Philosophical limitations to freedom of speech in virtual communities

Miranda Mowbray

Hewlett Packard Labs
Filton Road,
Stoke Gifford,
BS34 8QZ


This paper is a practical application of ethical philosophy to a question on the administration of virtual communities.

In recent years there has been an exponential growth in the number of people using virtual communities, which allow international multi-person communication between community members via the Internet using bulletin boards, chat rooms, hosted web pages, community email, and other means of communication. The amount of communication taking place within such communities is very large, with millions of messages being distributed every day.

For many users these virtual communities are their principal public forums, in the sense that they use these forums as first choice when they want to make a statement to the world at large. Most users of virtual communities have only a limited ability to express their views using traditional mass media. (For example they may write letters to newspapers, but most are not journalists or television producers.) So virtual communities offer them an opportunity to reach a much wider public than they might have otherwise.

The principles of administration of virtual communities are still being argued over. Moreover, since virtual communities can have members in many countries, it is not clear to what extent rules on regulation of speech given by an existing geographical jurisdiction can be applied. A recent example of a conflict over regulation of online speech is the French court case in November 2000 which resulted in a ruling that Yahoo! should be fined $13,000 a day for not blocking French citizens from auction sites on Yahoo!’s US portal that advertise Nazi memorabilia. Such sites were already banned from Yahoo!’s French portal. (The Industry Standard, 2000)

All this means that for the members and administrators of virtual communities the question of how (if at all) speech in virtual communities should be regulated is an important one. As in US law, the term ‘speech’ in this paper also covers text, pictures, video, discourse by member-programmed software robots, and so on. This paper takes as its starting point the philosophical justifications given for freedom of speech in (Greenawalt, 1995). For each of the philosophical justifications mentioned by Greenawalt I discuss the types of speech to which they apply, and implications for virtual communities.

The justifications for freedom of speech imply several limitations that should be made to freedom of speech within a well-run virtual community. Since these limitations arise from justifications for freedom of speech, it is arguable that they are minimal limitations. If the philosophical arguments supporting the freedom of speech are not accepted, then further limitations to freedom of speech may be justified. (On the other hand, if one justification for freedom of speech implies that a particular speech act should not be allowed, there may be another justification, possibly one not found in this paper, which supports that speech act, and outweighs the reasons for banning it.)

I make several practical suggestions for administrators of virtual communities that appear to follow from the philosophical justifications.

  1. Have a clear, published, code of behaviour for members and staff of the virtual community.
  2. Allow members to criticise the community and staff, as a quality check and deterrent to poor performance.
  3. Consider balancing the quantity of speech devoted to different points of view, if one point of view threatens to overwhelm alternative viewpoints by sheer quantity.
  4. Ask members to rephrase inflammatory or offensively-expressed messages before publishing them in public parts of the community.
  5. Do not allow very aggressive or harassing speech, or monopolizing speech, if its probable net effect would be to decrease community participation.
  6. Make clear any limitations of the information given in the virtual community; for example, do not pretend to give unbiased information if you are promoting one company.
  7. Consider putting safeguards in place to protect child community members.
  8. If one member is allowed speech on a particular subject, then any member should be allowed speech on that subject.
  9. Try to ensure that evaluations of offensiveness of types of speech are based on the opinions of members or possibly on the opinions of the target membership for the virtual community.
  10. Consider the use of technical features that give members some ability to choose for themselves the types of speech that they hear.


Greenawalt, K. (1995). Rationales for Freedom of speech. In Computers, Ethics and SocialValues, editors Johnson and Nissenbaum, Prentice-Hall, 664-668.

The Standard. (2000, November 21). Borderless Net, RIP? The Industry Standard, [Online], 5 paragraphs. Available:,1151,20331,00.html [2000, December 11].