Awww, look. Someone’s trying to lecture me on speech and the Internet!
Background: In the comment thread to this entry yesterday, someone named Gretchen came in and acted in a manner I thought was inappropriate, and I told her so. She maintains I misunderstood her intent, to which I said fine, then I beg your pardon (which, to be fair, she might not have seen). She goes back to the LiveJournal community from whence she came and complains about her treatment here, which inspired another member to write me a letter lecturing me about some “facts” of the Internet, among them:
Internets 101: When you publish something on a public blog and neglect to disable the comment function, you have already given readers your permission to reply. This little slice of Internet magic is also known as the First Amendment.
Well, okay then.
First irony: The person lecturing me on the First Amendment of the Internet is apparently located in Australia, home of absolutely no First Amendment protections. Rumor has it Australia is its own country. I’d need to check an almanac to confirm, but off the top of my head I’m pretty sure about that. I’m also pretty sure that the Australian constitution is not just a complete lift of the US Constitution, and that the right to free speech in Australia isn’t even explicitly in it.
Second irony: The person lecturing me on the inherent right to comment online is doing so in a moderated LiveJournal community, into which the right to comment is strictly limited.
Third irony: There’s no third irony, this person is just absolutely, completely, ice-pick-to the-eyeballs wrong in their understanding of the First Amendment, how it applies to my site, and how it applies to the Internet. Reading this person’s understanding of how the First Amendment applies in these instances is like being slathered in a thick coat of ignorant, and then being put out into the sun to dry out before a second coat is applied, which itself will be topped off by a sealant of complete and utter stupid, and lightly drizzled with a glistening varnish of epic fail.
Because it apparently needs to be pointed out to some, let’s review some essential facts:
1. Your First Amendment rights do not apply to this blog. Why? Because, as it happens, I am not the United States government, nor one of its several subordinate state or local governments, nor is this blog an arm of any of those several governments. Je ne suis pas l’état. I am a private citizen of the United States and this blog is understood to be my private property. I am no more obliged to let any person exercise their First Amendment rights on it than I am obliged to allow people to assemble on my lawn against my will. When people come onto my site, they are obliged to play by my rules (and keep off my lawn!). Likewise, I reserve the right (noted in my site and comment rules, which are posted in a clear and obvious fashion and linked to on every page of the site generated by the WordPress install) to moderate and edit if I see fit. If I decide, in pure Yossiarian fashion, that I wish death to all gerunds in the comment threads, I am perfectly free to root them out. Editing! Gerunds! Death!
Occasionally people — usually the trolls — will tell me I can’t stop them from posting what they please on my site. Then once they’re dropped into the ban queue, I read their increasingly foamy, otherwise unseen messages, saying that I’m just another censoring tool or whatever. My general response to this is (or what would be, if I were to respond, which I don’t) is to say: Yup, sure am. Because the people I ban are generally assholes, you see. I don’t feel in the slightest bit bad not letting them play in my virtual yard. Likewise, I don’t feel in the least bit bad in telling people a) to behave when they aren’t, in my estimation, behaving in my site, and b) to cram it when they appear to be under the impression they have any right to tell me how to express myself on my own site. If people don’t like it, of course, they have the right to leave.
2. The First Amendment does not apply to the whole Internet. What? You say the whole Internet is covered by the First Amendment? Excellent! Won’t those bloggers in China and Iran be relieved. Not to mention Charlie Stross, who very carefully moderates his blog because, as he notes, “the server this blog is based on is sited in London, and is therefore subject to the English law on defamation and libel, which is entirely batshit crazy.” And hey, anyone accessing the Internet in Australia, home of some of the most stringent online laws in the Western world, is no doubt relieved that those laws will never be enforced, because the Internet is covered by the First Amendment!
Now, as it happens, I wish the whole of the Internet were covered by First Amendment law, because you know what? I would like an Iranian or Chinese blogger not to worry that posting his thoughts online might mean that he spends time in prison, or ends up with a bullet in his head. Call me crazy that way. But you know, wishing doesn’t make it so, and out here in the real world, the First Amendment’s legal force stops at the US border. Would be nice if it didn’t but it does. And while, yes, theoretically an Iranian blogger who could send his words to a server based in the US would thus have those words protected, when the thugs come to stomp down the door of his house in the Tehran suburbs, that’ll be a cold comfort.
(Mind you, even if the First Amendment applied everywhere online, I could still do what I wanted on my own blog; see point one, above.)
3. Not disabling comments does not give people permission to comment. See, watch:
Hey everyone! I’ve not disabled my comments, but I expressly and explicitly deny you permission to post comments here! Don’t do it!
Wow, that was easy.
Yes, yes, you can post comments here — you have the ability, since I did not disable comments — but you do not have my consent to do so. And that’s what permission is: my consent to your actions. My leaving the ability to post comments on the site no more inherently offers my consent for you to comment than my not locking my house inherently offers my consent for you to enter my house and plop down on the couch. Certainly disabling my comments would reinforce my lack of consent for you to post comments, just as locking my door reinforces my lack of consent for you to step into my front hall. It does not mean, however, that the permission is otherwise there if I do not do these things. Likewise, one might assume not disabling comments on a blog implies permission to post, since that’s how most people do things. But your assumption, in fact, does not equal actual consent.
Okay, I now give you express and explicit permission to post comments again, under the rules noted in the comment policy — if, in fact, I’ve not already banned you. And if I’ve previously told you not to post in a specific comment thread, you still can’t, in those threads.
Because that’s the other thing, isn’t it? I might want to leave my comments open to most people and ban or restrict one or two people. The blogging software might allow me mechanically to ban someone — take away their simple ability to respond on the site — but if I don’t use that mechanism, it does not mean that those I have banned have permission to post. And also to the point, even if you do have permission to post, I still have the right to moderate, censor and even delete your comments, if in my opinion you’ve crossed some line I don’t want crossed.
So, let’s recap: You don’t inherently have permission to post comments to a blog, even if the blog owner doesn’t disable the commenting function. You don’t have First Amendment rights on this blog. And the First Amendment doesn’t apply to the whole Internet. Basically, every single assertion this person makes is completely wrong.
Which is impressive, in its way, but not something I suspect this person was aiming for when they decided they were going to try to offer me a snark-laden lecture about how the Internet works. Snark only works if in the process of offering it, you don’t do the factual equivalent of faceplanting into the concrete.
Fourth irony: Over in the LiveJournal community where this person has just embarrassed themselves by being entirely wrong about just about everything, Gretchen is thanking them for their post.