Where do I sit on the now infamous On Line Opinion spat?
On the one hand, I do believe in free speech. But on the other… if you’re publishing something, either an article or a comment, you are doing more than just listening to it – you’re promoting it. Do you, as a website owner, have an obligation to publish any material, no matter how hateful, dishonest, misleading and downright damaging to honest debate?
I don’t think you do have such an obligation. I think publishing such material is making a choice – and a statement. You are saying “this view is not so extreme and destructive that it is beneath contempt; I think it is a legitimate part of the debate”.
The background, as I understand it:
- On Line Opinion (OLO) published this ludicrous piece by Bill Muehlenberg in which he revealed that he spends a lot of time reading “the gay press” and attempted to suggest that gay people can’t take marriage seriously because some gay people don’t agree with his views on marriage.
- The following comment was published:
“It’s interesting that so many people are offended by the truth. The fact is that homosexual activity is anything but healthy and natural. Certain lgbt’s want their perversion to be called “normal” and “healthy” and they’ve decided the best way to do this is have their “marriages” formally recognised. But even if the law is changed, these “marriages” are anything but healthy and natural. It is, in fact, impossible for these people to be married, despite what any state or federal law may say.
- Reader Greg Storer objected to homosexuality being declared a “perversion” and asked OLO to remove the comment.
- OLO refused.
- Storer and others contacted advertisers.
- ANZ and IBM pulled their advertising.
- OLO complained.
- The “Australian Christian Lobby” came to its defence, as did The Australian. (Ouch.)
I’d argue that publishing an argument from someone like Muehlenberg which amounts to little more than an ad-hominem attack on gay people via insulting some prominent gay political figures is an editorial choice which is not required just because you’re trying to give reasonable space to both sides. And publishing a comment calling many of your readers relationships “perversions” is
The former is not an honest or reasonable contribution to debate, anyway. It’s the kind of thing that smothers genuine discussion – it certainly isn’t part of it. And the latter is, in reality, indistinguishable from hate speech.
The question I’d ask OLO is – where do you draw the line? If you had some anti-Semite spouting foul slurs about Jews, would you give her space? Is a reprehensible view acceptable just because you know several people who share it? Where do you draw that line? How many people need to believe something obviously false and dishonest before you’re willing to publish it as an “alternative opinion” in the guise of “balance”?
And if you choose to draw the line too broadly, why shouldn’t advertisers choose not to support your site?
To be honest, I’m not sure what kind of advertising really suits a genuinely free exchange of ideas, anyway – corporate money is fairly wary of anything controversial, which would hardly be something such a site should shy away from.
I suspect if you don’t want to scare away mainstream advertisers, you need to keep your content within certain bounds. Bounds which exclude publishing naked hate speech and misleading rhetoric.
Sorry, but on this occasion I think OLO stepped over the line, and it shouldn’t be surprised by the result. (And not just because they’ve got the ACL in their corner.)