‘Free speech’ versus ‘censorship’

A proposal for a solution to the controversy ‘Free speech’ versus ‘censorship’: posting rules on internet discussion sites.

There is hardly any discussion forum I have stumbled upon on the internet that has not had a problem with participants that are posting irrelevant, and otherwise objectionable, sometimes outright destructive and malicious contributions. This led to the establishment of ‘posting rules’, whose violation will trigger deletion of posts by its ‘moderator’, and — inevitably — the equally time-consuming and unproductive controversy about ‘free speech’ versus ‘censorship’.

There is a solution to this problem that will require some extra effort but in the long run, I suggest, improve the quality of such discussions. It is a provision I have long advocated in my proposals for planning and policy-making discourse platforms designed to encourage and facilitate public participation but also display the essence of the discussion, so as to meaningfully support decisions based on the concerns brought up by discussion participants.

Any discussion site will have (at least) two main components — there may be other parts providing supporting overview maps, for example, or facilitating some systematic evaluation of the information by participants.

The first is a ‘verbatim’ file where all contributions are filed for reference in their original, un-edited version.

Then there is a condensed ‘formal argument’ file which only posts the essential content of a comment, meeting certain criteria — criteria of argument coherence. The argument must visibly state a position relative to the original issue or question, state all premises (even the ‘implied’ premises taken for granted) and have terms that link the premises with one another (aka ‘middle term’) and with the position discussed. For arguments pro or con planning or policy proposals, there is a general pattern that may serve as the guideline for posts:

“Proposed plan x ought to be adopted (‘conclusion, position up for discussion)
“X will lead to (or relate to) consequence Y” (Factual-instrumental premise)
“Goal/consequence Y ought to be pursued” (deontic or ought-premise)

The pattern can be varied by affirmation or negation of claims, and expanded by adding clauses specifying the conditions C under which the factual-instrumental premise is claimed to hold, and then another — factual — claim to the effect that those conditions are or are not present.

This will automatically screen out any ad hominem attacks, mudslinging, name-calling etc. as well as posts not pertaining to the subject being discussed.
It would be nice to have an automated program to do this, but lacking this, there will be some work by human staff to do. The editing can be checked back with original authors to ensure their meaning is preserved before including it in the formal argument file. If the entire forum discussion is intended to have some public impact (other than providing a place for people to rant or make fools of themselves, both of which which are legitimate needs and should be allowed), the display of pertinent content in a concise format should be worth some effort. Ideally, with time, contributors themselves will start to post their content in the concise format.

For posts exceeding length limitations and causing storage space problems, authors will be asked to provide a link to their own website or blog instead; then the link will be posted in the verbatim file.


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