A Tough Decision

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Over the past two weeks, Team BIO has wrestled with a commenter whose responses to posts became increasingly personal and viscous. After receiving several complaints, the team discussed the best way to respond.

Some supported banishment because her screeds were virulently personal and hate-filled. They argued that she contributed nothing to informed debate and was grossly unfair and hurtful to those she attacked. They had no problem with her content, only with the way she delivered it.

The opposite opinion – one that I personally championed – was to let her rave. I strongly believe that censoring someone – no matter how vile their comments – isn’t what free speech is about. For me, the true measure of a democracy is how it treats its most odious dissenters. Whether you’re liberal, conservative, communist, or fascist, I believe you have a right to be heard.

But that’s a starkly black and white viewpoint – one where censorship is either wholly right or wholly wrong. It doesn’t account for the very real damage hate speech has. Hate speech can lead to violent confrontation. It can wound a person so deeply that it can have far-reaching consequences. And, it’s just plain wrong.

In BIO’s case, the damage was quite real. Two of our most valued diarists decided to leave because they could no longer tolerate her attacks. Others considered doing the same. We warned her to abide by our terms of use – and she did for a few days. But soon, the attacks resumed and became even more vehement. So we reluctantly banned her from BIO – something that has only happened three times before and only after repeated warnings each time.

Though I finally supported banning her, I was uncomfortable about it. Maybe that’s a good thing. If it becomes too easy, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of doing it as a knee-jerk reaction to anything we don’t want to hear. I’m confident that’s not the case here, but it did make me think about the validity of my position.

I still believe that total free speech is an admirable goal and I’ll continue to fight for it as forcefully and often as I can. However, I also have to keep in mind that free speech comes with responsibilities. The Supreme Court describes this as the right to say anything you want, but not to yell fire in a crowded theatre. To put it in the context of this situation, it’s the right to say anything you want, so long as your right to say it doesn’t impinge on someone else’s right not to be harassed. BIO never asked her to curtail her opinions, we only asked her to yell fire a little softer.

Was this censorship?

One of the definitions of censorship is to supervise the manners or morality of others. So in the strictest sense of the word, I suppose it is. However, part of that supervision requires an examination our own manners and morality.

This was clearly a case of someone whose manners would throw Dear Abby into a fatal swoon. Those poor manners directly damaged the BIO family by depriving it of the open and thoughtful discourse of others. Although not easy for me, I think the most moral choice we could make is the one we did make. We acted to protect guests who fulfill their responsibilities under free speech – to be civil. We acted against the person who chose to ignore her responsibilities. She yelled fire – or more precisely, repeatedly yelled fire – so we asked her to leave. I can’t say I like that decision, but I also believe she brought the problem on herself.

And you know what? I’m OK with that.

Give Us Some Choice Words