Deleting Comments & Free Expression

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One task that blog moderators face is deciding whether to delete certain comments. In some cases, the decision is easy and obvious. Deleting spam, for example, requires no real thought. This is because spammers have no more more right to expect their spam to remain than the folks who stick flyers on my truck have the right to expect me to drive around with that flyer in place so people can see it. Web droppings (those irrelevant and often vulgar one or two sentence comments like “i lkes boobies”) can also be swept away without thought, just as you would think nothing about washing random “comments” left by passing birds on your windshield.

Where the decision making becomes more challenging is when comments are relevant to the topic (or at least interesting), contain some significant content but also have some serious issues.  Of course, what counts as a serious issue depends a great deal on the nature of the blog and other specifics of the context. To keep the discussion focused, I will confine my attention to blogs (such as this one) that are dedicated to rational, civil discussions. In this context, two main problem areas are tone/style and content. In regards to tone/style, a comment that is hateful, condescending, or insulting in tone is rather problematic. In regards to content, hateful, obscene, racist, sexist or other such material would also potentially be problematic.

There are many practical reasons to delete such comments. To keep the discussion concise, I will just present two.

First, they can easily drive away other readers who are not interested in reading such things. To use an analogy, allowing such comments to remain is like allowing rowdy, violent and hateful customers to remain in a typical store. Even if they are customers, they will tend to drive away well behaved customers who just want to shop. Likewise, allowing such comments can drive away those who are interested in the blog’s topics but not in being insulted or treated with contempt. The basic idea is that any value added by such comments will be outweighed by the value lost when others are driven away.

Second, such comments can be damaging to a blog’s reputation and the experience it offers. To use an analogy, a business that wishes to appear professional works hard to maintain that appearance (and reality). Allowing such comments on a site is a bit like allowing people to urinate on the business floor, harass other customers, and so forth. As such, it seems sensible to delete such comments. This is because any value gained from such comments will be outweighed by the damage done to the blog.

Of course, these are practical reasons. Since this is a philosophy blog it might be expected that more than merely practical concerns should be in play. To be specific, it might be argued that the right to free expression entails that even the “bad” comments should not be deleted.  Naturally, a reasonable person will agree that the comments should have at least some merit in order to be so protected.

While I do accept the idea of right to the freedom of expression, I also accept that deleting comments is consistent with this freedom. Naturally, I need to defend this position.

When people think of a right, they tend to conflate two types of rights: negative and positive. Having a negative right (which many refer to as a freedom) means (in general) that others do not have the right to prevent you from exercising that right. However, they are under no obligation to enable you to be able to act on that right or provide the means. To use a concrete example, the right to higher education in the United States is a negative right. No one has the right to deny a qualified person from attending college. However, the student has to secure entry to a college and must also be able to provide the money needed to stay enrolled. Having a positive right (which many refer to as an entitlement) means that the person is entitled to what the right promises. To use a concrete example, the right to public education at the K-12 level in the United States is a positive right: students are provided with this education for “free” (that is, it is paid for by taxes).

In the case of the right to freedom of expression, it seems that it is a negative right. That is, others do not have (in general) the right to prevent people from expressing their ideas. Obviously enough, there are limits to this (as the classic yelling “fire” in a crowded theater example shows). It is not a positive right because others are not obligated to provide people with the means to express themselves.

To use an analogy, the freedom of expression seems comparable to the freedom to travel. While a free nation allows its citizens to travel about within the nation as they wish (within limits) and I have no right to stop people from such travels (except under certain conditions-such as when they want to “travel” into my house), I have no obligation to give someone a ride just because he wants to go to California. It is up to him to get his way there.

Likewise, while I have no right to try to censor or delete another person’s blog (under normal conditions) I also have no obligation to allow them to use my blog as a vehicle of their communication.  As such, if someone wishes to write things that I (or another moderator) do not wish to have on my site, it is no violation of the other person’s rights to delete it.

As far as me (or a moderator) having the right to delete comments, this seems to be a clear matter of property rights. Just as I have the right to remove and discard (almost) anything that other people stick on my truck or house, I also have the right to delete comments on my blog.

That said, in my own case I am careful in exercising this right. I do not delete comments merely because they are critical or express views I disagree with. On my own personal blog, I even tolerate the (rare) insult-provided that the comment also has relevant and significant content.  When I am posting on a site owned by someone else, my policy is to abide by their rules. If I find their deletions unacceptable, I have the option of not posting there anymore.

Naturally, more should be said about what would justify deleting a comment and I will endeavor to do so in the near future.

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