“Free speech” and “freedom of speech.” These are terms you should never use to describe your community. It’s a common mistake made by people who mean well, but are brand new to community management.

What they generally mean: you can say whatever you want, as long as you follow these guidelines.

But that’s not free speech. Free speech doesn’t discriminate. Free speech isn’t just what you want, it’s what you don’t. There are some exclusions to free speech that exist in the law, but they don’t relate to most of the issues that you’ll face when working with a community.

What people will think you mean: I can say whatever I want!

Incorrect and Unrealistic

Not everyone will think that, of course. But it’ll be pretty close to the end result because when they disagree with you on where the limits of “free speech” end, you’ll be violating their “freedom of speech.” Freedom of speech rights don’t apply to privately-owned websites like yours. When you use that terminology to describe your community, you are creating an expectation that is both incorrect and unsustainable.

In other words, not only is it factually wrong, but it makes your life more difficult. You’ll already come across community members who compare you to Hitler, Stalin or the Gestapo. Promising them “free speech” will only create more issues.

When a Bastion is Not a Bastion

I was reminded me of this when I read the latest announcement from new reddit CEO Steve Huffman.

“Neither [reddit co-founder] Alexis [Ohanian] nor I created reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen: These are very complicated issues, and we are putting a lot of thought into it,” he wrote.

One problem: as reddit user Helium_Pugilist pointed out, that’s exactly how Ohanian described reddit, in an interview with Forbes in 2012.

“A bastion of free speech on the World Wide Web? I bet they would like it,” Ohanian said, when asked what the founding fathers might think about reddit. Even though reddit has removed content over the years and, as such, not hosted free speech in the truest sense, that is the expectation they have created with their community. Rigid expectations make change harder.

Accurate Expectations

The moment that you remove something that is not codified in the law as an exception of free speech, you are no longer allowing free speech. This includes spam, racist comments, profanity and, well, most of the issues listed in the guidelines of any well-managed online community. Even if you don’t have guidelines, but you still remove content outside of those exclusions, the same applies.

Your community does not play host to free speech. Out of respect for your members, you should give them an honest, realistic expectation of the limitations of your community.