Free speech and blog comments

Every now and then I get a bee in my bonnet about some topic and feel I must write about it here. I don’t do this much because:

  1. It’s hard to be funny whilst ranting, and
  2. Who cares about my little rants anyway?

Hubby has to listen because he’s married to me—and I have a sneaky suspicion he tunes me out sometimes—but none of the rest of you are so obligated. Therefore, I don’t rant (much) on this site.

One of the few rants I did post I called “Will NutriFeron save you from the bird flu?” and it probably gets more hits than any other post I’ve made so far.

The post was inspired by a Shaklee spammer—whose original spam comment I edited to remove her name and the link to her site, but otherwise left to stand. I also posted my snarky opinions about multi-level marketing (MLMs) and NutriFeron’s dubious labeling, and in so doing received several comments from Shaklee distributors.

A few were angry. One was extremely rude. But most came from sincere, hard-working Shaklee distributors who felt I attacked their livelihood. We had a lively discussion and I’m still getting comments on it even though it’s over four months old.

In comment #17, someone criticized how I chose to brand some comments as “spam” or not:

As for spam, last time I checked, posting ones personal opinion in a public post setting did not constitute spam.

Comment by Alan — 11/2/2005 @ 4:53 pm

This is a tender subject for me. As any blogger knows, spammers can drown a site unless it’s adequately protected. If it weren’t for my anti-spam software (Spam Karma 2 and Bad Behavior) this site would be covered with spambot droppings.

But there are human spammers who get past the spam software, determined little buggers, to say the least. And some of them are just clueless people hoping to get more visibility for their businesses, like the original Shaklee distributor who spammed me.

Yet Alan seemed to be saying the comment from the Shaklee distributor wasn’t really spam, but free speech. I responded:

Ah, yes, Alan, but this is not a public post setting, this is my website. People who leave comments here are my guests.

Some of my guests leave comments about Viagra, poker games, software, pornography, and vitamin supplements, among other things. Then they tell my readers how to purchase such items.

You may treat such comments with the respect reserved for personal opinions, but I choose to refer to them as spam.

Comment by Bonnie Wren — 11/2/2005 @ 5:46 pm

I thought this was the end of it, but yesterday I received a new comment on the subject. Stewart gave a thoughtful explanation of his opinion of MLMs and NutriFeron, but he also asked me this question:

… I have a question about the “public post setting” and “my guest” comments (in post #17).

I understand web/spambots which may post things electronically (and should be illegal), but if you have fields for comment at the bottom that are open to anyone to use, doesn’t that make it a public post? Otherwise, wouldn’t there need to be a password required for people to be able to post?

Comment by Stewart Stevens — 2/23/2006 @ 10:30 pm

I could be wrong, but I think readers like the gracious Stewart and the not so gracious Alan may believe that if I invite discussion on a subject, I should probably expect opinions that might contain spam. At the very least, perhaps I shouldn’t get upset about it when it does arrive and write posts criticizing Shaklee supplements.

I do accept all opinions… as long as they meet my standards of acceptable use, based on my personal prejudices about profanity, sexuality, or verbal abuse. I also have prejudices about whether or not the comment is a legitimate attempt to engage in the discussion at hand, or just a thinly disguised attempt to generate sales of a product.

I deleted many, many spam comments on that post. Some of the messages seemed to be part of the discussion: “I learned a lot here!” “Thanks for this resource!” “Interesting discussion… perhaps you’ll be interested in my site!” The links led to Vegas timeshares, poker sites, web-hosting, apartment rentals, phentermine, incest sites, sports betting, fioricet, xanax, blackjack… the list goes on and on.

Most of them had only been on my site for a second or two before posting, which proved they were spambots. Being spammers, not a single one was a negative comment. (The better to sneak in, my dear!) No matter, I deleted them all. Off with their heads!

I never deleted legitimate opinions, even when the authors strongly disagreed with me or questioned my motives. I did edit one commenter’s statement, something I now wonder if I should’ve done. At the time, I found that one line offensive as it had nothing to do with the subject and everything to do with how the poster wanted to insult me.

I guess I could repair it to its original condition, but it’s probably best to leave well enough alone. Live and learn.

But back to Stewart’s question.

Stewart is correct in that all posts and comments made here on my blog are public. Comments become searchable by Google within a few days of posting. But even though the posts and comments are public, they do not have the same protections of free speech that might exist in, say, a public input session during a city council meeting.

Comments made on a privately-owned internet site such as mine goes by different rules, as the First Amendment Center explains:

I got kicked off AOL for cursing in several messages. Doesn’t that violate my free speech?

No. Online services have the right to establish and enforce codes of conduct. When you sign up, you’re using a service that belongs to a private company, and you are subject to its rules. Because the online service is a private company, its restrictions do not constitute government censorship and, therefore, do not violate the First Amendment.

First Amendment Center FAQ on Free Speech

Ballpoint Wren is not paid for with public tax dollars. It’s paid for with Bonnie Wren dollars. It is therefore my private property, just as my home is. There is no law or obligation that says I must allow personal opinions that contain advertisements to exist on my site if I choose not to do so.

I do want a free and polite exchange of ideas, even if those ideas are contrary to what I believe. But why should someone else make money off my site while I pay for the bandwidth they use?

Rant over.

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8 Replies to “Free speech and blog comments”

  1. An individual on a forum which I used to visit on a regular basis once replied to a similar “freedom of speech” accusation with the following true statement:

    For you ignorant fools arguing free speech, allow me to quote the first amendment to the constitution for the United States of America:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

    Now, for the first one of you that can point out where the heck Congress got involved, I’ll gladly retract my statement calling you a fool. Until then, educate yourself, and quit your griping about something you obviously have no clue about.

  2. It’s paid for with Bonnie Wren dollars. It is therefore my private property…

    …to me says it all – but what do I know {shrugs and turns the sound back up of The Breakfast Club} “Shh, kids. Be quiet. Mommy is watching a movie!”

  3. You go, girlfriend! Do like I do…tell ’em…if they don’t like what you have to say….don’t let the keyboard hit you in the butt as you leave…LOL

  4. Man, you should delete all their comments and then block ’em! If they want to voice their opinions let them do it on their own blog! That was a crazy mess of pyramid schemers with nothing more to do than spam out your personal blog. Grrr…makes me mad, but you know that about me already, don’t you? 😉

  5. Grrrr…..

    …Shakes head…

    Trouble-makers and spambots, what a delightful pair of mayhem.

    …looks at tenderizer mallet…

    Nah, they’d be too messy to squish.

    Annoyed at such twittery. Grrrr…

  6. I think RFC 1855 sums it up well in 2.0 One-to-One Communication (electronic mail, talk):

    We define one-to-one communications as those in which a person is communicating with another person as if face-to-face: a dialog. In general, rules of common courtesy for interaction with people should be in force for any situation and on the Internet it’s doubly important where, for example, body language and tone of voice must be inferred.

    Toodle-pip, old bean.

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