“Freedom of speech” is a tricky subject. In the United States of America, where I’m from, it’s something that we as citizens take full advantage of. Sometimes, this is awesome – sometimes, it is quite ugly. But, the key is that we have the freedom to be either one of those things and many things in between. Freedom of speech is also highly misunderstood.

Where Problems Arise

The misunderstanding I want to talk about today is one you’ve no doubt experienced, if you’re run a community with guidelines for any measurable portion of time: the members who believe that, by some sort of law, they are allowed to say whatever they want, whenever they want, on your community.

This is wrong. There is no such law. Freedom of speech as provided by The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads as follows:

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.

The key word here is Congress. In short, the government can’t enact laws that limit our speech.

This has absolutely no effect on someone running their own online community. Your site isn’t owned by the government, it’s owned by you and, as such, you have the right to decide what sort of activities can and cannot take place.

What’s Wrong With “Freedom of Speech”?

Sometimes, I think that community administrators – especially those who are new to the task – get caught up in the idea of “freedom of speech;” in the romantic notion of it. And that’s cool. I love that I live in a time where I can register a domain name and have a site with my views on it up within an hour or so.

But, if you tell people that they are entitled to “freedom of speech” on your forums, you are most likely doing yourself a disservice and promising something that you cannot or do not even wish to deliver on.

This is pretty simple: are you going to allow racist comments? If you’re reading this, I suspect the answer is no. That is my answer, too. And, we have just stifled someone’s freedom of speech.

This is reasonable. The venue should have a say in what happens within it, whether it be your home, a restaurant or a website. The owner can decide what they want and don’t want (within reason and with respect to law).

Just because you feel this way doesn’t make you an evil person. That may be how some people portray you when you remove their post. I’ve heard it all, certainly. I’ve been called Hitler, Stalin and Gestapo; I’ve had far too many people tell me I removed whatever they posted because I disagreed with them. Of course, that’s absurd.

Focus on What You Want

My aim is to encourage respectful discussion – and that is all and whatever means I utilize to get there; that’s what I need to do. I have no problem telling my members this. In fact, it’s right in our guidelines:

Freedom of speech rights do not extend to privately owned websites, such as this one. These guidelines detail the types of behavior and activities that are allowed here.

I guess the point here is words matter. When talking about your community, don’t say that you allow “freedom of speech.” This sets the wrong picture in the minds of far too many who will expect to be allowed to do far too much on your site. It makes your life harder and makes your responsibility that much more difficult.

Instead, communicate honest and realistic expectations. Use your user guidelines to detail what is and isn’t allowed. Always tell people what your aim is. Don’t over promise, don’t say things that sound cool or that you think will win people over. Say things that are the truth so that you can focus on winning over the people you want; the people that will understand and want to be a part of your community for what it is; not for what it isn’t.