The Thin Line Between Free Speech and Censorship

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about online public forums, free speech and civility. The gist of the article is that, while providing an online public forum for residents to provide feedback for their City government, the site drew a lot of snarky comments, some of which could be considered uncivil.

As a local government, we always hope online conversations about controversial issues remain respectful, civil and constructive; however, we realize others will use it as a platform on which to rant and complain. With any online forum, I think that’s to be expected. Those who are regular users of the internet expect these kinds of comments, too, classify them as “trolls,” and ignore them. It’s something that often tends to self-moderate from my experience. What we didn’t expect what that a conversation would get out of hand so quickly.

The conversation, which started as civil, was turned upside down by a few people with a multitude of complaints and another hiding behind dozens of aliases to heckle and “gang-up” on others. The comments, most of which were unwelcoming to new visitors, put off those who could have provided good feedback in fear of being mocked or ridiculed.

As soon as I posted a response on all three threads reminding users to “keep this space welcoming to everyone and their ideas,” and to “keep comments respectful, constructive and on-topic,” the conversation was swiftly cut-off.

City government and communicators in the public sector have an interesting dilemma. Where is the line between free speech and censorship? Unfortunately, I don’t think it that easy to identify.

As part of my City’s social media policy, we reserve the right to remove comments for a myriad of reasons, such as offensive or vulgar language, personal attacks on staff members or members of the public, political endorsements or commercial advertisements. Most of those are pretty easy to spot, but not so much offensiveness.

Identifying an offensive post is fairly subjective. I came across this with comment on a City blog. While one staff member thought it was an offensive post and a “clearly pornographic metaphor,” I disagreed. While it was in poor taste, I didn’t particularly think it was offensive. Then the big question — do we remove it or leave it?

I wish there was an easy answer to that question. In an effort to retain transparency, and keep first amendment watch dogs from calling government censorship, I opted to leave the comment. Was that the best decision? I don’t know.

As part of our practice, before a comment or post is removed for any reason, we take a screen shot of the comment and save it so there is record of the comment. A comment is posted in its place once the original has been removed, stating that a comment has been removed and for what reason. Until recently, this hasn’t been much of an issue, nor do I foresee it becoming any larger of one.

But, it’s like I said in my interview. The sentiments of comments received really depend on the topic at hand. If we were asking what a city should do with its parks for example, I think we would get a lot of positive comments. If we ask what a city should do about the huge increase in residential redevelopments, like we did, you could see comments from all points of view.

In the article, the City Manager said, “They were lamenting, ‘Don’t you think the city is obligated to police it a bit so it fulfills the function you set it up for?’ While I’m sympathetic to that opinion, the government telling you that your speech is unwelcome because it is argumentative seems like a slippery slope.” I agree wholeheartedly.

While not necessarily new to my City, Gov 2.0 and social media are still relatively new and scary to many local governments, opting to disengage instead of using it to the best of its abilities.

So what is government’s role in self-created online public forums? I think we are still trying to figure that out. It will be interesting to see how the role of social media and how online communications affects governments over the coming months and years, especially as the public becomes more critical of government spending and staffers are seeing shrinking budgets.

So, what’s the general rule of thumb? I’d leave it unless it explicitly violates the policy, such as threatening or vulgar comments. But that’s just my opinion.

Are other government agencies seeing this problem? What are they doing about it?

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