Ghost of Midnight

… about neighbors, community and Front Porch Forum

Online Civility can Promote Free Speech

Posted on Tuesday, January 22, 2008 by 2 comments

Occasionally Front Porch Forum is criticized for hosting moderated online forums. The critics worry about freedom of speech… giving every hothead unlimited space to vent seems to be some kind of gold standard.

While I recognize the immense value that our Bill of Rights grants us, especially freedom of speech, I also feel that the incivility found on many online spaces stifles free speech from those of us less willing to step down into that kind of environment.

So it was heartening today to read Charles C. Haynes piece on this subject. He writes, in part,…

I want people to read The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It, a just-released book by Os Guinness — an influential Christian writer and public philosopher… Guinness urges us to focus on the urgent question that confronts the United States and the world: How do we live with our deepest differences, especially when those differences are religious and ideological?

The answer, he argues, begins with a rejection of extremes on both sides of the culture wars. Say no to a “sacred public square” — where one religion is privileged at the expense of others. And say no to a “naked public square” — where all mention of religion is removed from public life. Both are unconstitutional and unjust.

Guinness proposes an alternative vision of America, a vision consistent with both the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment: A “civil public square” where people of all faiths and none are equally free to enter public life on the basis on their convictions and where the government neither imposes nor inhibits religion.

Among other things, a civil public square requires forging a civic agreement to uphold the rights of others, even those with whom we deeply disagree, and a commitment to debate our differences with civility and respect.

Haynes goes on to say…

Civility doesn’t mean we all pretend to agree; it isn’t “niceness” that papers over disagreements. Differences matter — and we should debate them openly and freely. But how we debate, not only what we debate, also matters.

Civility, argues Guinness, doesn’t stifle debate or dissent. On the contrary, genuine civility “helps to strengthen debate because of its respect for the truth, yet all the while keeping debate constructive and within bounds because of its respect for the rights of other people and for the common good.”

Posted in: Front Porch Forum, Online Civility, social capital, Social Media


  1. Dan says:

    Excellent bit of writing. Question: who moderates? Does it get delegated to a volunteer actually in that community? (That has it’s problems too: you can be accused of censorship more easily if you have an interest in what’s being said! Perhaps area volunteers might swap moderating duties!)

    I may well be pestering you more, if that’s OK. I’m slowly working towards trying a little pilot in the UK. Out of all the localising-with-the-net attempts I’ve seen, yours has been by far the most successful. It’s apparent how much time and thought has gone into making it work.

    I wonder what differences in community reaction there might be between the US and the UK?


  2. Michael says:

    Thanks Dan. Front Porch Forum provides community moderation… that’s part of our service. I play that role currently in the 130 online neighborhood forums that we host in our pilot city.

    And I don’t know about differences between the U.S. and U.K. I find this whole experience humbling… I learn something new and unexpected frequently through my work with Front Porch Forum. It’s certainly not a uniform experience from one neighborhood to another even within our relatively small pilot area.

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