One of the defining features of Reddit.com is its absolute affirmation of free speech, a stance that allows both for free, tremendously rewarding discourse and vicious conversations predicated on hate. This free discourse is only ever moderated by the site itself when there is a clear legal imperative to do so, such as when child pornography or the advocacy of suicide come into play or when the speech has immediate physical harm as a consequence.
This stance was complicated by the recent release of mass amounts of stolen, explicit content, known on Reddit as The Fappening. Reddit’s choice to ban any subreddits related to disseminating, discussing, and editing the explicit photos may not seem consistent with its treatment of other depraved content. It seems strange from that Reddit would ban any subreddits related to these nude celebrities while drawing a line in the sand for the free speech of communities like /r/picsofdeadkids and /r/sexyabortions.
The theft of explicit content from nearly 200 high-profile individuals was clearly illegal, depraved, and a violation of the basic rights of those in the photographs, but Reddit had no legal imperative to take broader action than simply responding to DMCA requests. And yet the site took broader action, citing the impossibility of following the court orders while the communities oriented around The Fappening were constantly evading Reddit’s attempts to follow federal law. Rather than cite the wrongs of the community, they cited the challenges of keeping the community in line with the law.
Reddit was right in removing this content – it is not in the best interests of free speech for the site to play accomplice to crime. However, their general policy of near-absolute free speech is one that should go unchanged.
The American ideals of free speech are useless without a platform – discourse needs distribution to be anything but conversation. Reddit sets itself up as a platform for people with any set of ideology, providing a space for any group. This free speech is accessible to anyone, anywhere, and allows for open debate. There are blogs that spew incredibly offensive material, such as the anti-feminism espoused in /r/theredpill, but Reddit is the ultimate platform of double edged free speech. And free speech demands that writers be able to have a voice, regardless of how awful their words are. Feminism becomes stronger when it is challenged – its critics prove its worth just by opening their mouths. Open discourse of harmful views is not harmful in and of itself.
What gives Reddit’s users the security to test boundaries and have productive conversations is the understanding that the site will leave them be. It would be an over-correction to say that the undesirable speech is justification enough to regulate the culture of free discourse that pervades Reddit.