Have you ever commented on a website, only to find out later that they deleted your comment? Did you feel enraged, that they stifled your freedom of speech, your irrevocable right to express yourself? Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about the freedom of speech, especially on the internet. Let's separate the fact from the fiction.
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Table of Contents
- The unprecedented freedom of expression on the internet
- How is "freedom of speech" legally defined
- Is it censorship for a website to delete my comment?
- How can I avoid having my comments deleted
- How do you view freedom of speech on the internet?
The unprecedented freedom of expression on the internet
In a few decades, the internet has managed to affect the lives of us all. It has changed communication, information, work, education, relationships, entertainment, purchases, and our personal expression.
This last part, about our personal expression, is more important than it seems.
Before the internet, the average person had no way of expressing any opinion on a large scale. The public expression of an opinion was a privilege only for those who had professional access to the mass media. Journalists, politicians, famous artists, and athletes.
Today, the tables have turned.
Firstly, ever since Geocities, each and every one of us can create a website or blog; no technical knowledge or payment required. In a few short minutes, we can set up a site and write a post. After that, anyone in the world with internet access can read it.
Nowadays, at the social media age, we don't even need a website. A well-timed tweet or Facebook post can become viral. It can reach hundreds of thousands or even millions of other users.
Finally, most of the largest international websites allow us to express our opinion on any of their posts, in full public view. Many encourage us to do so.
We are referring, of course, to the internet comments. We will find comment systems on all kinds of websites. From one-person blogs to major publishers, international e-shops, and everything between.
On high-traffic internet sites, hundreds of thousands of visitors read specific posts. When we leave a comment, our opinion will be visible to a percentage of the visitors. For years after the original publication.
More than at any other time in human history, each of us can appeal to an unlimited audience. And this without even leaving the comfort of our home, with a simple PC or smartphone.
This increased exposure has its upside, but it has a downside too. As Benjamin Parker famously said, with great power, comes great responsibility.
How is "freedom of speech" legally defined
Full disclosure: None of us working for PCsteps is a lawyer. We have no particular knowledge of the US or International law, apart from our internet research.
That said, we find mentions of freedom of speech both in international treaties and declarations and on several country-level laws and constitutions.
The origin of freedom of speech and expression
We can trace the first mention of the freedom of speech as a concept in the ancient Athens' democratic ideology, in the late 6th or early 5th century BC.
Freedom of speech was also present in Republican Rome, albeit with a narrower interpretation, mostly about slander and libel.
In 1689, the Bill of Rights in England legally established the constitutional right of 'freedom of speech in Parliament.' This right is still in effect. A century later, in 1789 and during the French Revolution, we had the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Article 10 and Article 11 state:
Freedom of speech in the international law
On December 10th, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights." On Article 19 it mentions:
Technically, this is a resolution, not a treaty. Which means that it is not legally binding in its entirety on members of the United Nations.
For an international and binding law, there is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It is a multilateral treaty adopted but the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1966.
We will find similar descriptions on Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.
Freedom of speech in the US Constitution and other countries
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, on December 15th, 1791, protects religion, freedom of speech or the press, and the right of the people to assemble and petition their government peaceably.
Several other countries include similar laws regarding the freedom of speech in their respective constitutions.
What does the freedom of speech mean from a legal standpoint
It's clear that a significant number of countries around the world agree that a person has the right to freely express their opinion through any medium, orally, in printed text, on TV and Radio, or through the internet.
These laws are there to protect the people from any government influence that would violate the spirit of democracy. For example, the government shutting down newspapers, burning books, and imprisoning people that are vocal against its policy.
It's not a coincidence that freedom of speech and the press are the first things to go in fascist regiments.
Yet, we need to understand that freedom of speech is not a free-for-all "I can say/write everything and anything I want with no legal ramifications whatsoever".
For example, freedom of speech laws do not cancel out slander, libel, and defamation laws. If we publish inaccurate, insulting, or damaging information about a particular person online, they have every legal right to sue us. And they may very well win the case.
Another example is releasing Government classified information. Freedom of speech does not apply in cases like Edward Snowden's or Julian Assange's. Which is why both have sought asylum outside of the US.
It's not a matter if you agree or disagree with this type of whistleblowing. If everyone with access to classified information decided to release it, it could have catastrophic repercussions on an international level.
It is essential for the freedom of speech to have logical boundaries. Or else, anyone would have the right to publish lies, inaccuracies, misinformation, and insults.
Freedom of speech should never be a vehicle to damage other people, businesses, or causes unlawfully. It can't include slander and libel. Our personal freedom stops where another person's freedom begins.
Is it censorship for a website to delete my comment?
Most of us will never attempt to slander someone, or willingly spread misinformation on the internet. We will use the comment systems on websites to ask for information, agree or disagree with the post, open a dialogue, or even have some fun.
And yet, anyone can write a comment with "acceptable" comment, and either never see it published, or have it later deleted.
Does this constitute censorship? If the comment didn't contain slander, libel, or misinformation, was it wrong for the website to remove it?
The answer is a categorical "no." The "why" it has to do with who owns the medium on which we post the comments.
An example outside of the Internet
Let's say we went to a restaurant, and we did not like the food at all. Do we have the right to climb up on the table and start shouting "THIS IS THE WORST FOOD I HAVE EVER EATEN"?
What would happen if we got up on the table to cry "THIS IS THE BEST FUCKING RESTAURANT IN THE CITY"? Or if we did not even refer to the restaurant or the food, but started singing the National Anthem?
In all these cases, if we are repeatedly disruptive, the restaurant has every right to call the police and remove us from the establishment.
What is important to realize is that the restaurant is not a public place. It is a private space that gives us the right to sit and to accept their services. But the restaurant has the last word.
If the restaurant thinks that our behavior is causing discomfort to the other customers, it has every right to take the necessary action.
Some restaurants have a guestbook. If we started swearing or drawing dicks on one of the pages, the person in charge has every right to erase what we wrote or cut off the entire page.
Because it's not our own book. It was and will always be the restaurant's guestbook. The restaurant owner is the one who decides what they want to keep and what they want to remove from their book.
Who owns the medium of expression
In the end, this is the biggest confusion about freedom of speech. Freedom of speech applies exclusively to media that we own.
If we have a website, we can write and publish whatever we want. As long as we don't violate any laws, no one can force us to take down a post, not the government or any individual.
However, when we comment on another website's post, we don't own the medium of publication. The page's moderators have every right to delete any comment, or even ban us outright, without justifying their action.
There isn't any law that obligates a website owner to keep each and every comment made on their pages. The administrator or the moderator decide which comments are acceptable, and which aren't.
If there were such a law, then a publishing house would be compelled to publish each and every book proposal they received, regardless of its quality. A publisher rejecting a book because it was of low quality would constitute censorship. That would be more than ridiculous.
This will never change, and there is no reason for it to change. The owner of a medium, be it a newspaper, a website, or a TV/radio station, is the ultimate judge on what will be printed/posted/broadcast.
How can I avoid having my comments deleted
It's certainly not pleasant to write a comment, only to have it deleted. We put some thought into it, and it took some time to write it. For us, it had at least some worth.
However, it's important that we are aware of the context. On a comedic website, a pun or a witty comment will go over much better than the same content on a more "serious" site.
We should also avoid being rude, especially if unprovoked. Even if we completely disagree with a post, there are civilized ways to express our dissatisfaction. Other than posting "GO KILL YOURSELF YOU UNCULTURED SWINE."
How do you view freedom of speech on the internet?
Have you ever felt that your freedom of speech has been violated on the Internet? Do you think there should be more or less comment moderation online? Leave us a comment.
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