Answering an Objection to the Language of Reddit’s Expanded Ban

In last week’s post, defending Reddit’s decision to expand its content ban, I promised that I’d answer an objection to that expanded content-restriction policy

The objection to that content policy comes from Gizmodo, in a post from Annalee Newitz entitled, Reddit Bans /r/Coontown For All the Wrong Reasons

Ms. Newitz, sensibly, isn’t opposed to a ban, for subreddits like /r/Rapingwomen or /r/Coontown; she feels that the content-restriction policy that CEO Steve Huffman promulgated amounts to a “terrible set of policies.” 

She contends that the new August restrictions were unnecessary, and that prior content restrictions would have allowed Reddit to ban like /r/Coontown because

Huffman could have banned /r/Coontown under the original set of rules, which state that Reddit can ban forums “that incite harm against others.” But because he wasn’t willing to admit that racism incites violence, he wound up inventing a crappy new rule — based on whether subreddits are “annoying” or “make Reddit worse” — that will actually do more harm than good.

Reddit made the right decision to ban /r/Coontown, but to base a policy against racist speech on the theory that it leads to violence is unnecessary, and puts a website in the business of contending for or against arguments of social science. 

A broader definition of what’s unacceptable, without a tie to inciting violence, assures that a private publisher’s freedom of act – in defense of its brand name, customer goodwill, etc. – will not require a link between speech and possible reader conduct.  Advising a private publisher-client to establish a content-restriction that requires a link between speech and violence would only limit a private publisher’s ability to act.  Publishers are not social scientists, nor need they be. 

There are, candidly, some derogatory terms that a private publisher – in this case, crucially, a private entity like Reddit –  might mish to limit that do not have a link to violence. 

That’s why Reddit’s latest content-restrictions, ones that allow a ban apart without a link to violence, are ones that I would have advised: they offer freedom of action to the publisher. 

It’s true, of course, that CEO Huffman might ban too much, but the need to maintain readership will act as a brake on his restrictions. 

In any event, none of this involves state action.  If private publishers limit too much, there are sure to be others that will spring up as alternative havens.  (That’s one reason state action is so different: one wouldn’t expect new governments to spring up in response to state censorship.)

A publisher-client’s best interests are served through flexible policies that afford discretion in implementation. 

That’s precisely what Reddit’s new content restrictions allow.