Stamp Out Online Misogyny?

Feminists are calling for a ban on hate speech on the Internet, but it's not the government's job to censor the Internet; that responsibility falls to individual websites

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Nothing much is unfamiliar about the latest feminist campaign to "stamp out" online misogyny, described here in the New Statesman (and erupting on Twitter). The atavistic verbal abuse -- including graphic rape fantasies -- directed at some female bloggers is instantly recognizable; so is the the insistence of some feminists that hate speech shouldn't be protected as free speech, that anonymous threats effectively "silence" women (who are then perversely characterized as the real victims of censorship), and that violent words are the equivalent of violent acts. As Susie Orbach declares, "The threat of sexual violence is violence itself ... and it's meant to shut people up." 

This is hyperbole, like much of the abuse of which women complain. You don't need a lot of empathy to understand that being targeted by deranged descriptions of violent assaults can be deeply unsettling. But you only need a little common sense to know that violent rhetoric does not equal violent action, and that every woman who equates words with actions would still rather be the subject of a metaphoric assault than an actual one. Nor should you need a law degree to recognize the difficulty of defining "abusive" speech and the dangers of censoring it. Intentional targeted threats of violence, or "true threats," may be prohibited. But even in these extreme cases, courts struggle to distinguish between actionable threats and protected advocacy or overheated rhetoric, while some women protesting their online abuse don't even acknowledge the distinctions.

The stamp out misogyny campaign isn't necessarily aimed at securing legal bans on misogynist speech (although it includes pleas for legal interventions and could easily inspire some). It seems focused more on encouraging private actions by private owners and gatekeepers: Facebook is exhorted to "ban sexist pages;" online forums are urged to ban anonymous postings and filter abusive comments (as major sites do.) This is not, then, a simple debate about censorship, pitting essential and established First Amendment rights against some imaginary civil right not to be offended or viciously heckled. It's a debate about the private prerogatives and preferences of owners, producers, and consumers of new media.

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The only formal rights involved in this particular debate are the rights of private entities to control access to their sites and set the terms of whatever debates are aired there. Anonymity may be a treasured online tradition (however recent), but it is not a right, except in the public sphere: the state can't legally stop you from publishing or posting anonymously, but the owner of a privately owned site or publication can decline to give you access.

In fact, you don't have a right to post comments under your own name, much less anonymously, just as you don't have a right to force a newspaper to publish your letter to the editor. Yes, an online site has the capacity to post comments that a print publication lacks; but to suggest that the capacity to post your comment, anonymously or not, imbues you with a right to have it posted is a bit like suggesting that your capacity to copy and paste this column imbues you with a right to appropriate it, or that the ease with which you can enter an unlocked house gives you the right to commit a burglary. Your right to engage in an activity is not determined by your ability to do so. This is not an argument to end anonymity or increase monitoring of comments. It is simply an effort to distinguish between rights, prerogatives, and permissions in the battle over online speech.

Libertarians considering the prospect of additional, private restrictions on speech may be torn between their affection for raucous, open, free debate, and their sympathy for the rights of private parties to control the debates that occur on their properties. Personally, I'm ambivalent toward the stamp out misogyny campaign. I don't believe that misogyny will be eliminated or significantly diminished by private suppression of misogynist online speech. I worry that identifying problems of abusive speech inevitably builds support for repressive legal "solutions." And I shudder at nonsensical efforts to distinguish "hate speech" from free speech; freedom for the speech you like would merely be redundant. But when women complain about speech they consider abusive or downright frightening, I have to say, welcome to the fray. You may mock them for complaining, but "complaint" is just another word for protest. Besides, women who speak out against misogyny can't claim to have been silenced by it.