Freedom of Speech in Your Community Online?

While I've been online as a forum owner and administrator, I've had the occassion, as all forum administrators have, to be accused of not allowing the members of my community their rights of "freedom of speech."

Censorship vs Freedom of the Member

These few members are generally horrified that I have edited sexually explicit content from their posts. They are furious that we use a censoring system within our message board software to filter out profanity. They are angry that I don't allow them to post advertisements with their affiliate links. In their rage they shake their fist at me with words simliar to this:

"I have rights! You are denying me freedom of speech!"

My first reaction is to point to the TOS (Terms of Service) that all members agreed to during registration which is very specific about the conduct and activities allowed in our community. I remind them that they agreed to the guidelines during registration and those are the rules.

"My House Rules"

I usually make an analogy for them that explains: It's like visiting my house with rules on the front door. "Enter and enjoy conversation. The word "slobbo" is not allowed in my house. If you say the word "slobbo" you will have to leave my house."

They might enter the house, chat for a while and then say the dreaded word: "slobbo". They are escorted to the door and are forced to leave my house.

Usually, most disgruntled members will tone it down, muttering something about their poor eyesight and not remembering that they read the guidelines during registration. They then enjoy their membership without further problems.

However on a rare occasion after I point to the guidelines with my clever analogy of "my house rules", a member refuses to turn on their brain cells of understanding and they begin a rant.

Freedom of Speech!

Their rant usually scrapes the universe with their limited understanding of their rights contained in the U.S. Constitution. Their anger is spewed in emails and in posts (that are quickly swept away and archived) that I would have the audacity to not allow them to pursue life, liberty and happiness on my forums, guaranteeing their freedom of speech and rights to say whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want.

The U.S. Constitution:

Amendment I

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.

Freedom of speech from the first amendment can be summed up this way:

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech

As a forums owner and administrator: I am not Congress. The Constitution does not say that a privately owned website must guarantee that members can say whatever they want on the forums. It simply states that CONGRESS must not abridge the freedom of speech.

Members have rights to say whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want: on their own property, within the confines of their own space in accordance with the laws of the land. However, members do not have freedom of speech on privately owned websites, privately owned forums.

The owner of the website/forums has the right and responsibility to create, establish, maintain rules that best fit the community and edit, ban, disable the account of any member who does not follow the website TOS. TOS (Terms of Service) or Guidelines are king.


This is one of the most important reasons why an administrator of an online community must create a TOS that is easy to understand and is specific in its expectations of the members' behavior. Create a loosely worded TOS (and maintain loosely moderated forums) and you will have your hands full pointing to the non-specifics TOS in an attempt to gain control when a situation gets out of hand.

I've added a snip to my TOS to clarify "Freedom of Speech" for the next member who accuses me of erring and stomping out their rights of freedom.

Freedom of Speech? Although the constitution of the US guarantees that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, this website is not Congress. Freedom of speech rights do not extend to this privately owned website. The TOS/Guidelines of this website governs the behaviors and activities of the members. If you choose not to follow the guidelines agreed to during registration, the result is a disabling of your account.

Protect Your Property

Guard your website well, fellow admins. To nurture it and protect it means a loyal membership will applaud the safety of the environment you create as you maintain responsible TOS for the good of the whole community.

copyright 2004 The Admin Zone (All Rights Reserved)
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