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Update: July 17, 2007

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Newsvine Censorship Confirmed

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There has been recent discussion on the Newsvine site recently of a seed that was removed automatically from the system due to numerous complaints of a dubious nature. With that issue in hand, I turn to the four letter word of the information age: censorship.

You agree not to upload, post or otherwise transmit any User Content that is unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, tortuous, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, libelous, known to be false and presented as truth, invasive of another's privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable;
This is a part of the user agreement which Calvin Tang quoted in defense of his contention that the seeds title or possibly the seed itself was not appropriate for the site, and that its automatic removal via the complaint system was justified.

I take issue with the phrase "known to be false and presented as truth" which was singled out by the staff as their main reason for this act of censorship being appropriate.

It's impossible to argue that the Newsvine staff was not within their rights to act as they saw fit, with or without a user agreement to back them up. It is their site, and they may do with it as they wish, and I support that technically, but not morally. Communities don't live and breath on technicalities.

What I do not support and believe is unconscionable is the clause on truth. Here the staff is doing far more than policing bad behavior and has moved into the murky realm of judge and jury on article content.

Some users have claimed that because this action was explicitly allowed in the user agreement that it doesn't count as censorship, but this is far from reality. The definition of censorship is simply that text or information was deleted by a censor, and that is unarguably the case here.

For a site that claims to enlighten through news and information and is less than two years old, it has already succumb to worldly temptations to control information and influence peoples thoughts by depriving of them access to certain unfavorable opinions.

I am not oblivious to the fact that some people could see this editorial as an act by this author to defend holocaust deniers -- the subject that started this particular fracas is almost thrown to the periphery now -- I assure you that this is not the case. I would write this editorial no matter what the subject matter may be, and at this point in time I couldn't care less about how all of this began. I know only that censorship leaves a bad taste in your mouth that is rather difficult to be rid of.

The hallmark of the freedom of speech in the United States is that it was never meant to protect popular speech, but precisely the opposite, for popular speech needs no protection at all. While that particular amendment to our constitution applies only to the government, it embodies a way of living and a way of creating a truly free society that we all should adhere to whether we have to or not.

It is not for the Newsvine staff, its users, the U.S. federal government, your neighbor nor anyone else to say what is the truth and what is not, and to mete out punishment for arbitrary violations of an arbitrary policy that turns subjectivity into findings of fact.

A persons right to say something that you find offensive or distasteful lies within your own right to say things other people may find equally unpleasant. You cannot censor them without opening the door for yourself to be censored right along with them.

It's easy to say that you'll censor within reasonable limits, such as disallowing threats of violence, or libel and defamation, but those prohibitions have foundation in law. To go further by banning anything that is "untrue" is in my opinion unreasonable and utterly unattainable for it would require you to know with complete certainty with is true and what isn't.

The question then becomes where do you draw the line? If I were to say that President George W. Bush is the worst president ever, a conservative who disagrees may have grounds to say that I am lying. They would say I presented opinion as fact. History will ultimately prove who is right, but until then, all we have is opinion. What is true to me may not be true to you, and who are you or anyone else to decide that for me?

Other instances are more controversial, such as holocaust denial. This one should be fairly easy to decide, given the ample physical evidence that contradicts the deniers claims, but so what if you're right and they are wrong? What gives you the right to silence them on a site designed to let everyones opinion be known?

You could then move to issues with an equal mix of faith and physical value -- the debate of creation. Did God create the Earth and man, or did the Earth form from dense radiation and man evolve from simple organic compounds that randomly pooled together billions of years ago?

Given the previous examples context and the physical evidence for the formation of the Earth and subsequent biological evolution being overwhelming, millions of people, perhaps even billions, reject these conclusions in favor of biblical faith. Who gets to decide which one of these is the lie presented as truth, and subject to censorship by the system?

Will there come a day when denying evolution -- like the holocaust -- will become a crime? Who will be the arbiter of that, the Newsvine staff? A web script? The human masses that once declared the world to be flat? What qualifies anyone to decide what's true and what isn't?

This is what happens when you censor people, when you place yourself above others in deciding what is the truth and what is not. It's not an issue of quelling abuse or encouraging civil obedience when you've declared yourself the ultimate decider of truth.

So long as the user agreement exists as it does when this article was written, the site has placed both itself and users in the untenable position of walking on water. Users must consider carefully what they say for fear of having their work "disappeared" with no notification and no explanation whatsoever, and the site operators are bound by their agreement to mediate any and all disputes regarding the truth of statements beyond any reasonable measure of sensibility.

Any debate of fact can now be grounds for censorship, and I fear that users here must deal with the things they sought to leave behind in other institutions of discussion and press.

As Aaron Neville would say, "Freedom of speech, as long as you don't say too much."
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The text of this article is Copyright © 2006,2007 Paul William Tenny. All rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Attribution by: full name and original URL. Comments are copyrighted by their authors and are not subject to the Creative Commons license of the article itself.