Alex Blaze

Is speech online different than in real life?

Filed By Alex Blaze | March 17, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: free speech, homophobic behavior, joke, online, rhetoric, violence

The anonymity of the internet makes people say stupid things, but it seems like at least one court isn't willing to accept "It's just a joooooooke!" as an excuse. Just because someone's online doesn't make a death threat

A state appeals court says a 15-year-old boy whose Web site was flooded with anti-gay slurs and threats can sue a schoolmate who admitted posting a menacing message but described it as a joke.

In a 2-1 ruling Monday, the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles said the violent language of the message - threatening to "rip out your ... heart and feed it to you" and to "pound your head in with an ice pick" - conveyed a harmful intent that is not protected by the right of free speech.

Anyone who's been around the internet for around a month's seen how crazy some people act because they assume that there are no consequences to their actions, often going far enough to suggest that people should die. Cyber bullying does affect people, and, as an Iowa State University study showed last week, it disproportionately affects LGBT people just like bullying in real life.

There's really only so much crazy that the internet was built to take. People sometimes just don't get how far they're going because they figure they'll never get caught, or that somehow it's OK to tell people you want to see them dead, because the internet isn't real.

The defendant got sued for making the comments online, and tried to have the suit dismissed saying his online comments were free speech.

The plaintiff, identified only as D.C., set up a Web site in 2005 to promote an entertainment career after recording an album and starring in a film. Believing - wrongly, the court said - that he was gay, some fellow students at a Los Angeles high school posted comments that mocked him, feigned sexual interest or threatened violence.

The boy's father said he withdrew D.C. from the school, at the suggestion of Los Angeles police, and moved the family to an undisclosed spot in Northern California. D.C. sued six students and their parents, claiming hate crimes, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The ruling involved a claim by one defendant, a 16-year-old identified as R.R., that the suit interfered with his freedom of speech. In a court filing, R.R. said he didn't know D.C. personally but was offended by the Web site's self-promotional tone and "decided to add my own message to the Internet graffiti contest," posing as a parent who was so offended by D.C.'s singing that he wanted to kill him.

While I generally lean towards free speech fundamentalism. Free speech zones, suing the WBC because they upset military funerals, hate speech laws I read about from other countries... I could go on, but my first instinct when I hear about restrictions on free speech is that a group of people is, either because of insecurity or entitlement, trying to force other people to fall in line with their point of view. It's disrespectful, basically seeing a human population as sheep and arguing over who gets to be the shepherd.

But the violence stuff? That's not about trying to persuade people to a particular point of view, it's about trying to make people shut up and let others steam roll over them.

And I think that most people who get into the violent rhetoric online wouldn't ever do that in real life, that they'd tone it back because they'd have to face the person they're talking to. I suppose the other way to look at this case is that everyone else needs to catch up on the fact that violent rhetoric on the internet doesn't mean anything and just stop worrying about it so much, but it seems like an utter failure on our part to just give up on the idea that people can be held to such a low standard of decency even when they're alone in their home.

Or maybe these people wouldn't be decent in real life and, instead of just talking, they'd be hitting. Who knows.

Especially with their legal defense being the uber-douchy excuse "I was just joking." (That's so easy to say after the fact, isn't it?) That's a bully's favorite, isn't it? Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself! Oh, look, he's crying like a fag. Get a sense of humor, pussy.

Fortunately, our little corner of the internet doesn't get much in terms of violent threats (I only remember one, and that lasted for day, mostly because the people have to search to find this website. If we were larger and got more attention from conservative media, I'd expect to see more what with all the confident, free-thinking queer people speaking their minds.


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Seth Emmler | March 17, 2010 12:11 PM

". . . what with all the confident, free-thinking queer people speaking their minds."

That's pretty ironic, Alex, given that you regularly censor readers' comments under the guise of the TOS. I myself would never utter a threat nor use an epithet, yet I have had a comment sent down the memory hole.

At the same time, you have a regular writer here, Ms. D'Orsay, who in the last couple of days has called readers "half-wits" and compared one to a "sack of feces". Goddess only knows what else she has been calling readers over the past 16 months. Of course, these posts do not trigger the TOS and are never censored. Given your contempt for free speech and your willingness to use the TOS in a biased manner, I don't think you should be extolling "free-thinking queer people speaking their minds".

Yeah, it's a TOS violation when you tell someone that they're "horse shit." This isn't a public space, and while we let a whole lot more stay up than most websites do, we don't leave 100% of stuff up. Sorry that you can't call people horse shit all you want. (Actually you can, just not here.)

As for other violations of TOS, please notify the edteam with the contact form (link's at the top). We can't possibly be expected to read every single comment that appears on this site, so if you think that one of them violated TOS you'll have to nudge us a bit.

Seth Emmler | March 18, 2010 3:17 PM

Not to start a whole thing, but for the record I did not call D'Orsay or anyone else "horse shit". If you would go back and read the exchange, D'Orsay said she was doing a column the next day and couldn't wait to see the "horse shit" that would be my reply. I responded by saying that the column itself (as opposed to my reply) would be the "horse shit".

So the first person to reference horse dung was D'Orsay. I just used it in reply in reference to her upcoming column, not in reference to her personally. By contrast, D'Orsay has referred in a different exchange to a reader as a "sack of feces".

I know this is your blog and you can set TOS and enforce them as you see fit. But it would be more fair if you would actually read the purported violation with care and if you would apply the TOS equally.

And yet, I cut-and-pasted verbiage from the same Bilerico columnist where I was labeled "racist, sexist, elitist, classist, essentialist, transphobic, homophobic" and "assimilative," and made an official complain to Bilerico's editors. The only response was a mocking one - comparing both of us to children, and having us stand in a corner.

In my opinion, the lack of response to complaints concerning this columnist does not engender much good will with the gay male readers of this blog, Alex.

My opinion(s) may be unpopular with some. That's fine. But to then be assaulted by completely over-the-top e-mails from your columnist is completely... well, for lack of a better term... unethical.

I'd like to elaborate on my complaint of the behavior of Dr. D'Orsay, Alex.

If one were to go and read all the comments I've made here at Bilerico, I believe one will see that I have never been disrespectful to any person or viewpoint; I've disagreed with quite a few electronically published opinions but have done so, politely. I have never reached for any invective, nor have I ever made any comment "personal."

This columnist purposely moved a difference of opinion off-board for the sole and distinct purpose of going for the invective - so that she could take personal shots at me, and my opinions, without fear of repercussion from Bilerico editors.

When asked not to contact me, personally, again, she did so anyway - flagrantly displaying she must feel she is "above the rules." That second e-mail served no purpose other than (when stripped of all the "high falutin'" verbiage) to intimidate me - she "would be out to get me," so to speak.

Also in that e-mail, she intimates the fate of Ron Gold at Bilerico would be "nothing" compared to mine.

At that point, I simply returned the conversation back on-board, cutting-and-pasting her e-mails to me, in their entirety, along with my single, responsive e-mail to her.

The "light-handed" response of Mr. Browning to my complaint is inadequate.

Dr. D'Orsay made a conscious choice to take a posting thread off-board for the sole purposes of making a personal attack, and to threaten future attacks.

That is a heinous abuse of privilege granted her as a Bilerico contributor. It is, in my opinion, a far more grievous abuse than any perceived "attack" of Mr. Gold's in his infamous opinion column.

There appears to be an egregious double-standard being applied.

I must request Dr. D'Orsay be treated by the same standard applied to Mr. Gold, and that her contributor status to Bilerico be terminated.

Margaretpoa Margaretpoa | March 17, 2010 12:37 PM

Online speech frees to people to be their douchey selves in some cases. It;s the perfect format for bullies, who are inherently insecure and cowardly. Some of them hang out to troll specific authors at this very site. Now they can soothe their feelings of inadequacy without the risk of someone calling their bluff and hitting them in the nose. People also feel like they can make threats with impunity and anonymity.
None of these are first amendment cases though. Protected speech doesn't mean people can issue threats or incite violence, threats of violence or an escalation of hostility.
Assholes abound, and the world is full of them. Most of the bullies one meets in the world will talk plenty of crap behind someone's back but when face to face will just be as nice and polite as it's possible for them to be. Online forums to them mean the ability to always be a jerk without ever having to say they're sorry.

Honestly, I think everyone here has committed cyber-bullying at one time in their lives.

Maybe not threats, but are any of us really clean on this one?

I have been an adamant supporter of making basic net safety a required course for high school graduation. The going attitude of school boards is "we don't allow it here," but turning a blind eye does not make bad things go away. It allows them to fester with uneducated approaches to internet presence. Kids share too much, and what they share is the kind of stuff that will never, ever disappear from the net.

Most cyberbullies can be defrayed with proper permissions control and smart tracking procedures. I have one that tried to start up stalking, but I quickly shut him down.

"are any of us really clean?"

please, geena...do you think you know everyone's background sufficiently enough to pose that sort of question? i, for one, cannot be found guilty of violating anyone else online in the 13 or so years i've been around. and i have to opine that there are several...nay, many...who can make the same assertion.

it's absolutely essential that there be controls on the hate-speech we see and hear. look at the lives that have been destroyed over the years. this anonymity that the internet gives us is far too tempting for the "inherently insecure and cowardly" bullies out here (thanks for the term, margaret).