On Line Opinion vs people’s opinions

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.)


18 responses to “On Line Opinion vs people’s opinions

  1. jordanrastrick

    While freedom of speech entails that no website should be restricted from publishing content that’s stupid or hateful or what have you (with a few exceptions where direct harm to people can result), equally they are absolutely not obliged to , and if they choose to do so, their advertisers are equally not as obliged to continue to fund them. Should ANZ be forced to let its brand be associated with homophobia? Of course not.

    I think it is the interest of most owners of websites that have discussions, with advertisers or without, to run try and encourge higher quality than what comments like that reflect. That tends to occur when:

    A) It is a relatively small community, like this site – the more diverse the readership, the more comments tend to suffer regression to the mean.


    B) You have some sophisitcated (i.e. automated and/or crowdsourced) system for moderating based on quality. Nerds tend to do this well; Hacker News and StackOverflow probably being the most successful examples at the moment.

  2. jordanrastrick

    P.S. My favourite piece of silliness from the Australian article has to be this.

    I share the view most editors and journalists once took for granted. Almost any rational argument, no matter how abhorrent, deserves a run. Aside from advocating terrorism, the only exceptions that come to mind are pieces casting doubts on the existence of the Holocaust and apologias for legalising sex with children or animals..

    But its precisely because the Holocaust is a lie that we need to shoot people who don’t have sex with puppies!

    I just love the mindset of it. Absolute free speech, except for these three ultra-specific topics that happened to crop into the author’s head. With no apparent reasoning behind them. Maybe he only thought about it for the 1 second it took for those examples to “come to mind”?

    So I am perhaps still allowed to make an Aremnian-or-Rwandan Genocide Denying argument. I’m guessing the author doesn’t classify Western governments employing weapons of mass destruction against civilians as terrorism – so I’m also allowed to advocate nuking Tehran. Lots of what Jefferson wrote about the “blood of patriots” is probably dubious though. And apologia for sex with the intellectually disabled, is that ok? What about apologia for rape, which are currently remarkably common? Does that (awesome) episode of Rake that covers bestiality get censored, or does fiction give you a free pass?

    I’m really glad this person’s judgement affects so little of what I get to read in this world.

  3. Splatterbottom

    I agree with Jordan. OLO should be able to publish what it likes or not. People are free to read it or not, and advertisers are free to advertise or not.

    “If you had some anti-Semite spouting foul slurs about Jews, would you give her space? “

    Sadly such people are regularly jailed these days. If you want to stay clear of the law you probably wouldn’t publish it.

  4. It seems that some people confuse ‘freedom of speech’ with speech free of consequences.

    Nobody stopped them from publishing the rantings of that prick, Muehlenberg and nobody should try and stop the advertisers from telling OLO to get fucked.

    Graham Young is a bedwetting little twit who likes to serve it up and then cries when he gets slapped for his impudence.


  5. OLO chose their bed with their choice of contributor. Should they be restricted from choosing the Mule, or Fred Nile, or Sheik al-Hilialy (or for that matter, laughing Alby Langer or Jolly Joe Toscano) or for their opinion writers? Absolutely bloody not. Should they expect blowback from these choices? Absolutely. Manne and Quadrant also comes to mind as the consequences of inflaming your audience and key supporters.

  6. Anyone else notice the Australian’s deception in paiting the issue as though the advertisers pulled out due to complaints about the Bill Muehlengberg article itself, rather than the truth that it related to a clearly homophobic comment that the site later published?

    How do these editors sleep at night knowing how dishonest they are . . .

  7. narcoticmusing

    “How do these editors sleep at night knowing how dishonest they are . . .”

    On a bed made out of money after a night of snorting a line of puppies off an under-aged hooker’s ass? I can only assume…

  8. Freedom of expression isn’t absolute. There needs to be qualifications.

    In this instance Muehlenberg was way over the top. However, I’d have much preferred the likes of Mr Storer to have taken him on in the court of public opinion rather than run off to advertisers asking them to pull their advertising.

  9. What jordan said.

    The ACL is accusing IBM and ANZ of censorship, yet all they did was withdraw their sponsorship leaving OLO to publish whatever it likes. I guess they must be working off a non-standard definition of “censorship”.

  10. Splatterbottom

    Narcotcic, I don’t know what you’ve been smoking, but you don’t generally find the hooker’s “puppies” on her ass, even if she is middle aged.

  11. Then again… sometimes I publish outrageous comments here because I know they’re going to be dismantled by other commenters before they can do any damage. Maybe Young was assuming the same would happen there.

  12. jordanrastrick

    Wait…. do we have… a consensus?

    It looks like we all more or less agree so far, and that’s with pretty much all the colours of the anonymouslefty commentor political rainbow covered.

    I’m surely dreaming.

    Then again… sometimes I publish outrageous comments here because I know they’re going to be dismantled by other commenters before they can do any damage. Maybe Young was assuming the same would happen there.

    I’d agree that’s probably the justification Young and others would use for basically not restricting comments on their sites at all (as opposed to the main articles).

    But as far as the comparison to this site, I refer you back to my point about small communities. Here, even when someone posts something outrageous or the discussions is heated in general, most are quite capable of admitting we’re wrong from time to time; and since mostly the discussion is between (semi-)regulars even the flaming tends to be somewhat good natured. So a “publish in the belief the argument will get refuted and maybe people will even change their minds” strategy is viable.

    At bigger sites, stronger moderation is needed. Otherwise the tendency of the system is rapid divergence toward the lowest common denominator. Opinionated strangers show up from all over the net to hurl abuse at each other, never to return.

    We might hurl abuse here, but we return, so if we don’t want to get outright banned most of what we say has to err on the side of constructive.

    So maybe it’s Young’s implicit assumption that unfettered dialogue leads to a more robust exchange of views, but its wrong in his case, and means he will have permanently stupid and hateful comment threads that, not surprisingly, are going to have result in crap like his ads getting pulled.

  13. Muehlenburg’s piece needs to be shown for the garbage it is and then anyone who is politically associated with that view needs to be forced to state whether or not they really stand by it.

    The olo thing … well I’ve been a bit ambivalent about it from the start. Whatever I thought was a bit dodgy about G. Storer tho he was happy to clear up. So … the reality is this wouldn’t happen to some of the people that really deserve it, sometimes the comments in some places are as bad as OLO. Then again I don’t read it enough to care.

    I think sb summed it up nicely actually.

  14. “Maybe Young was assuming the same would happen there”

    I don’t think so, Jeremy. Graham (Who, as it happens, I generally have a lot of respect for) seemed to imply that a gay reader who had complained that he found the homophobic comment in question offensive should – rather than say “Hey Graham, that’s pretty much over the line, yo” – and Graham then to make the call to delete it, – educate and convince the person who’d spouted that shite that they are not, in fact perverted for loving who they lvoe.

    I’m sorry, but do we ask people who are the subject of racism to educate and convince the people who are racist? No. We expect people – particularly the publishers of the comment in the first place – to say through their actions, that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable.

    I’m not sure what obligation Graham thinks his advertisers are under, but they are not – nor should they be – obliged to back up his editorial choices with money and support. If they think he has published something – and continues to publish something, and in fact defends the publication of a comment or piece that they do not want their brand associated with, and if word gets out and other advertisers follow suit, that’s not censorship. No one is telling Graham he can’t publish the tripe that was the original article, nor are they telling him he can’t publish the bigoted shite that was the comment that was objected to. But they are telling him that in this day and age, companies do not want their brand associated with bigoted, backwards, derogatory points of view.

    If he was right in publishing it, and if that opinion had traction in the general community, he would have other companies quite happy to have their brand associated with that view. They don’t, because saying that someone who is same-sex attracted is a “pervert” is just plain wrong. The comment should not have been published, and after someone brought it to Graham’s attention, he should have deleted it.

    He didn’t, and now he’s reaping the consequences. Harsh? Undoubtedly. Fair? Depends on your attitude to capitalism, I guess. Predictable? It should have been.

  15. Agree with most of the comments here. I’m most amused by the irony of OLO’s complaint that adversitisers’ freedom to choose publications with which they wish to be associated (and by extension, an implicit expression of support for the views expressed therein) is somehow a threat to freedom of speech.

    (SB, I didn’t get your “puppies” joke until a second reading of this comment thread but maybe that’s because I’m one of those perverted gays trying to “destroy the institution of marriage”.)

  16. Splatterbottom


  17. I only just noticed this post and discussion. Having been right in the thick of the stoush, I think Marek Bage’s comment is about the best take on it.

    While I’ve expanded at length at LP, Club Troppo and The Drum about the discursive hole that Young has dug for himself, a now-banned commenter at OLO sums up Young’s approach succinctly:

    ‘Freedom of speech’ is code at OLO for ‘right to vilify’. It has been the case for quite some time, and Young has encouraged it via his very partial moderation of comments.

  18. Pingback: Australia’s Best Political Blogs | slackbastard

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