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Friday, October 03, 2008

A small refresher course on censorship and private property

Based on comments left on this thread here, it appears some folks don't really understand freedom of expression, private property, or both.

Here's the situation: a couple of people decided to spam the thread with material denying or minimizing the Holocaust. The moderators of the Shotgun -- including myself -- did some weeding and removed all of those comments, or at least all we found.

Some have argued that this action demonstrates that the Western Standard's commitment to freedom of expression is a sham. Surely, the argument goes, if we support freedom of expression we shouldn't remove comments based on their content.

Some have even called it an act of censorship.

I'm not going to try to parse out the definition of "censorship" to show that deleting Shotgun comments isn't really censorship at all. Perhaps it is an act of censorship. But that's not really the point.

Suppose some miscreant spray paints his manifesto on the outside wall of my house. He picks my wall because it is highly visible and putting his message there increases the chances that other people will read it.

I think the law should prohibit such activity. I think there would be absolutely nothing wrong with erasing the manifesto after it goes up (or maybe I'd keep it there, if I decided I agreed with the message.)

You can call it censorship if you like, but it's really nothing more than a property owner exercising control over the use of his property. Property owners should be able to regulate how their property is used by others. They should have the right to "just say no" to those who would like to use their property in ways the owners do not wish.

At this juncture, I'm not going to argue for private property rights. If you don't believe in private property, you're probably going to disagree with most if not everything the Western Standard publishes.

The real question is whether a commitment to extensive private property rights is consistent with upholding freedom of expression. It's certainly inconsistent with upholding the freedom of everyone to say whatever he wishes, wherever he wishes. It's inconsistent with upholding your freedom to say whatever you wish in my living room, whether I want you there or not.

But it's not inconsistent with the rejection of censorship by the government.

When the government prohibits Holocaust denial, it's telling property owners everywhere that they no longer have total control over their property. Sometimes, it's legitimate for government to regulate the use of property (as it does when it prohibits you from sticking your knife into my back) but those regulations must be justified.

In my opinion, the legal prohibition of Holocaust denial cannot be justified. That means private property owners should have exclusive control over whether or not Holocaust denial will be tolerated within the boundaries of their property. That means the owners of the Shotgun should have the authority to allow or not allow the denial of the Holocaust on this blog, based on whatever reasons they find persuasive.

If that's censorship, it's justifiable given the rights of property owners. The alternative views are, as I see them a) Government censorship, or b) Requiring (morally, if not legally) private property owners to allow their property to be used in ways they do not wish.

Neither alternative makes a lot of sense. Why should property owners allow you to use their property however you wish? Isn't that trampling on their freedom of expression? We take care to delete the comments of advertisers who sometimes try to spam this blog: that's our freedom at work, the freedom to determine how this property will be used. We're also committed to deleting Holocaust-denying comments, comments that advocate genocide, and comments that make fun of P.M. Jaworski's hair.

If you don't like those rules, you're free to start your own blog.

But beware, if you're Canadian: as the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal recently decided, you can be held responsible for comments people make on your blog if those comments violate Section 13.1 of the federal Human Rights Act.

At the Shotgun, we see this as an absolutely unjustifiable infringement on freedom of expression. If I want to deny the Holocaust on my own blog, or on a blog where that kind of speech is tolerated, I should be allowed to do so.

But it isn't allowed here. Not because we reject freedom of expression, but because we think it implies the freedom to stop people from using your property to convey messages you find so utterly heinous as to be irredeemable.

Posted by Terrence Watson on October 3, 2008 in Freedom of expression | Permalink


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(1) I know this post is more a statement to critics to shut the hell up (which they should) than an invitation to discuss more general issues of censorship, but I won't let that stop me from broadening the discussion anyway. :-)

(2) "If that's censorship...." Let's make this clear. It *IS* censorship when the WS deletes posts. But, as you point out well, there is censorship the law should allow and censorship that it should not. The WS deleting Holocaust denial should be legally protected, but a law requiring the WS to do that is wrong.

(3) Some critics of censorship of the form the WS has done do not think there ought to be a law prohibiting your from doing it. They agree that you have the right as a property owner to do it, but they still object to it and think it diminishes your credibility as being pro-free speech. The reason is because while you (I think) support free speech for rights-based reasons, others support it for utilitarian ones. So because they think that (generally) unrestricted speech is a good thing, they think that blog owners should *WANT* to allow any and all comments to stand. They would say that this defines the kind of valuing of free speech that they respect. So for them it is not that laws limiting speech violate rights (even if they use that terminology). It's that they believe that society is better if speech is unrestricted. So to some extent you and they might be talking at crossed purposes.

(4) Some posters here (I am not sure if you are one) sometimes say that it is not a violation of the principle of free speech for a blog owner to delete comments they don't like, but it is a violation of free speech for the CBC, for example, to do the same because the fact that the CBC is publicly owned makes any censorship by them illegitimate. This is wrong. The CBC is property just like the WS is. The property owners (the people of Canada) can set whatever rules they like for the use of their property. Agreement on that use need not be unanimous for it to be the decision (just as if the WS has several co-owners, a majority vote might decide censorship policy). so if most Canadians support the CBC not allowing certain kinds of speech on the CBC television, radio, or websites, then that is just as legitimate as the WS doing the same.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-10-03 3:59:13 PM

Fact Check,

Censorship generally applies to governments, with respect to which individuals are allowed to speak out unrestricted based on their political thought. An individual is not obligated to provide a medium to another individual he/she disagrees with. For example, a person is free to bash me on their website, but I am under no obligation to post their criticisms of myself on my blog. That does not deny anyone's right to freely criticize me.

Posted by: Chris Reid | 2008-10-03 4:09:38 PM

Spot on, Terrance and Chris. It is surprising that there should be any confusion concerning private property rights (if only we truly had them in Canada). By the way FC, the CBC does not qualify as private property. This is not to say that even the CBC cannot establish rules as to what will be accepted, such as no foul language, etc. Even more confusion exists around the understanding of freedom of expression (speech). I cannot see why this should be the least bit complicated.

The fact that I do not have to tolerate a person spouting personal or racist or whatever kind of insults on my own property has nothing to do with censorship. I do not seek to remove his or her right to spout rubbish elsewhere by demanding that the government do so.

Posted by: Alain | 2008-10-03 4:25:50 PM


"Censorship generally applies to governments, with respect to which individuals are allowed to speak out unrestricted based on their political thought."

No, it doesn't. Take a look at the bazillion examples that are out there of people using the word to apply to what individuals or groups other than the government do and then look at any dictionary you can find and see how they define it. The word is commonly used, commonly defined, and commonly understood to apply in cases that have nothing to do with political content and nothing to do with government restriction.

"An individual is not obligated to provide a medium to another individual he/she disagrees with."

Terrence and I agree about this. Nothing I said contests this. The legal argument is not in issue. There is no obligation to provide a platform for others. All I was pointing out is that people who value free speech for utilitarian reasons (like Mill) would also say that it is a bad thing to delete comments you don't like. Utilitarians about free speech say that the value of letting everyone say what they like means that the marketplace of ideas is hindered by individuals who choose to delete posts they don't like, thus is a bad thing to do and goes against the idea of valuing a fully free marketplace of ideas. So it's not that you and Terrence aren't free speechers. It's just that you are a different kind of free speecher. Thus Terrence seems to be speaking at crossed puposes with some of his critics.


"By the way FC, the CBC does not qualify as private property."

Duh! Of course not. I never said it did. I said "the CBC is publicly owned" and "The CBC is property" - both true and neither implying that it is private property (the first actually specifically rejects that idea). Try re-reading then get back to me.

"The fact that I do not have to tolerate a person spouting personal or racist or whatever kind of insults on my own property has nothing to do with censorship."

It has *EVERYTHING* to do with censorship because it is censorship. But that is not to say that it is bad or wrong to not tolerate this person spouting crap. You have to get beyond the idea that calling something "censorship" counts as an argument against it. It doesn't. It just says what it is, not whether it is good or bad, right or wrong. Personally, I think it is often good for private blog owners to censor people spouting hateful, racist speech. But it still is censorship, just the good kind.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-10-03 5:44:46 PM

FC - you are correct concerning the CBC. I skimmed through your comments too quickly and made an error. As for using censorship as you do, I remain in disagreement. Censorship is an official capacity, which historically kicked in during a time of war. The exception being totalitarian regimes, communist or other. In the private sector it is common to have established rules of conduct (code of conduct). You want to call it all censorship, go ahead but it does not make it censorship.

Posted by: Alain | 2008-10-03 7:30:56 PM

Alain, dude! Seriously!

"As for using censorship as you do, I remain in disagreement."

You might not want to use the word that way. fine. But it is not just a peculiarity of mine to use it this way. I use it this way because that's what it means. If every dictionary on the planet defines it that way and 98% of all people use it that way, it really is not open for debate except in Humpty Dumpty's world.

"You want to call it all censorship, go ahead but it does not make it censorship."

Right. My calling it censorship does not make it so. The fact that virtually all competent English speakers and reference sources call it that seems to be pretty clear, though.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-10-03 7:55:59 PM

FC - sorry but I use The Chambers Dictionary (British edition) which does not support your claim. Of course I forget that you cannot accept ever being wrong. I shall not continue this silly argument with you as it is a waste of time.

Posted by: Alain | 2008-10-03 8:02:46 PM

The Chambers Dictionary may be fine in you're doing a crossword puzzle or playing scrabble, but only an idiot would rely on its definitions.
Clearly, it's perfect for you.

Posted by: truewest | 2008-10-03 8:12:25 PM

Thanks, truewest, but Alain is a double idiot. The Chambers Dictionary defines 'censorship' as "the practice of censoring" and it defines 'censor' as "to alter or cut out parts of something, or forbid its publication, showing or delivery". Nowhere in the definition does it say that this only applies to cases where the altering, cutting, or forbidding is done by a government. The guy is a moron, so henceforth I will censor all his posts by forbidding my eyes to read them. Now THATS a good form of censorship!!!

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-10-03 8:25:40 PM

"Nowhere in the definition does it say that this only applies to cases where the altering, cutting, or forbidding is done by a government."

True, but if the shotgun blog alters, cuts out or forbids the publication of your comment, you are free to start your own blog, and publish your comment there unaltered. Only a government has the authority to coerce you to censor the content of your own blog.

Posted by: K Stricker | 2008-10-03 9:18:13 PM

Opinions are like assholes, everybody has one and many assholes have opinions.I would have rather seen these lowbrows run their venom and the many highly intelligent bloggers on WS put them in their place.I can see censoring for abusive language but not for subject matter.

Posted by: peterj | 2008-10-03 11:26:04 PM

"The fact that virtually all competent English speakers and reference sources call it that seems to be pretty clear, though."

The classic example of a logical fallacy, argumentum ad verecundiam. Too funny, but predictable.

Webster's defines censor as first a noun; "a person empowered to suppress; (military) an official who examines"; and as a transitive verb; to examine and delete in the capacity of a censor (noun) a person empowered to suppress. [Latin - magistrate of ancient Rome]

Game, set and match, Alain. :)

Posted by: DJ | 2008-10-04 12:26:35 AM


(1) It is nonsense to reject nearly universal usage of a word AND what all the dictionaries say as a mere appeal to authority. If I were to tell you that "toast" does not mean bread made crisp, hot, and brown by heat, but actually means bovine feces, I would be bullshitting you. Other than appeal to how everyone use the term and what the dictionaries say, what else could possibly count as establishing the meaning of the term?

(2) It is idiotic to accuse someone of appealling to authority and then basing your argument on ... an authority!

(3) The definition you cite starts "a person empowered to suppress". Right. It does not say that that person must be a governmental representative. A blog owner has the power to supress words. He can delete them. When he does so, he is acting as a censor. So again, you are an idiot.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-10-04 12:45:57 AM

First, let me state, I agree with deleting the posts that were deleted but that action was censorship. However, lets throw another complication into this discussion. Is the WS part of the general "media"?

If they are, and they are censoring political views they don't like, I have an issue with that.

Lets say that the ABC network decided that they did not like Obama (US Election) and decided not to carry any commercials or speeches. They also went into their blog system and deleted any positive Obama comments. Using the above property rights arguments, they have the right to do this but doing this would affect what people perceive of a major politician.

Or, sarcastically, maybe censorship is OK when it is only done against a small community of "crazy" people.

There is a line someplace where a web site or blog turns into the "general media" and there needs to be another set of rules that apply.

I believe in property rights and also some forms of censorship. However, contrary to some of the strong opinions above, drawing a line in the sand is very difficult.

Posted by: Chuck W | 2008-10-04 5:35:39 AM

Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

I don't think I'm going to be able to respond to everyone. But I think I'm with Fact Check regarding the definition of censorship: at best, it's ambiguous about whether censorship absolutely MUST be exercised by government, or whether other entities can also practice censorship.

Thus, trying to rest an argument on the dictionary definition is -- as always -- probably not very helpful. I say: Suppose removing comments from the Shotgun is censorship. Then the question becomes, when is censorship justified, if ever? Under what conditions? A story about private property will inevitably come up here.

With regard to Chuck's comment:

If we're consequentialists about private property (as we should be) then we should be open to the idea that sometimes private property owners will use their property in ways that will produce terrible consequences, however we measure those. Private property rules can and should permit exceptions in certain cases -- for example, some of us think anti-discrimination law can be justified even though it interferes with private property because the net consequences are (arguably) very much on the positive side.

So there might be a difference between ABC censoring Obama stories and the WS censoring Holocaust deniers. Maybe major media should be legally required to cover all the major candidates. Maybe.

On the other hand, I wonder if the consequences of ABC practicing censorship would be as bad -- for the rest of us -- as one might think. Certainly, other networks could carry Obama's speeches. In the real world, I have a hard time envisaging how this scenario could take place in any way that wouldn't be an absolute disaster for ABC, and hardly a problem at all for the rest of us.

Now if you'll excuse me, someone has come to take me to the woodshed for daring to allow considerations of consequences to modify my pristine libertarian rhetoric.


Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-10-04 5:26:32 PM

Terrence.......I have been called a "Climate change denier" and that my reasoning would be the death of billions.(people i think) I have been called a Nazi for implying that Al Gore is a flake. I have had my blog removed (from the CBC no less) for inquiring what these "sick puppies" were proud of on Gay Pride Day. Same rationale ??.

Posted by: peterj | 2008-10-05 5:04:16 PM

meant post,not blog.

Posted by: peterj | 2008-10-05 5:10:25 PM

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