered in response to complaints about the way it managed the Muehlenberg comments thread. The injury OLO suffered was financial.
Most libertarians would insist that advertisers are not obliged to act against their own financial interests. If they believe that advertising in a particular publication is damaging their brand, they’re entitled to pull their ads. Most libertarians would regard this as an example of freedom of speech — a person or business’ right to advertise where and when they choose. In the case of public companies the argument is even stronger — managers have an obligation not to undermine shareholder value.
But perhaps Andrews’ moral disapproval is directed against the people who complained to the advertisers rather than the advertisers themselves. But surely providing advertisers with information about what people are saying on a comments thread also a form of free speech. It’s certainly a form of speech Bill Muehlenberg approves of. When the Ten network pulled Big Brother off the air he urged readers to target advertisers to prevent the networks from running similarly offensive programs in future:
In the past, boycotts of offensive shows have proven to be effective. Targeting the advertisers of sleazy shows has cut the number of sponsors, and with it, advertising revenue. A number of shows have been pulled off the air over the years using this technique.
Undoubtedly it will need to be used again.
It’s worth remembering why On Line Opinion’s founder Graham Young created the site. As Graham explains in a post on Ambit Gambit, Online Opinion emerged from the debate over Pauline Hanson and One Nation. Young believed that Hanson and her supporters were being unfairly silenced:
… the problem was that people refused to engage with people with whom they disagreed, and worse, denigrated them and denied them the right to hold their opinions. With the cultural megaphones of broadcast and print media in the hands of the elites this created enormous tension which erupted in One Nation. (As a result of the One Nation phenomenon and the movement it forced in public discourse, one can now see similar tensions building up on the left).
On Line Opinion was an attempt to level the playing field, at least in one corner. Our underlying proposition has always been that no matter how wrong it might be, you are entitled to hold a particular opinion, and to personal respect, even if the opinion might be seen by many as objectionable.
The idea of personal respect is important because it points towards an understanding of what free and open public debate requires. When debating with people whose views you don’t share, you have an obligation to treat them with respect and take their opinion seriously. It means not calling them liars, insisting that their views are the result of a hatred or a mental disorder or accusing them of holding views they have never expressed.
But some of these comments on the Muehlenberg thread weren’t attempts to discuss or debate the issues, they were statements of contempt and disgust. Some commenters conflated homosexuality with child sexual abuse, others suggested that the arguments put forward by gay and lesbian were the result of mental illness, while others accused homosexual commenters of being filled with hatred and deliberately setting out to destroy the institution of marriage.
When comments threads turn toxic it’s impossible to have a reasoned debate. And creating a climate where reasoned debate is possible is one of the reasons blogs moderate their comments threads. For example, Menzies House has a comments policy that does not tolerate discrimination including racism and homophobia. Menzies House’s editors reserve the right to delete homophobic comments or, indeed, any comment that they "deem inappropriate for Menzies House". LP has a similar approach. According to a recent statement: "LP takes a strong stand against the vilification of people based on sexual preference, and does not condone homophobic speech under any circumstances."
One of the reasons behind the split with On Line Opinion is a disagreement about a moderator’s obligation to discourage commenters from crossing the boundary between debate and abuse. LP, like Menzies House, draws a line at homophobic comments. The debate over the Muehlenberg thread shows that bloggers at LP have a different understanding about what standards should be applied and how they should be interpreted. Given this difference of opinion, it seems reasonable for them to go their own way.
Tim Andrews claims that the LP bloggers acted with "disgraceful cowardice". Since bloggers at Troppo (me included) also decided to sever the connection with On Line Opinion his criticism extends to us as well. Andrews is entitled to his opinion but I don’t think he’s given anybody else a reason to share it.