Writing your Terms Of Service / Forum Rules

Yesterday we published the Article User Management and the first paragraph was the advice to think about some forum rules. Andrew has done the great job to take this suggestion and turn it into an indepth article. Based on his own experience with administrating forums and members he has been able to write out some suggestions for you to consider. Thank you for publishing them on our web site Andrew.

Author: Andrew
Web site: http://www.literaturereviews.net/

[sf=Writing your Terms Of Service / Forum Rules (by Andrew)]
When beginning a community, one of the things you should definitely consider is creating a TOS, or Terms of Service (You may call it Rules, Guidelines, but they're all the one and the same). A TOS allows you to set out the rules that registered users should obey, the consequences should they break a rule, as well as any unique rule to your site.

Some questions you may want to ask yourself when writing your Terms of Service include:

  • What kind of environment do I want to create?
  • What could offend other users?
  • What sort of legal trouble could I get in because of something my rules didn't cover?
  • What information do I want my users to know about and be forced to agree to before registering at my site?
  • Where to display my TOS?
What kind of environment do I want to create?
If you wish to create a positive and friendly environment for your members, you'll probably want to include rules that limits or prohibits the following:

- Flaming (insulting each other)
Not many people want to post at a site where they'll be constantly insulted and put down.

- Racism
Not many people want to post at a place where they'll be insulted or hated because of their race, religion, or culture.

- Swearing
Yeah, I know this doesn't bother some people, but some younger members could be offended by it. Also, I know some teenagers have strict parents who browse their child's history, and you wouldn't want them to find your site, full of unneeded foul lanugage. It's best to limit swearing because you'll have less chance of somebody being offended.

- Negative attitudes
Members who don't flame, post racist comments, or swear can nevertheless have an ill effect on your community. Someone who constantly posts negative opinions about the site or other members without any constructive criticism is creating an unfriendly atmosphere.

What could offend other users?
Any of what I mentioned above could be offensive. But, this is a little more specific. I'm aware everyone slips at times, so I recommend prohibiting some of the following offensive comments but also limiting some of them as well.

- Degrading comments
NO ONE likes to be called fat, stupid, smelly, retarded, dumb, or anything else degrading. Many people may lose their temper at one point or another when they become impatient with somebody, so I suggest you limit degrading comments, but also post that while you understand slips do occur, you don't want them to occur frequently.

- Racism
I'm not sure how you can accidently slip and call somebody a racial slur, so I suggest you prohibit them. There's no situation where somebody can be nicely put down because of skin color, culture, or religion.

- Swearing
Most people aren't bothered by swearing, but I've been told that by not using inappropriate language you appear more mature. Slips do occur, though, particularly when someone is frustrated or angry, so I suggest just banning all "serious" words and allowing the more minor ones as long as they aren't used excessively.

What sort of legal trouble could I get in because of something my rules didn't cover?
I've had users threaten to sue me before due to "unsolicitated mail" or what not, so I know legal issues CAN arise. However, here are the basics on how to cover some of the more common legal issues.

- unsolicited email
Sending users email when they don't want it. However, when signing up on vBulletin, you can opt not to receive any email from the site. That is why I added this little snippet into my TOS:
Please note that no email you recieve from this forum goes unsolicited. When you register, you can opt to recieve administrator mailings or not. If you ever complain about getting these emails, it will be ignored. The registration page clearly states you can deny getting mail from us. Any threat of legal action will not be taken seriously, as the forum emailings do not get sent to you unless you permit it.
I suggest having something such as this so that you can't be held accountable because they didn't pay attention.

- Privacy
Your members won't be happy if you sell or divulge their private information email if they don't want you to (IP address, password, email, etc.) so to let your members know their information is safe with you, you may want to add something like this:
Please do not give out any personal information such as phone number, postal address, zip code, last name, or anything you do not wish others to know. If you choose to ignore this request, we cannot be held responsible for the consequences. First Name, Age, Gender, Location, and Birthday are all optional upon registration. As stated above, only email address, username, and password are required. Please know privacy is very important to us; we will never divulge your email address to anyone without first asking your consent. If you get "spam" emails from a member (this can occur if you check "Yes" for show email on the registration page) please report the email address to us so we can investigate.
- Pornographic Images
Against the law unless you accept only 18+ members. Definitely add something to your Terms of Service that prohibits the posting or distribution of adult material. You could very well get in serious trouble if this rule is breached without action.

What information do I want my users to know about and be forced to agree to to register at my site?
Any rule you want them to follow and any additional pieces of information you feel would benefit them.

For example, my TOS includes the privacy statement, unsolicited email, forum rules, consequences for breaking the rules, and a basic overview on what moderators, super moderators, and administrators are and do.

Where to display my TOS?
Upon registration is definitely a great place, as they're forced to agree to your TOS when they register. If they break a rule later, they can't claim ignorance. They agreed to play ball on your field, and you can't help it if they weren't paying attention during practice.

It's also a good idea to create a separate place for your rules so a user can review them at any time.

The above are just the basics of creating a TOS. It's always best to sit down and think about what rules unique to your site you'll want to include (for example, user submitted stories and all would likely require a clause in your TOS prohibiting plagarism and stealing work from another).

If you would like to see my own Terms of Service on site, click here.

Just sit down, think, and decide what YOU need for your board to run smoothly and the way you want it to.
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