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Freedom of speech in forums

  1. Dec 3, 2011 #1

    disregardthat

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    What I'd like to discuss here is essentially: what are the limits of cencoring on internet forums?

    On one forum I have visited I encountered something strange, the forums admins have decided to block all threads about a particular individual well known to the forum community and outside of it, and give each user mentioning this individual a warning for bringing him up in a post. I strikes me as an excessive decision and possibly a too large restriction on the users in that particular forum.

    So my question is basically: what do you see as the limits of cencoring on internet forums? Are admins on any forum free to block any type of information they do not see fit? Are they juridically free to do so without limitation, and if so do you consider it fine to use their rights as owners of a forum in this way?

    It caught my attention because it was directed against a single individual who apparantly have caused a lot of distress to the forum itself and its members. This science forum will block all discussion regarding crackpot scientific theories and religious discussion, which I consider fine. One thing is to suspend a member and his alternate accounts, but to go as far as block all information regarding him as a private and public person seems to me too excessive considering that he is of general interest for the subject of the forum. Note that this individual have not engaged in any criminal activity which could possibly justify it as a decision.

    A comparable thing on this forum would perhaps to be to block all discussion of any kind regarding a particular relatively known scientist on this forum because of his behavior as a member even if it in other circumstances would have been considered fine.
     
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2011
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  3. Dec 3, 2011 #2

    phyzguy

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    If the forum is privately owned and you join of your own free will, then it seems to me that the owners can do whatever they please. If you don't like it, go join another forum.
     
  4. Dec 3, 2011 #3

    micromass

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    I think that legally forum owners can do everything they want to (as long as they don't violate things like copyright). A forum is privately owned, so freedom of speech does not come into the play.

    However, I would never want to be a member of a forum that censors people in such a way as you mention in your OP.
     
  5. Dec 3, 2011 #4

    disregardthat

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    I realize that freedom of speech as a right does not apply to forums in the same way it does to the press. But personally I find it absurd to decide such a thing knowing that the forum is a public arena for discussion.
     
  6. Dec 3, 2011 #5

    Evo

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    Sounds like a weird decision, but private forums can make any decisions on what can be discussed that they wish. If the person is a crackpot, I can see them being placed on a banned topics list.
     
  7. Dec 3, 2011 #6

    micromass

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    Yes, personally I find it absurd as well. But I don't think they're doing anything wrong legally. Then again, I'm no lawyer.
     
  8. Dec 3, 2011 #7

    Evo

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    Actually it is a private arena subject to the rules of the forum owner. The fact that it can be publicly viewed does not mean that rules don't apply for posting.
     
  9. Dec 3, 2011 #8
    I don't think there are any limits.

    I often see actions against forums that home marginalized groups (child porn etc) but I have never seen any action against censoring.
     
  10. Dec 3, 2011 #9

    disregardthat

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    I agree, I should probably have rephrased that. What I mean is that it is practically the main arena for discussion regarding the subject of the forum. And by limiting their members in this way will essentially block most information regarding the individual as a public person.

    To me controlling information in this fashion is a dangerous thing.
     
  11. Dec 3, 2011 #10

    D H

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    Others don't consider that to be fine. You should see some of the private messages I receive.


    The issue you raise is a fine line. Our official policy at this site is that something published in a peer-reviewed listed at Reuters-Thomson is OK. However, just as patent offices occasionally slip up and allow patents of perpetual motion machines, peer reviewed journals occasionally slip up and publish absolute nonsense. And later issue a retraction.

    Our unofficial policy is that our official policy is sometimes wrong. We do occasionally allow discussions of topics that have not yet made their way into peer-reviewed journals (e.g., the OPERA imbroglio), and we occasionally do reject nonsense that has been published in peer reviewed journals.


    We don't take departures from our official policy lightly. Were we to do so, we would give the appearance of being capricious or vindictive. Our users and our lurkers would abandon the site, revenues to the owner of the site would go down, dogs and cats would start living together. Mass hysteria!
     
  12. Dec 3, 2011 #11

    Pythagorean

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    There's complete freedom of speech on every Internet forum. Freedom of speech means you don't get killed or jailed for what you say. I don't know of any forums that execute/jail members for expressing their thoughts.
     
  13. Dec 3, 2011 #12

    Vanadium 50

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    I would argue that freedom of the press is closer to the situation in internet forums - it's written, not spoken, and it persists across time. The courts have held time and again that freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns the press. In our case, that's Greg.
     
  14. Dec 3, 2011 #13
    No. Rounding up and destroying all copies of a book or periodical would constitute a violation of freedom of speech regardless of whether the publisher were jailed or executed.
     
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2011
  15. Dec 3, 2011 #14

    D H

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    Freedom of speech is a stricture against governments, not individuals. A privately owned web site that wants to only allow discussions that are in favor of ≪name the topic≫: No problem. There's nothing wrong with a private website devoted to the proposition that the world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise banning users who raise the possibility of orbiting satellites or sailing around the world.
     
  16. Dec 3, 2011 #15
    Indeed, I once got banned from a paranormal website for trolling, though I was actually just trying to be funny. Those people are SO serious.
     
  17. Dec 3, 2011 #16

    cmb

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    I would suspect that the situation, particularly across international boundaries as the internet is so suited to do, is a legal tangle that will not be tested for many years to come.

    However, I also suspect that one day it will be tested in Court, and if the owners of a forum make it a 'public place' that anyone may have sight of, then their actions would almost certainly fall under public order offences, particularly in regards any 'disadvantaged' persons that, for example, may have recognised 'challenging' communication styles or psychological issues associated with their disability that the forum owner has failed to ask about, understand and take account of.

    In UK law, section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 makes it an offence to use 'threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour' or to display 'any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting' within the hearing or sight of a person 'likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby'.

    Therefore, if a person in the UK were to argue that the owners of a forum behaved in a manner that might be argued to, or actually did, amount to 'distress' then they would appear to have a case. They would probably also have a case against another member similarly, and then possibly against the forum owners too if they knowingly allowed one member to cause distress to another. I suspect there are equivalent harassment laws in most other civilised countries.

    Ultimately I think it would come down to whether a forum is regarded as a public place. Irrespective of who 'owns' a space, the nature of it being 'public' is a matter of who the owners allow into that space. That is to say; public order offences are not lessened simply because they occur on private property, but rather whether the public is permitted access. I reckon a Court would, these days, recognise the internet as being a 'public place'.

    There are then a series of harassment laws that apply to private communications, and it is irrespective of who 'owns' those communications but rather the nature of them. For example, the owners of a forum would be in contempt of Court if a complaint of harassment had been made and private messages were then, following that complaint, deleted because the forum owners felt they 'owned' the messages, then I think they would end up in a legal pickle.

    All this works both ways, of course, and a forum owner would, equally, be able to lodge criminal complaints against a 'member' who caused distress to them or to other members.

    Providing none of the above applies, freedom of speech is off the agenda, because it is not a publically-owned space. As such, if the forum owners wish to limit the topic under discussion, they have an absolute right. Even if they were to apply limits on what may be discussed for some, but have different limits for others, then I still do not see that there is a clear breach of criminal codes, though this might amount to discriminatory harassment in very particular circumstances, especially if the owners could be shown to be doing it knowing it was likely to cause distress.
     
  18. Dec 3, 2011 #17

    Evo

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    This forum requires registration and agreement to comply with the rules in order to be allowed to post. Not anyone can post.
     
  19. Dec 4, 2011 #18

    cmb

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    Not anyone can drive a car, and it requires registration and a legal requirement to comply with rules. However, driving a car on a road is still an activity subject to public order regulations.

    The public have access to this site. Therefore if anyone were to 'exercise their free speech' by, for example, saying something about anyone else, their conduct, opinion, character, &c., including a (non-member) 3rd party - e.g 'such-and-such's theory is the work of a buffoon'), that caused alarm or distress, I am confident the grounds of an offence would have been satisfied. Naturally, 'degree', 'intent' and 'public interest' would also fall into whether an offence would actually be prosecuted, but I would say any ad hominem comment that could cause distress is actually an offence, in UK law at least. (In this case, the intent for the term to be 'abusive' would be so shallow as to likely fail to reach any threshold of public interest to prosecute. However, if this person had been previously publically goaded with the term 'buffoon' repeatedly and the intent was abusive, then that would be a different case.)

    (The whole of public order offences is written in such a general and broad way that one might come to the cynical conclusion that it is there to catch anyone the authorities don't like!)

    If the expressed opinion was intended to be misleading, or wrong, then that could be libel.

    If what was said (related to a 3rd party, their conduct or opinion) was done by sending the expressed opinion by private message that was not generally accessible by everyone, then it would be a private opinion and not subject to public order requirements. (If the other party then publically released that opinion to expose the other, then that would be hearsay and inadmissible, unless the other party re-iterated the opinion in public then it would fall back under public order.)

    If a private message was sent in which the expressed opinion was likely to cause distress or alarm, to the other party of that message, then that might be harassment.

    To better ensure the site is not regarded as being subject to public order regulations would be to make any access to it subject to a sign-in process. Possibly, registration is not required but a tick-box legal statement that provides some form of legal caveat. However, this would likely cause problem for search engines, then.
     
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2011
  20. Dec 8, 2011 #19
    i'm relatively new here

    but from my experience here, my post had been deleted once, locked once, i can say that certain individual here is rather biased and close-minded
     
  21. Dec 8, 2011 #20

    micromass

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