Setting the limits of free expression

Latvians Online censors its discussion forums. And in the past several days, the responsibilities and repercussions of that censorship have hit some of our staff—and several of our readers—hard.

So now we offer you, our readers, an opportunity to determine the degree to which we should limit expression in our discussion forums.

But first some background.

We won’t go into details of the case here, but suffice it to say that as a result of our efforts to remove or prohibit certain objectionable material during two weeks in mid-May, we have had to edit or delete dozens of messages, have had to answer angry notes from irate forum participants and have had to mount a defense against one aggrieved reader’s libelous "anti-defamation campaign" that spread to at least one other online service.

Anyone who uses our forums should know what we mean by objectionable material. Every forum page states, "No foul language, attacks on individual people or companies, or advertising of any kind is permitted (non-profit organizations excluded) in these discussion forums." Since launching Latvians Online, we have edited or deleted messages that contained foul language and that were outright attacks on individuals. We have on several occasions expanded the rules to include attacks on ethnic groups, removing posts that were blatant examples of ethnic or racial prejudice.

But should we? What are the limits of free speech, especially given this still young medium of the Internet? And where do you, our readers, want to draw the line?

The Englishman John Milton, writing in the 17th century, suggested that people should be able to express their opinions in what is now frequently called the "free marketplace of ideas." The theory behind this marketplace is that truth can compete—and rise above—falsehood. This is a notion that has been adopted, in differing degrees, in many Western democracies. It’s a notion, we believe, that should be the standard for political speech.

The marketplace, however, is nothing like what it was in Milton’s day. Global communication technology allows readers of our forums to post messages from Canada, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Latvia and plenty of other locations.

One issue now before legal experts around the world is how to deal with expression on the Internet. Laws about expression that are specific to one territory may find little sway in another.

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution (ratified in 1791) forbids the Congress from making laws that abridge freedom of expression. However, legislative bodies have not always held to that restriction. At times, the courts have stepped in to remind lawmakers about the First Amendment. In the course of two centuries of case law, we now know that the right to free expression is not absolute. Obscenity, for example, is not protected by the First Amendment. Neither is expression that threatens national security.

In Latvia, the Law on the Press and Other Mass Media (adopted in 1990) states that everyone has the right to freely express their opinions. Censorship by the government is forbidden. But Paragraph 7 of that same law outlines what is not allowed to be published. The list includes items such as state secrets; expression that argues for racial, nationalistic or religious superiority, and information about the health of a citizen without that person’s agreement.

If Latvians Online adopted a hands-off policy to expression in its forums, letting every message stand without editing or deletion, we might find ourselves in violation of some law somewhere. And we’re sure that many readers would agree that certain expression should not be allowed, regardless of whether there are laws that forbid it. Child pornography would be the prime example.

As we step away from that extreme, how far should we go before declaring that we’ve reached an acceptable point? Should expressions of ethnic or racial hatred be tolerated? Will Latvians ever come to terms with the Holocaust and with 50 years of Soviet occupation by forbidding online attacks on Jews and Russians? Does denying hatred a channel for its expression do anything to reduce that hatred?

What about foul language? Is a well-placed expletive in a forum message only meant for dramatic effect, or does it encase a political opinion? Should we protect our young readers from foul language, stuff they hear anyway at school, on the playground and at Latvian summer camp?

Is it all right to allow attacks on individuals? If a Kļaviņš accuses an Ozoliņš of being an idiot, should Ozoliņš return the favor or call his attorney? If the former, does it serve any purpose to allow two individuals to sully the forums with personal attacks? If the latter, wouldn’t it make sense for us to step in to avert a possible lawsuit? No one has a right to hurt another individual, and we know that individual readers of our forums have been hurt by verbal attacks. Shouldn’t we police that kind of behavior?

One of our regular forum participants has likened Latvians Online to a house. We’ve invited you in and you are welcome to stay as long as you follow the house rules.

But we want this to also be your house. Over the coming weeks, we invite you to use our Open Forum to discuss what standards Latvians Online should have for the forums. Are our current rules good enough? Too strict? Not strong enough?

Let us know.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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