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columns, advice & rants

Freedom of Speech and Censorship

Author: Superdrewby
Date: 2001

I recently started looking at sites that displayed a Blue Ribbon Link for Free Speech on the Internet and as I had never really paid much attention to this subject I thought I would have a browse through the linked sites. I have heard of the Freedom of Speech campaign before and have seen the ubiquitous Blue Ribbon image on many sites that dealt with slightly controversial issues, gay and lesbian content sites included and have taken for granted my interpretation of this campaign.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Blue Ribbon site was as good a place to start as any and it was filled to the brim with fascinating information on censorship on the web. The Internet at its best is a cyber experience on every single topic imaginable from personal pages detailing the life and thoughts of a school child to multinationals promoting their wares online. Unfortunately the web is also a place were predators, pedophiles, racists, hate-mongers and other undesirables are found. The argument for freedom of expression on the web is a double edged sword and is a hotly debated issue on the one side upholding civil rights and on the other allowing government's and censors to question people's own judgment.

The basis of the freedom of speech campaign is excellent, aiming to protect and uphold the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of speech. However the campaign is often used by people with more sinister motives than just freedom of expression. The Internet is often used to disseminate material that is not only illegal but hateful and can and often does incite racism, violence and bigotry.

So many sites these days display the Blue Ribbon as a de facto standard on their page thinking that by displaying the image they are standing up for their rights to free speech. The advocates of free speech suggest that all expression is valid and that it should be allowed, whereas the opponents of the Blue Ribbon campaign suggest that it is encouraging immoral and illegal activity and behavior.

The proliferation of hate, pedophilia and racist sites has stirred enormous controversy into this debate and there are many sites devoted to ensuring that the Internet is sanitized for public consumption. The proliferation of blocking software, Net Nanny and others seeking to protect children by filtering out sites that contain offensive words, phrases or pictures. The software works by looking at the content of the pages before they are displayed and if the page contains words that are banned it will not allow the site to be displayed. The software also has a constantly updated list of sites which are banned because of their content and also a list of e-mail addresses that are also banned. This sort of blocking may seem to be fair and reasonable upon first thought, but the blocking software is inherently flawed and amounts to now more than pure censorship by parents and government. Many libraries, schools and other places offering Internet access use these sorts of software products to restrict the types of pages that can be viewed. The problem is that sites that may be educational in nature or useful are also blocked for containing the banned words.

The Internet has been a breath of fresh air for gay and lesbian rights and in helping teenagers deal with their sexuality by reading other people's experiences and seeking out like minded people for support and advice. The number of self help sites for young gays and lesbians grows every day and this information is voraciously digested by people from all over the world trying to sort their own feelings out and ultimately help to find themselves. The ability for a gay teenager in a small town in the back of beyond to chat with another gay teenager about their experiences and feelings may stop that child from feeling so alone and reduce their risk of suicide. Unfortunately Internet blocking software deems any mention of the words gay, lesbian, queer or homosexual as banned content and will not display the site or the results. This may seem perfectly appropriate if you are anti gay and and subscribe to the misguided logic that by blocking this sort of content as a parent your child will not be gay. However logical this may seem to parents it simply isn't the case. Instead by blocking these sites the child may end up more and more alone and instead may contemplate suicide.

I'm not being scarist or extremist in my views on the value of the Internet and its ability to connect isolated people and help them through their own crisis is huge! The opponents of free speech suggest that we as adults cannot make our own choice on what we deem to be inappropriate content either for ourselves or children in our care. Sites like mine are considered to be very dangerous places for youth, because it serves to show homosexuality in a positive light and promotes that concept that being gay is not bad it's just the way some people are made end of story.

Many of the opponents of Freedom of Speech on the Internet link homosexuality with pedophilia, a kickback to the awful 70's and 80's and of course the rhetoric of the far right wing. Of course any sane person knows that homosexuals are not perverts or pedophiles and the statistics back this up all around the world. Children are far more likely to be abused by heterosexual family members and not some anonymous homosexual. The rhetoric and hateful diatribe spoken by so called religious and political leaders only serve to inflame and incite hatred towards minorities and other races. Sites such as God Hates Fags is a prime example of the hateful rhetoric that the religious right uses to attack homosexuality and freedom of Speech. But here is where it is interesting, the founder of God Hates Fags uses the Blue Ribbon campaign as a banner to hide behind and claim that they are allowed to promote anti gay sentiments under the freedom of expression civil right.

So we can see how the Freedom of Speech and the Blue Ribbon Campaign can be used both ways. Whether we agree or disagree with what someone says it is their right to say what they want provided it does not cause moral, emotional or illegal activities and ideals. Unfortunately many of the proponents that have hijacked the campaign use it to promote hate.