Sunday, January 24, 2010

Why We Censor Comments Only As A Last Resort

Some people may think that a few recent comments here on Blog-Lebo go too far and deserve to be “snipped.” I’d like to explain why Joe and I leave these comments alone, censoring only as a last resort.

Joe and I run Blog-Lebo in the hope that it will serve the public. We therefore feel obligated not to abuse our administrative powers to influence the direction of conversations that occur on our site. (If we have a view to advance, we’ll advance it with our words, just like everybody else.) Because administrative abuse can happen subtly, even subconsciously, the only sure way to prevent it is not to use our administrative powers.

Therefore, we resort to censorship only in extreme cases, lest we unfairly deny someone the opportunity to be heard. That means we must sometimes publish comments that offer more heat than light. When we do, we trust our readers to see those comments for what they are. We trust our readers to make up their own minds about what’s heat and what’s light.

Our readers, in turn, can trust us not to make up their minds for them.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder how this post would've been received if they had blogs?

"...different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony."

excerpt from:
Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death
Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775.

Dean Spahr

January 24, 2010 11:42 PM  
Anonymous David Brown said...

In case someone is wondering, Tom is referring to my post here. It's disappointing to see that Tom and Joe are content to let their garden grow wild. That would however explain the changing opinions about this site and the tarnish of late on its prestige.

Of course moderation is easy to abuse, and no one wants to be that guy! But there have to be standards. One bright line for me and most reasonable people is personal insults. Criticize or rebuke all you want as long as you do not cross that line. That is a bona fide extreme case and moderators are acting in the public good when they reject such comments. To the extent that might constitute censorship or influencing the direction of conversation, that harm is more than compensated by other benefits. It actually does the commenters a favor, too, though it may not seem so to them at the time. But rewritten in a cooler frame of mind, their words will be much more effective.

But it's all a lot more work, and even worse, they have to deal with irate emails from time to time, or maybe all the time, and who has time for that? So they punt, but then weeds grow in the cracks and after a while it all starts to look pretty shabby.

So instead I will reach out again to my fellow commenters: for the benefit of your own goals and values, and of Blog Lebo and Mt. Lebanon as a whole, please exercise self-restraint. Low tactics not only damage our society, they are counter-productive. They diminish otherwise valid points. If I see someone employ cheap shots, I take that as an admission that they themselves believe their own arguments are weak. Patrick Henry understood this and in his speech will you find only facts and reasoning. Most importantly, he began his speech with the following “No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House.” If he had thought speaking freely and without reserve meant he could call his fellow delegates clowns or dolts we might still be saluting the Union Jack.

Also, I feel the need to remind that our opponents in these debates here are not King George, they are our neighbors, who are also patriotic and who also revere the founding fathers. As important as the spending on the school may be, or other local issues about which we will soon all care just as deeply, it certainly does not rise to the level of oppression and revolution. To conflate such things is a failure of perspective.

Unless you really are oppressed. If so, like Patrick Henry, impress us with your facts and reasoning, and you will be just as successful. Resort to cheap shots and you will be unpersuasive.

It all comes down to this: Do you want to educate your neighbor and be educated by him and then find a way to agree and live in peace? Or do you want to beat him into submission and silence? If the latter, maybe he is the one who is being oppressed.

January 25, 2010 2:28 AM  
Anonymous David Huston said...

That male chauvinist pig, Patrick Henry.

January 25, 2010 6:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David Brown:
Your right he didn't stoop to calling his opponents dolts or clowns... at least not publicly.
I hope you don't think I'm suggesting we grab our muskets and declare war on the board!
The only comparison I was trying to make is that the Act 34 hearing is approaching fast, with "little time for ceremony."
Things may be said "without reserve", but lets not get side tracked on who's polite, who's disrespectful.
We can debate later whose blog is responsible in its censorship policies.
Dean Spahr

January 25, 2010 10:28 AM  
Blogger Tom Moertel said...

I want to respond to some of the claims that Mr. David Brown has advanced in his most-recent comment.

Mr. Brown writes that Joe and I are “content to let our garden grow wild.” We are not.

Like most gardeners, we want our garden, Blog-Lebo, to be healthy and to bear much fruit. Like most gardeners, we tend our garden carefully, because it is our garden. But it is also the community’s garden: We invite our neighbors to plant seeds, to harvest fruits. Therefore, we place each row with care, inviting our neighbors to plant wisely. We direct growth (gently!) with regular feeding, the reasoned application of shades and supports, and, when truly necessary, pruning shears. And we always, always, always watch for signs of disease.

Mr. Brown’s comment denies this evident care, on the grounds that we have allowed a few weeds into our garden. His comment advances the claim that we have done a disservice to our neighbors by not taking the shears to these weeds; that, in failing to do this, we have encouraged our neighbors who lack green thumbs to contribute more weeds, which not only harms the garden and the community but makes Joe and I complicit in weed-planting.

But what Mr. Brown’s comment fails to consider adequately is that there is legitimate disagreement about what is a weed and what is a fruitful plant. Were we to snip those plants that we (or he) considered weeds, we might destroy something of value to some of our neighbors – even if he finds only ugliness in such plants. His comment suggests that there are ways to draw the line, but then concedes that there is legitimate debate about which way is right: “One bright line for me and most reasonable people is ...” In Mr. Brown’s private garden, he may choose to offer fruit only to “most” reasonable people. But our garden is a public garden, and we are obliged to offer it to the entire public.

What Mr. Brown’s comment also fails to consider adequately is that some of our neighbors do not have green thumbs. On their best days, they bring plants to our garden that will turn out a bit weedy. Should we destroy all that these neighbors would contribute? Should these neighbors, being poor gardeners by our (or Mr. Brown’s) standards, be effectively denied all expression?

These questions – What is a weed? and Who may find expression in our public garden? – are not new. Our society has struggled with them since its birth. And the consensus of our society, for hundreds of years, has been that the standard for public discourse is tolerance. Our society has recognized, long ago, that there are very few weeds that are not fruitful plants for somebody. Our society has recognized, long ago, that trying to cut out the weeds gives those who hold the pruning shears too much power and denies all but “most” reasonable people the benefits of the garden.

Joe and I don’t “punt” on the issue of weeding, as Mr. Brown claims. We offer Blog-Lebo to Mt. Lebanon as a public resource. We therefore run it as a public resource, holding ourselves to the standard that society has established for public discourse. That means we are obligated to tolerate a broad range of speech, censoring only the genuinely extreme. Mr. Brown suggests that a comment containing personal insults is “a bona fide extreme case,” but that’s not the standard our society uses.

We are obliged to use society’s standard.

I know that Mr. Brown is disappointed in us for not choosing what he considers a higher standard. I hope that now, however, he can understand that our choice wasn’t born of laziness or lack of care.

January 25, 2010 11:59 AM  
Anonymous David Brown said...


Your point seems to be that by rejecting a post you are
"[destroying] all that these neighbors would contribute" and leaving them "effectively denied all expression." If that were true, then of course it would be a Bad Thing.

But your premise is false. The author of a rejected post is free to resubmit the 99% of their ideas that are in accordance with standards you could enforce, and not be denied anything except the right to degrade the public commons on your site. And of course they can always make their own site and say whatever they want, so free speech is still intact, at least insofar as it is not limited by forces greater than ourselves.

But as you say, you do enforce standards, variously described as "society's standards" or rejection only in "extreme cases" or as a "last resort." Would you care to elaborate? I'm sure you would reject anything that was illegal, such as incitement to a crime or copyright violation. Is that your definition of society's standards?

Or if not, in what ways do your standards exceed legal requirements? Can you give an example of a comment you recently rejected? In an average month, how many comments do you reject? Maybe I should give more credit because such things would be invisible to a visitor.

David Brown

January 25, 2010 7:37 PM  
Blogger Tom Moertel said...


My point isn’t that rejecting a post is tantamount to silencing people. My point is that by enforcing my views of what’s acceptable speech, I place my judgment above that of every other citizen, both on the speaking and listening sides of the public conversation. I deny those citizens who cannot (or choose not to) abide by my views the right to express themselves in our public forum, and I deny the public the right to judge for themselves what speech is worthy to be heard.


January 25, 2010 10:13 PM  
Blogger Casey West said...

I agree with Tom, here.

I don't want the authors of Blog-Lebo to filter the persuasive styles of my fellow community members. I prefer each commenter be allowed the full length of rope he chooses to employ.

When I read comments that use logical fallacies, for instance, those authors are less credible to me. I'd rather know the nature of the author, as the author chooses to represent himself, than a filtered version deemed appropriate by Blog-Lebo. That does me a disservice because I'm qualified to do my own filtering. So are you!

You might say the author has no business being heard in the first place if their arguments are so faulty. I disagree with that, too, because I'd rather know the truth about the commenters I read, my neighbors. Then I'm better prepared to apply appropriate weight to future arguments made by those commenters.

In short, each one of us has ample freedom on this blog to build or destroy our individual social capital within the community. That's the ultimate public service.

I'd like to make an observation as well. Blog-Lebo's policy is working. Social media is meant to connect people and lower the barrier of entry into meaningful conversations. The measures of a successful blog are the conversations and ripple effects it's able to create. Quantifiably, Blog-Lebo is extremely successful.

In comparison another local blog, Real Lebo, published 13 comments in the last week under their "play nice" moderation policy. Blog-Lebo published more than that today.

The history–and future–of the social web is built the same foundations as Blog-Lebo's moderation policy. It's working.

January 25, 2010 11:14 PM  

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