Several times in the last few months, I’ve closed discussion on one of my blogs. Each time, some people have howled in outrage. Their anger makes them nearly inarticulate, but their position is apparently that I have no right to stop discussion. I am an enemy of free speech, they proclaim, a censor and cowardly, and downright evil as well.
I don’t see that, myself.
For one thing, free speech is not an absolute right, even if you believe that it should be. It is limited by laws against libel, hate-crimes, and terrorism, among others. Nor can you invoke free speech as a defense against mischief.
Admittedly, violations of these laws appear dozens of time each day on the Internet, and most of them are not prosecuted unless someone complains. Even in 2010, the Internet retains more of a frontier unruliness than other forms of media. But the point is that idea that free speech is unlimited is disproved with a moment’s thought.
Moreover, in each of these cases, some of these limits seemed to apply. Whether they actually would have been grounds for legal actions, I can’t say, of course. However, I think that erring on the side of caution is reasonable, especially since at least one determined commenter seems to have been required to close down his own blog.
At any rate, I have no desire to be involved, however indirectly, in a court action. And, in the case of one blog, I would be irresponsible if I exposed the company that owns the site to litigation. These motivations are not a matter of courage so much as caution. If I am going to be dragged into a legal action, it is going to be for something worth fighting for, and not because I provided a forum for the indiscreet and feckless.
However, my strongest motivation was that I simply lacked the time to either police my blog every half hour or to enter into discussions that were unfolding in which, so far as I can see, there was little to distinguish one set of claims from another.
I have been writing about free and open source software for five years now, and I have gained a limited amount of recognition. That recognition is not on the scale of a Linus Torvalds’ or a Richard Stallmans’, but it does mean that I get a lot of email and other contacts – so much that I can only answer some of it if I hope to get any writing done. Unless I am contacted by a friend or an unusually interesting stranger, I generally try to limit an exchange to a couple of communications.
I don’t always follow this rule strictly, but when someone is repetitive, abusive, and fails to address what I have to say, I am sure to apply it. By nature, I am easy-going and love to talk, but trying to hold a discussion with such people leaves a deadening feeling of futility. They are not going to sway me by bludgeoning tactics, and all too clearly, I am not going to convince them in a discussion. So why should I waste my time? A couple of exchanges is enough for them to have a say, and for me to know the type of people with whom I am dealing.
In other words, I choose to focus on the people who are interesting to have in a discussion, and/or can teach me something. So far as I’m concerned, declining to spend much time on the obsessive is not censorship, any more than refusing to publish bad writers in an anthology you are editing is censorship. It’s selection, plain and simple. i am hardly the only person I know who has to resort to this kind of selection in order to do what’s important to them, either.
Nor can I navigate the rights and wrongs of the feud that, in a couple of cases, is the reason for me shutting down comments. Both sides accuse the other of criminal behavior, and both sides claim to present evidence. However, all I can tell for sure is that I don’t want to be involved. Being hectored, abused, and threatened two or three times a day makes me even less likely to want to get involved; attempts to intimidate only make me stubborn, and, when people act like spammers, I treat them like spammers.
At any rate, to talk about censorship on the Internet is more of a rhetorical flourish than a reference to reality. If I refuse to post someone’s comments, that’s two out of – what? Several billion sites? If a commenter can’t find a place to publish what I won’t, they aren’t trying.
Under all these circumstances, you’ll excuse me if I find myself unmoved by the accusations when I close comments. I don’t do so quickly or easily, because I value freedom of expression myself. But I do so to create a space to work, and so I can focus on what’s important.
The peace of mind that results tells me, more than anything else, that I am doing the right thing.