On July 31st, Ron Silliman announced that he had decided to terminate his Comment Stream (or comment box), including all the comments which had accumulated over the history of his Silliman's Blog postings, since its inception in August 2002, a total of eight years of archived data. Originally opened as an unmoderated comment box, Silliman eventually set it to moderation, following a weird spam incident in which someone dropped about 100 pointless comments which had no relation to poetry or the instigating post. His site has been relatively well-attended over the years, though there had been a perceptible fall-off in comment box postings over the last 18 months or so. Whether this was the result of Silliman's blocking more comments, or a simple decline in contributions, is of course unknown.
The internet, and blogging, are new technologies. There are few rules of the game, and those are intermittently enforced, for the most part. Copyright and content challenges are still rare, and the policing of content and behavior are mostly the responsibility of individual site "administrators" though these sites are technically the property of the host services which facilitate them, and are subject to various regulations, which may at any time be imposed.
At The Compass Rose we have received, to date, a single copyright complaint, but its originator (and the nature of the complaint) are difficult to determine, since the record clearing-house (Chilling Effects) employs a search engine which is ineffective. Because the number of such notices, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), is so great, only an automated filing and notification system can handle them. The net affect of this is that anyone seeking to silence or remove an item posted online, need only file a formal complaint through a legal entity, and this effectively stalemates the site, since the Blogger Sites don't have the means or opportunity to investigate or defend client users' interests.
From a legal point of view, a Comment Stream box feature is controlled by the site administrator, who holds exclusive rights to access, under the terms of the implied contractual agreement between the client site owner and the service provider. In this sense, Comment Boxes "belong" to the administrator, but that authority derives from the service provider, and each is subject in turn to regulations governing (community) standards of decency, copyright, permission, national security, and so forth. Blogging, like other online "publication," is subject to the rights of free speech as expressed in the U.S. Constitution, and the various State Constitutions. Any abridgment of free speech as practiced by an online "publication" could be tried in the same way such issues are handled in the other media organs (newspaper, periodical, radio, television, broadside, public speech). However, this right of free speech does not extend to proprietary, editorial censure, expurgation, censorship of various kinds. In other words, the right to censor or edit for content is generally reserved, except in the instance of selective quotation/misquotation, visual collaging, misleading representation, slander, false claims, etc. In general terms, any blog administrator can block a comment box submission without redress. Insofar as I am aware, blogger administrators don't have the right (or a way) to "edit" comment submissions, though they may delete them once they've been initially posted. Therefore, legally, there is no "free speech" claim against the moderation of commentary on blog sites.
Since the application of principle or doctrine by individual blog administrators is not dictated by law, there is no legal basis for attacking any blog administrator as a matter of policy or practice. There is no organization or custom or standard against which to measure the propriety of any act of censure of online comment submission. In other words, every blog administrator makes up his/her own rules, considering the guidelines under which his right of access is authorized by the service provider. Since the service provider is technically legally liable, as I explain above, comment box moderation falls within the same limits as outlined above. What this means in practical terms is that a site administrator can't get into trouble by censoring a comment (which never appears), but may be liable for a comment which is published. This would have the effect of dampening free speech where liability may be at issue, even by a "third party" such as a commenter, since the choice to "publish" is under the control of the site administrator. Administrators wary of actionable or questionable content submitted through the comment stream would, predictably, usually err on the side of caution.
The internet has enabled a whole new universe of communication--immediate, global, interactive--which is challenging the old communication and dissemination systems--telephonic communication, radio and television, newspapers and periodicals. One of its great advantages is the mutual colloquy of voices, a universal participation, around the clock, by which people everywhere, sharing the same language, can communicate about anything. This facility has enabled an unimaginably broad stream of interactivity, without obvious limits. The opportunity for discussion, comment, debate, dissemination of data and information appear almost limitless, obsoleting, for instance, mountains of old media reference material, and breaking up centers of authority and limited access. As information and opinion flows freely, barriers of all kinds are broken down. This opportunity tends towards openness, freedom and equality, and is one we should honor in the name of values of a free society. Though there are no laws that govern the value of access, per se, each one of us, each isolated "administrator" has a moral obligation to keep open the conduits of access. The same principles of freedom embodied in our laws, should be encouraged in the private sector, even when it may seem inconvenient, embarrassing, or counter-productive to do so.
In explaining his decision to close his comment boxes, and delete the large comment archive on his site, Silliman gave three specific reasons:
One) Some of the comment submitted to him for moderation has contained what he considers sexist, homophobic or anti-Semitic content. Having to confront this material offends his sensibilities, and has "inured" him to a "despicable level of chatter."
Two) Some of the comment submitted to him for moderation has "verbally attacked" the work of a handful of writers whom he has chosen to praise, and this has allegedly "discouraged" these writers from writing or otherwise pursuing tasks or activities associated with their writing.
Three) Some of the comment submitted to him for moderation really belongs on other blog sites, but is posted to his site because his offers a convenient "venue" for their submissions.
There are a number of fallacies regarding blogging which these pretexts reveal. One is the fallacy of the association of the comment with the purpose or personality of the administrator. If a site owner/administrator sets up a site designed to broadcast a certain controversial position, then the existence of a "comment box" implies that objections or disagreements will be entertained. But a system of comment administration which is not guided by principles of free debate flies in the face of the very principles which the internet has been invented to serve. We take pride in the idea that the internet is "opening up closed societies" (such as China), while condemning unreasonable kinds of censure in our midst. In reaching out to others across the world wide web, each of us is participating in a grand experiment in the breaking down of barriers. The kinds of standards which Silliman is implying in his decision to close down comment (responses) are based on private, even secret, criteria; secret and private because we don't know what's been censored; standards which include, apparently, fatigue, revulsion, and the interests or preferences of privileged individuals whose interests may be selfish, reactionary, limited, biased, or simply naive.
In a free society, the decision to attack or criticize is open to anyone, within the limits of free speech and the law. In an ideal circumstance, a free press has a precious tradition of the obligation to permit the free exchange and flow of different ideas and opinions. For the first time in history, the internet offers society, across the breadth of its interests, the possibility to expand and enhance its access to this free exchange and traffic. In practical terms, this has meant that this privilege will be subject to abuse. Users of the world wide web will address this issue in the same way it has been historically addressed by the free press media. Without formal instructions and guidelines maintained by service providers, site administrators must police these matters themselves.
I believe that site administrators have a duty to follow good principles of publication practice, the same kind of principles which news editors and publishers and events coordinators must follow. When Silliman began to publish partisan position papers on literature, he knew that there would be severe disagreement in the literary community, to some of his pronouncements. He knew that the comment box submissions would constitute a de facto forum for discussion, observation, and disagreement. In addition, he knew that there would be a fair dose of "spam"--the new brand of irresponsible, occasionally scattered or scatological, "junk mail" which has become common on the internet. Again, since we can't see what he's received, we have no way of verifying anything about what he's said about the amount, or the severity, of this kind of matter coming into his box. Should we take his word for it?
Silliman remarks, regarding the "fragile" sensibilities of his blog victims--Joseph Massey, Jessica Smith, and Barbara Jane Reyes--that "everyone has a right to feel exactly what they feel." This is of course a tautology which means exactly nothing, and is in no way a logical explanation of how a standard of courtesy or propriety might be deduced, which could be used to guide moderation; because "feelings" are neither sacred nor estimable. Silliman's own "feelings" could never form the basis of a theory or criteria for practice in moderation, so why should those of his subjects? Are we to accept a principle of "protected feelings" over the more precious, and valuable "protected speech"? Is anyone who criticizes the work of some writer whom Silliman values, by definition a "yahoo"? Isn't it just as likely that a yahoo is someone who believes that free speech is anything which he/she "feels" is fair or decent or proper or nice or irresistible?
End Part I