Free speech isn’t a right on blogs, it’s a privilege

There’s a minor crisis happening in the Quebec blogosphere over Richard Martineau’s blog. He and Canoe are being sued for $200,000 over allegedly libelous comments made by visitors to his blog about lawyer Susan Corriveau.

The concern is over what impact that might have on comment policies at mainstream media sites. Traditional media (especially local empires in Quebec) are still trying to figure out what to do with this whole Internet thing, and are entirely clueless about the implications of user-generated content. They think forcing users to click a button that says “I agree not to post libel” is enough to protect them from liability.

Coincidentally, an earlier post this week by La Presse star blogger Patrick Lagacé mentions that he’s asking for tougher moderation of user comments to get rid of the junk and even cap the length of some discussions.

Ironically, both Martineau’s blog and Lagacé’s blog require user registration before people can make comments. This stands in contrast to websites like The Gazette’s which removed the login requirement to encourage more comments. (Then again, even The Gazette is starting to move back — their only popular blog, Habs Inside/Out, has changed its policy to require moderation of anonymous comments.)

As any forum gets more popular, it starts to see problems it couldn’t predict. Spam is the first to show up, in the form of junk sent by computer to advertise some money-making venture. That can be solved by installing a spam filter, requiring registration or manually moderating comments (or a combination of these).

But then comes the problem of real people posting unwanted things. Libel, flame wars, factual mistakes, personal attacks, trolling, copyrighted works, personal information, pornographic images, off-topic comments, the list goes on. The worst ones will get deleted outright. Border cases might get a polite warning from the blogger or moderator.

For some reason, there’s the implication that the goal is to have unedited, unrestricted, free communication in the comments section of blog posts. This innocent-until-proven-guilty mentality means that a lot of useless, mean or uninteresting comments get attached to blogs, comments that are of no use to anyone and are a waste of time and space.

Little by little, big bloggers are starting to restrict that freedom and filter out the noise.


I moderate comments on this blog. I don’t require user registration (because I know how annoying it is), and I tend to let most non-spam through. But nobody but me has the right to say what is published here. I have deleted plenty of personal attacks, unhelpful garbage, trolling comments and other junk that doesn’t belong here, and I will continue to do so. At the end of the day, I’m responsible for all the content published here, and it’s my ass in the courtroom if anything crosses the line.

I welcome criticism (in fact, some of my best comments are those who reject my entire hypothesis and ridicule my interpretation of the facts), but you have to show your work. Comments like “you suck” and “you’re gay” have no place here or on any other blog.

4 thoughts on “Free speech isn’t a right on blogs, it’s a privilege

  1. DAVE ID

    user registration (because I know how annoying it is). Damn Right. I don’t go to blogs that do that. Just let me fill in the form. Just need to moderate, is all.

    I think suing a blogger for the comments posted though is INSANE. That’s like suing the host for something a guest did at a party. Oh wait…

  2. Christopher DeWolf

    Newspaper comments are like black holes: they suck away every ounce of intelligence you’ve ever had. I’ve even found myself pulled into replying to a few idiotic things people have said on the Devoir or Globe and Mail websites, but what’s the point? Whereas small-time blogs often generate very interesting discussion, I have never seen many good comments posted in reply to a newspaper article or column.

  3. Fagstein Post author

    I’ve seen some good comments, but they’re in the minority. Usually they either correct something the author has said, or they offer a new perspective on the story.

    The vast majority add nothing, and even make the author look bad because website visitors see the comments when reading the story.

  4. Pamplemousse

    I have not gotten any crazy comments or spam, yet… strange. Perhaps I need more fame in blog world. A libel suit over my blog would alleviate some boredom and make me feel artificially important.

    However, I’m not sure that I like the idea of being held responsible for someone elses words posted to my blog. The problem with any email or blog comment is that it is often misunderstood. I hate emoticons and refuse to use them, but they may have prevented me from entering into the odd blog war because someone was unable to grasp irony, or even view what I have written as a the beginning of a reasoned debate.

    While I would like blog comments to be more of a free for all discussion, apparently the real world is far more interested in finger pointing.


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