letter to self-censoring russians

I can’t agree with the people who have responded to the «kill NATO» LiveJournal suspension incident by editing their posts. Where are your principles, people?

The United States has a long history of protecting political speech. The «kill NATO» comments were clearly political speech, depending heavily on irony to make a point. If these sorts of comments had been printed in a US newspaper or on a television or radio program, it’s inconceivable that the author would have been punished, or that the newspaper editor or publisher would have suffered any form of censorship.

Protests by readers/listeners/viewers are, of course, not at all uncommon, and are an inseparable component of the public discourse. Self-censorship is also a fact of life — unfortunately, I would say — when media with corporate sponsors bend to the will of their patrons. But the law protects all sorts of speech, even speech which is hateful, offensive, or even false. (The law also provides mechanisms for people who suffer as a result of damaging speech to seek redress.)

I think the issue here is clearly that web media just haven’t been around long enough, and haven’t been tested enough, to clearly establish the way that these same protections apply to blogs and other formats.

In no case, of course, can a newspaper or a radio station or a web site be obliged to publish viewpoints that it finds objectionable. Just as a newspaper editor might decide not to publish a letter from a local Ku Klux Klan member, a centrally-hosted service like LiveJournal might refuse to publish anything at all — including not only speech that contains superficially (or truly) offensive speech, but even statements about art, say, which do not line up with the tastes of the company’s management.

But newspapers, radio stations, and television stations build their reputations in part on their records of balance and inclusiveness — or, alternately, bias and exclusiveness. It is often considered undesirable for a newspaper, say, to build up a reputation of excluding legitimate points of view, even those which may be held by a small minority and which may be extremely distasteful to the vast majority.

The same goal of not appearing to be politically biased is often held by network publishers as well. I remember pre-Web, pre-Internet (at least, pre-pervasive Internet) battles in the 1980s, when the online service Prodigy was roundly criticized for instituting draconian speech controls on the posts of its members. Its reputation suffered greatly for what was rightly perceived to be a gross, ill-considered policy of censorship.

Of course, since LiveJournal is heavily used by people for whom «political speech» is hardly a priority, if even a concept, it is entirely possible that its management may go on with this dum-dum policy of knee-jerk suspension indefinitely. The teenage romance crowd is not going to engage the LiveJournal management in any sort of articulate dialogue.

But you, the intellectual Russian diaspora, you have more than enough means to pursue the development of a more nuanced policy on the part of your platform providers. Why, then, would you retreat into unfounded, cynical commentary about «the real nature of free speech in the US», and simply roll over on the principle by censoring yourselves to placate the miniature tyrant who has invoked the oafish suspension policy against you?

Perhaps the answer to that question could be very interesting, especially in light of the continuing failure of democratic reform in Russia. Cynical abdication of individual responsibility, total denial of the existence or even possible existence of an enlightened society — these seem to me to be the hallmarks of the mainstream contemporary Russian intelligentsia, especially the segment that has fled the motherland. Perhaps it’s foolish to expect better than this, in response to this LiveJournal incident, because (as a group) you’ve been ready to «roll over» on much bigger issues, with much more immediate — or at least apparent — import than this one.

But you have to start somewhere. If you are even afraid to have your LiveJournal account taken from you, how can you imagine that you will be able to fight for anything whatsoever? If you are willing to let an unconsidered policy push you so easily into editing your own speech, what does this say about the value you assign to political speech? If you assign such a low value to political speech, then where, truly, do you hope to find yourselves in five years’ time? In ten? In fifty? Is Russia, and is the world, simply abandoned by you to find its own way — to «hopefully allow free speech» somewhere down the road, in battles to be fought by others?

Look, my practical suggestion as an outsider to this matter:

1.Compose a document, to be «signed» by as many people as are interested, that lays out the matter to the LiveJournal management.

2.Send the document to LJ management, or better, to SixApart. Send copies to journalists (Wired, New York Times, London Guardian, Russian publications, etc.)

3.Plan a massive, well-publicized boycott of LiveJournal if the policy is not intelligently reviewed and if your community is not engaged by LJ management in meaningful dialogue.

But please, do something! Don’t just roll over and die!

Noel Bush