I’m running a weblog for my company and we have some people from the business community who are adding comments after our blog entries, which is great. Other people who we don’t know put in incorrect or off topic remarks and I want to just delete them, but I’m not sure whether that’s okay or not. Specifically, isn’t it censorship if I delete the remarks people leave on our site?
Let’s start by defining our terms. Here’s a simple definition of censorship for us to work with: “The practice of suppressing a text or part of a text that is considered objectionable according to certain standards.”
If you host a party at your office and someone comes in off the street, spouting obscenities and saying comments that are patently offensive to the rest of the participants, should you ask that person to leave? Of course you should. That’s because they’re violating the standards of behavior expected of people at a business party or other social event. Of course, those standards are going to vary based on the group too, so a clique of rough and tumble bikers or street gang members is going to have a very different set of behavioral standards than the symphony society tea, but in both cases, there is a definite expectation of acceptable behavior.
When we turn to the written word, be it online or physical documents, there are similar standards, similar expectations of behavior and discorse, and if those standards are violated, there’s no reason that those comments or letters should be published or retained.
Ah, but what about freedom of speech, which is defined as “the concept of the inherent human right to voice one’s opinion publicly without fear of censorship or punishment.” That’s critically important too, but there’s a contextual element to this freedom that is often forgotten. The Constitution actually says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” It’s about laws restricting this freedom, the amendment to the Constitution isn’t about the freedom to say anything at any time or place. That’s actually restricted by libel and slander laws, among other things.
Your weblog is a private publication, as is the Boulder Daily Camera, my hometown newspaper, and while it may serve the public good, there’s no law, no legal nor moral obligation that every terrible, crude, rude, offensive or hostile comment left need be retained.
It’s okay to delete comments that are in violation of your site’s standards of conduct, whether stated explicitly or not.
The Daily Camera has just such a standard of conduct defined too, summarized as “You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy.” Post something like that and odds are very good that it’ll be promptly deleted.
To learn more about how the paper applies this guideline, I asked online editor Jennifer Falor how they determine whether a given comment is over the line or not. Here’s what she said: “We don’t actively monitor the comments. Users flag comments they believe break the User Agreement and that sends an e-mail to city editor Matt Sebastian and I. We quickly look at the comment and then have to make a decision whether to delete it or not. Usually it’s cut and dry.”
That’s for the easy stuff. What about the less obvious comments that one person might find offensive but others might think is an important voice or perspective to hold in the debate? Jennifer: “Some comments are more difficult. Users post things that I personally believe are inappropriate, insensitive or disgusting. However, as long as they’re not explicitly breaking one of the rules, we really can’t justify deleting the comment.”
Finally, she’ll get opinions from other members of the Camera staff, and “if we both come to the same decision, it’s an easy call. If we don’t agree, we usually err on leaving the comment up.”
Is it censorship? Is the Daily Camera violating the constitutional freedoms of the online community by managing the comments left on the site and deleting those that are considered inappropriate or in violation of the user agreement? Jennifer explains “I do not believe that it’s censorship when we delete comments. We are a private business and can make decisions about what kinds of content we want displayed on our Web site.”
So there you have it. I manage the content on my weblogs closely to ensure that the discourse remains high quality, and with a different mechanism and are more careful approach, the Daily Camera does exactly the same thing. I suggest to you that it’s not only acceptable but critical that you do the same with the comments left on your company’s weblog too.