Freedom of speech is a precious privilege not everyone enjoys. But freedom of expression isn’t always pretty. Because you can’t restrict it to only those people who agree with you. And that means ugly, resentful, intolerant ideas get shared too.
If Reddit CEO Steve Huffman follows through with his promise to start restricting free speech on his service on tomorrow’s AMA (aka Ask Me Anything) at 1pm PT, though his intentions may be honorable, his actions could be the beginning of the end for this online community.
He doesn’t need to take the position he’s taking. He could just let the law dictate what is and isn’t allowed. Because even in the U.S., you don’t have complete freedom to say anything you want, anytime, anywhere.
Just as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act grants special immunity to online service providers whose services could be used to facilitate copyright violations, why not leave it up to the courts to decide what is and isn’t acceptable on Reddit?
There are all sorts of laws and regulations in place to sort it out. Why Huffman has decided to take it upon himself to solve this one is a mystery.
The First Amendment right to free speech was written primarily to make sure the government can’t interfere with individual freedom of expression. But even the government can put restrictions on when, how, and where you can say certain things.
You can’t hold a protest in a residential neighborhood at midnight, no matter how important the topic, or say something that jeopardizes national security. Your boss can restrict your speech while you’re at work. Copyright and intellectual property laws impose restrictions on sharing things like company logos or popular music.
Privacy laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (aka HIPAA) protect medical records, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has all sorts of rules about what a public company can and can’t say about its financial well-being.
There are defamation laws that prohibit people from saying untrue things that could harm someone’s reputation. If you’re the boss, you can’t say things about your employees that could be seen as sexual harassment, discrimination, or retaliation based on race, religion, national origin, age, sex, or disability.
And you’re not always free to say good things about an organization, brand, product or service that you have personal, family, or business relationship with unless you disclose that relationship. In certain circumstances, if you post an update on social media about your employer’s products, you’re required to disclose that you’re an employee in a way that’s clear and conspicuous and close in proximity to your post or you could be fined $11,000 per incident.
So as you can see, even if Reddit does the right thing and refrains from issuing a draconian policy update, there’s no shortage of laws users can cite to police conversations, without Reddit becoming an official arbiter.
The facts are, you’re not 100 percent free to say whatever you want, at least not without facing some pretty stiff legal consequences.
It’s not that I don’t think some sub-reddits are outright offensive. I do. But intellectual freedom means freedom from censorship, unless someone breaks the law.
Why would a community like Reddit want to become the judge and jury as well?
Eric Schwartzman is a digital strategist who leads teams in the delivery of digital marketing initiatives. He is the strategist behind online social media training provider Comply Socially and online newsroom management service iPRSoftware. He is author of “Social Marketing to the Business Customer” and has extensive experience providing content marketing, lead generation, search and social optimization, and education technology services to senior leaders at multinational corporations, global nonprofits, the US Military, and federal government agencies. You can follow him @ericschwartzman.
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