Who’s responsible for keeping speech free?

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.

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zoot
zoot
10 years ago

Ah yes, “take no prisoners timmeh” and his glass jaw. What a butt munch.
But to stray back on topic – nice post Don. It explores the shades of grey so often dismissed in the black and white world of some bloggers.

Ben Acel
Ben Acel
10 years ago

I’ve just read this from the examiner. Righthaven now is the biggest threat to free speech and the 1st amendment of the US Constitution. They get people to circulate images onto blogs that speak their minds across the country then they get the copyright on the content they on purposely shared then they sue them for copyright infringement and attempt to seize free speech advocates domains. Also there’s political ties to Righthaven if you dom a lot of research.

Righthaven is attacking peoples Free Speech

http://www.examiner.com/conservative-in-san-francisco/bloggers-beware-of-righthaven-llc-federal-courts-used-to-shut-down-blogs

Also check this link out as well as it gives good details about the lawsuit:

http://www.p2pnet.net/story/48660

You need to get the word out on your blog that free speech is in danger because of Righthaven using Federal Courts to seize domains away from fair use and free speech bloggers.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
10 years ago

Good post, Don. The OLO kerfuffle does not raise any fundamental freedom of speech issues from a libertarian perspective.

The ‘correct’ libertarian/liberal view is that while it is not for the state to decide who should speak, this does not mean that this political position should apply all the way down to all other social institutions. Each organisation will have its own informal and/or formal speech rules, given its purposes and views.

paul walter
paul walter
10 years ago

Ha, ha.
Don would remember the flame wars between the extreme Blair and Margo Kingston’s troops during the gun days of “Web Diary”.
Don, you’d have to say that by any measure, Blair was extreme and deliberately so and consequently never got his audience to levels he might have had, alienating as many middle of the road types as he did. My recent visit to Cattalaxy, once I site I also avoided like the plague, showed how much things have mellowed out.

paul walter
paul walter
10 years ago

Having re read Don’s article, I’d say I am further from his conclusions now than afer a first quick skim, earlier.
I agree with Don that “hate speech” actually exists, but beleive that it must be blatant and involve the concept of “incitement”.
Is there a final, written in stone definition of hate speech, authenticates by a final source (eg, god almighty)?
How does Young not see the hate speech others think they have detected? Because its not there or because he’s being perverse?
Like wise his opponments.
Who is right, who is wrong?
Am not sure, given my own experiences with LP, that they are more competent at identifying *genuine* hate speech, than most others.
The more idiotic comments at OLO undid themselves, thru various abuses of syllogism and logic and repetitions of fallacy, that obviated the need for anyone to jump to censoring them out. Young has said some of the rougher stuff, including the hellfire harry nonsenses, were deleted.
Maybee Youngs opponents have been right to ( attempt to ) ruin him, but should they make an error of their own the future, they won’t be surprised if none does any better than laugh at them in their distress. Iknow if they are down I wont especially care- these are the people who have validated the sort of perverse employ of censorship as featured with the Australian’s editor Chris Mitchell, in his mischeivous removal of relevant news from his newspaper.
The petulance of the grizzlers actually is threat therefore to others freedom, including my own.
But let’s not, ever, “see the forest for the trees”, eh?
Even should this interruptthe self indulgent Sarah Bernhardting.

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