By in Persona Paper

Can a Writing Platform Legally Ban Certain Topics?

I was commenting on an article about freedom of the press by momathome , and I realized my reply was long enough to be a post all by itself. So I decided I'd just come over here and write it up as one.

For those who haven't read the original post, the premise is that a site like Persona Paper can't legally forbid its users to write about specific topics because it's a violation of freedom of the press , as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution .

Because Persona Paper is an American web site and because the Supreme Court has recognized that “ digital and social media deserve the same respect as newspapers, magazines and broadcasters ,” Lee Anne feels that freedom of the press applies on this site. And it's very true that freedom of the press extends to citizen journalists and bloggers , the same as it does to trained journalists.

In her post Lee Anne discusses the possibility of restricting certain topics here on Persona Paper , since some users were suggesting a ban on topics they felt were more appropriately dealt with elsewhere. She outlines several reasons why there shouldn't be any topic restrictions here, including the fact that posing such limits would be “in violation of the law in the US.”

The problem with that argument is that freedom of the press has nothing whatsoever to do with the limits a publisher (in this case Persona Paper) places on what it will and will not publish. Freedom of the press is about government-imposed censorship and “ does not apply to the authority of owners and publishers of newspapers and media outlets to suppress or edit whatever they feel necessary .” Publishers, whatever the type of medium, “do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content.”

So while I personally don't think Persona Paper needs to forbid users from posting about specific topics simply because they are unpopular, I don't think there is anything that would legally prevent elitecodex and MaeLou from making a decision to restrict certain topics in the best interests of the site. I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not even an American. But it seems pretty clear that freedom of the press applies only to governments preventing them (and by extension, us) from writing about specific topics.

| | | | | | | LoudMan |

Image credit: Internet censorship image by Gerd Altmann/Pixabay (Public domain, CC0 1.0 )

I had to make several edits to this post, mainly due to fatigue and stupidity on my part. If you got several notifications because of this, I truly apologize!

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cm_ang83 wrote on July 30, 2014, 4:48 AM

Personally, i think freedom to post any topic is the best way for this website. If there is any sensitive topic, we can report to admin so that admin can do their part.

bestwriter wrote on July 30, 2014, 5:16 AM

Each site has its own rules (an erotic site has its own rules too :) ) and the terms of service which must have passed through whatever legislation before its finalisation says it all. The owners have the right to even chop and change the rules without giving any explanation whatsoever to the community.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 30, 2014, 5:27 AM

I'm not sure what exactly you're thinking of when you speak of "sensitive" topics, but there are types of content that are outright banned here - like pornography, hate speech, and any text that tells people how to commit a crime. If we see anyone writing on these topics, it most certainly should be reported so the admin can deal with it.

But the freedom to express ourselves without violating any site rules or impinging on another person's rights is a key value on this site. And to start reporting people because we personally are uncomfortable with a given topic would be just as problematic as banning certain topics outright because they are unpopular.

To my mind, the only good reason to ban a topic is that writing about it poses a risk to the site and our community. And the only good reason to report posts to the admin is because it violates site policies.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 30, 2014, 6:26 AM

Indeed, I was actually thinking about sites that publish a specific genre of literature when writing this post! Very surely erotic sites have their own rules, as do sites that specialize in science fiction or medical literature.

bestwriter wrote on July 30, 2014, 6:49 AM

So owners of this site can relax indeed. Soon someone will say we should be allowed to post referrals - .freedom of speech after all. Come on - give me a break ;)

chatombreux wrote on July 30, 2014, 7:26 AM

I agree with you. Within reason, owners of private sites can place restrictions (such as those already existing for vulgarity and obscenity) on topic matter. Just as they ban referral links, I'm sure they can legally ban topics, such as writing about a competing site, although MaeLou has promised that will not happen here. Personally, though, other than an article trying to entice people away from PP to other sites, I think it would be in bad form to forbid discussing competing sites as it would restrict the flow of ideas and suggestions that work there as well as here.

Scorpie wrote on July 30, 2014, 9:45 AM

The issue is a website is not "the press". In particular a website is a privately owned communications medium supported by advertisers just like radio and television and content must meet the standards put forth by the site owners.

If you wish to exercise your freedom to say anything then make your own website and your own rules.

LoudMan wrote on July 30, 2014, 11:45 AM

Well, I for one happen to know precisely what's meant by the blanket statement of "hate speech." and I'm amazed anyone would both claim to be telling the truth and demanding laws preventing its discussion from the same sets of fingertips. The truth stands on its own and does not need laws preventing its discussion. There seems to always be one group or another which demands respect from all others while never allowing for an iota of respect for anyone else.

The spell those people have held over the world for so long is losing its power second by second and I smile quietly over that knowledge.

Thanks to the Internet, more and more people are coming to see the multi-layered, multi-faceted prolific lies which they are. The day is all-but-here wherein they will be called on their lies and there will be no escape.

LoudMan wrote on July 30, 2014, 11:48 AM

*WHY did I hit "Add New Comment? WHY? :) *

But otherwise, you're right. This is there property and if they don't share my convictions, I cannot change this. But, if one political/religious/ideological viewpoint is stifled, then in all fairness, stifle them all.

LoudMan wrote on July 30, 2014, 11:51 AM

GAHH!! WRONG "there." WHY WHY WHY? hahahahaha.

LoudMan wrote on July 30, 2014, 12:01 PM

"Banning an opinion for the sake of maintaining power shouldn't be accepted..."

Yeah, well, it's happened on just about every site I've ever written for.

melody23 wrote on July 30, 2014, 1:56 PM

I am not saying I want to see it happen, but as the publisher in our writer/publisher relationship with the site, they have the right to publish or not, for whatever reason they see fit. So if they wanted to ban topics they could do it, similarly if they just didn't want to publish one particular article for some reason or another, then they have every right to do that too.

There are already restrictions on what we can and cant post, even things like the character count minimum, that's a restriction.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 30, 2014, 4:07 PM

I do agree that some people's insistence on banning certain topics is more about covering up truths they would rather the world not see. I'm not as sure as you are that the internet will end this phenomenon, however. Restricting access to news is only one way that censorship works. There are many other tools in that particular toolbox, I'm afraid :(

Ruby3881 wrote on July 30, 2014, 4:10 PM

If you are referring to my other post about referral links, please don't be afraid to come right out and discuss that topic in the open. I value frank communication.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 30, 2014, 4:18 PM

I couldn't agree with you more! The right is there, but it must be used in moderation. And I think Will and Heather do an excellent job of showing good judgement in the exercise of their rights as the site admin.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 30, 2014, 4:55 PM

Much agreed! Intelligent and civil debate is to be encouraged, and it benefits a site when such conversations are nurtured. I think Persona Paper does that very well. But it's equally important to note that whatever editorial judgements Will and Heather choose to exercise over time, they are NOT violations of freedom of the press.

Too many people seem to believe that the first amendment protects the right of anyone to say anything, anywhere. It's not that cut and dried. But always, freedom of the press concerns the relationship between a government agent at any level, and a publisher or writer. It never had anything whatsoever to do with relations between publishers and their writers.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 30, 2014, 5:05 PM

'The issue is a website is not "the press". '

I believe you are wrong there. If you consult some of the references to which I linked, you will see that the Supreme Court now defines the press as any vehicle of publication, and that social and digital media are most definitely included in "the press." Bloggers, citizen reporters, and those who own private web sites are eligible to protection as "press." In fact in Obsidian Finance Group, LLC v. Cox, Crystal Cox defended herself against libel charges, based on her freedom of the press. The Supreme Court ruled that Ms Cox deserved the same protections as a journalist working for an agency traditionally recognized as "the press."

You are right to say if we want to speak without restrictions imposed by the site owners, we must be site owners. But the reason freedom of the press doesn't apply to site owners who reject or ban certain types of content is that publishers have always had this right. In fact, the right to not publish certain types of content would be more appropriately said to be protected by freedom of the press because a contributor would have to invoke government intervention in order to force the publication of rejected content.

bestwriter wrote on July 30, 2014, 7:44 PM

Oh no! Nothing to do with you.When I posted that comment your post never came to my mind. :)

chatombreux wrote on July 30, 2014, 7:50 PM

The fact that it has happened doesn't mean it should or that it even will.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 30, 2014, 9:24 PM

Precisely, melody. I think Will and Heather are well within their rights if they choose to place restrictions - including things like the 500-character minimum length or the ban on duplicate content. The fact that they've opted to keep such controls to a minimum is to be celebrated. I think it's one of the things that makes this site a great place to write. But the openness and transparency they've displayed so far are in no way required. It's important to understand that freedom of the press doesn't enter into this equation. That's for times when government agents try to interfere with a publisher or writer, and not for the relationship between writer and publisher.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 30, 2014, 9:30 PM

I've heard some folks say that certain opinions are suppressed on a given site, but it often turns out to be the behaviour of the person expressing that opinion that's in question. Even on Bubblews where everyone seems terrified to so much as mention another writing site, it's perfectly acceptable to write about a lot of topics people assume are taboo. The trick is to make sure that nothing about your content violates any site rules.

AngelSharum wrote on July 30, 2014, 11:44 PM

I think we'll just have to wait and see what happens in the future. Who knows what will change on the site.

melody23 wrote on July 31, 2014, 10:26 AM

I totally agree, the communication from the owners is what makes this site so different from all the others.

JanetJenson wrote on July 31, 2014, 2:31 PM

I like that momathome raised this issue. I followed you over because of your apt comments on her post. Of course you are right and I just want to add that I am glad you decided to make your own post on this subject because it stimulated a lively exchange of the sort we used to see on myLot quite a few years ago. I'm really glad that a milieu for that sort of thing is back.

Ruby3881 wrote on July 31, 2014, 5:14 PM

I don't think we have anything to worry about either way, Angel. I trust that Heather and Will only impose the kind of restrictions that are absolutely necessary for the site to survive and thrive. Those tend to be the ones that advertisers would ask for, in order to pay the site so we can earn too :)

Ruby3881 wrote on July 31, 2014, 6:27 PM

Well thank you very much for the compliment! I'm very pleased that this post stimulated discussion, and I've actually noticed this is becoming more common on a whole range of posts both here and even at Bubblews in some cases. Thanks for joining in the conversation! i look forward to more such exchanges with you and others in the future :)

k_mccormick2 wrote on August 2, 2014, 7:25 PM

I think that it should be up to the admins of the site as to what they want to allow for topic wise. I think that it is a good thing to have some informative topics as well as other topics for the people that are not interested in the informative articles.

Feisty56 wrote on August 2, 2014, 10:46 PM

There are Terms of Service to which we agree to abide by the mere act of signing up for this site. They are pretty bare bones and follow along the guidelines set by many sites of a similar nature.

Ruby3881 wrote on August 3, 2014, 10:56 AM

It really should be up to a site's owners and admin to make such decisions. But we are very lucky here at Persona Paper, in that Will and Heather have a strong commitment to consulting the community wherever possible. No specific topics have ever been banned here because they do value free speech. And the only restrictions that have ever been imposed are the ones that help us retain advertisers and keep the site family-friendly.

Ruby3881 wrote on August 3, 2014, 10:59 AM

I'm glad you mentioned that most sites have similar rules. I read a rant last night in which the author tried to claim PP was restricting what he could write about. I have yet to figure out where he got that idea, or what topic he wanted to write about but felt was not allowed...

momathome wrote on August 8, 2014, 1:01 PM

I agree I might have misread or misinterpreted the law (my understanding is that it protects the writer -- even from the publisher) but I still agree that banning topics just because some members don't like them would be very harmful to the site (and in turn it's members) in the long run. And if that is done where does it stop? And how many writers would be driven away due to the suppression of topics?

Ruby3881 wrote on August 9, 2014, 3:14 AM

Agreed. Nobody wants to write for a site that is seen to be imposing too many arbitrary restrictions of any kind. That's why people are angry with Bubblews right now.