Over the past few weeks I have watched the staff of Active Rain try to deal with a difficult and complicated issue and in the process I have seen some cherished ideas of free expression and association become more dim as conflicting interests tried to work out the tension that existed between them.
I have communicated with Active Rain staff by phone and email and within these pages in posts and comments. Some of my thoughts were contained in the following linked post:
So with the recent history, I was distressed to learn yesterday that Bill Burress had been terminated as a member of Active Rain for violation of AR guidelines.
The reactions of many (including me) to the news are contained in Hugh Krone's post
I would like to compliment Bob Stewart and Rich Jacobson of the AR Community Builders staff for their open discussion in comments to the above post about the specific reason for Bill's termination. This is controversial and their willingness to openly talk about the action and the reasons for it is a plus for the community.
Quoting Bob Stewart (his comment to the Hugh Krone post 5/22/08), "The comment..."If Hillary gets the Democrat nomination, expect Blacks to vote for her. Blacks are like lemmings in general elections. The vast majority of Blacks vote Democrat"... which Mr. Burress made, we determined to be hate speech which is a violation of our community guidelines and could potentially be a violation of fair housing guidelines. We will not tolerate hate speech on ActiveRain.
That is the sole reason that Mr. Burress' account was terminated."
I commented, with my usual tact and sensitivity, calling their decision ludicrous (well, we all have off days).
I do not want to rehash all of my comments from Hugh's post (linked above). Those who are interested in this series of events should be sure and read the more than 100 comments to Hugh's post.
What I have to add this evening is that I asked for, and received, an opportunity to talk with the owners to get their direct input into this controversy. Jonathan Washburn returned my call and was very open in his discussion. While I disagree with his conclusion, I appreciate his taking the time to talk with me.
First, Jonathan indicated that the Community Builders brought the case to him for consultation before they acted so there is no question of a mixed message here. Jonathan takes full responsibility for the decision. In fact, their recommendation had been to suspend Burress, Jonathan's decision was to terminate him.
Jonathan focuses on the term "lemmings" in the suspect comment telling me that he finds the comparison of a racial group to a rodent to be distasteful and hate speech in his mind. I pointed out that there is another - more usual - meaning of "lemmings" - that being a group of followers who go along with those around them in an action suggesting a herd mentality. And in the context of Bill's comment, it seems to me that the only logical meaning of the word deals with group behavior or followers. Jonathan does not agree.
So I have asked Jonathan to do a search in Active Rain for the word "lemmings". He will find ten pages of listed AR blog articles where the term is used - and I believe that the meaning will be clear that lemmings refers to followers. He says he will do so.
It is interesting that one of the articles using the term lemmings is written by Rich Jacobson - our Community Builder. Any bets on whether Rich is going to be voted off the island for hate speech? Rich's article can be found at: http://activerain.com/blogsview/384425/-Just-because-You I believe he is using the term as I describe to create an image of group action.
Jonathan spoke to me of the wikipedia definition of hate speech. Upon reflection, I have found that if he would have read further into the page he would have found that hate speech is generally protected (absent defamation or incitement to riot) in our nation of freedom of expression and controversial political or social views receive the greatest protection of all.
There is, in my view, no rational connection between Bill's remark and the Federal Housing Laws. The allegation is absurd. There is no liability under law by AR for the content of our blog posts. There is no hate speech in Bill's comment because the common usage of the word (lemmings) has no racial or hate connotation. And further - in the context of the blog, there is no rational intent by Bill other than to say that black voters, as a group, vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats - a verifiable statement of fact.
I realize that Jonathan is responsible for the cohesiveness of the community. He and his partners have spent considerable time and money to create a forum for exchange of ideas and business information among real estate professionals and ancillary professional groups. I benefit from their creation and I am grateful. But with 89,000 members and nearly 4,000 separate special interest groups (many of which are not directly related to professional topics) it is beyond my comprehension that there is not room for every one of us and our free expression of ideas that are important to us.
I believe that a part of ActiveRain is dying today with Jonathan's decision. I do not find his rationale for his decision to be convincing nor do I find justification for termination of the individual under discussion under the printed guidelines. That is my opinion - but remember if Jonathan can do this to Bill Burress, he can do it to any one of us on the slightest of pretexts. It is my view, expressed to Jonathan personally, that his decision and his oversensitivity to the use of the word lemmings says more to me about him (Jonathan) than about Bill. I agree completely that there has been language used in many of the discussion groups that I would find to be in bad taste - and I believe there are mechanisms available to improve that situation. But this decision was based upon one comment in a single blog, according to the written statements of the AR staff responsible. And while I appreciate Jonathan's taking the time to discuss his decision with me, I find his decision to be fascist and arbitrary. I fear that he may do more damage to his community than Bill could ever do.
I hope that the AR community will respond to this situation with comments or register their opinions with the owners in whatever form is appropriate. Whether you agree with me or with Jonathan - voice your opinion now. In this way Jonathan and his staff can take your views into consideration. Although I disagree with Jonathan, I give him a long credit mark for taking the time to hear me out. It would be my hope that management would take this opportunity to commute Bill's termination to a short suspension. If many members express views - one way or the other and if Jonathan reviews the common use of the word lemmings in the many other blog posts of AR as he has agreed, he may moderate his position.
In closing, I have suggested in comments that the persecution of several individuals over recent weeks has been the result of agenda rather than chance. All of the AR management and staff have been patient and cordial with me, and I do not make that suggestion disrespectfully. I have tried to view the facts as they may be available to me and infer a reasonable explanation from the events that I see. The "conspiracy theory" approach is the result of documentation which I have included in my earlier posts. (linked above) Specifically the written statement of intent by one of the members who opposes political or religious content in AR and the very chummy response to a post in that blog by an AR staffer. It appears that those who have a stated biased intent of eliminating content from the community have used the complaint process in AR to achieve their goals. That is why I have suggested that the motives of the complainers might be suspect. That the persecution of individuals is continuing after these matters were brought to light leads me to be suspicious of the motives of the bureaucracy which seems to be supporting their cause. So I have been open about my concerns, but have never suggested that I have been treated with anything but courtesy by all the AR gang. I know that has not always been easy for them.
Second, it should be noted that the content of our posts has always been declared by AR to be the property of the blogger. By the time and effort Bill Burress has invested in creating an image on Active Rain for his business in addition to the political or other content that he has contributed, he has made a significant investment in our community (Jonathan's community, if you prefer). And by the way, Bill created the Silent Majority group and built it up with personal invitations to more than 250 members - more than two thousand posts - and a position in the top ten most active groups in Active Rain. The arbitrary decision to terminate him on what I view as a minor pretext has economic consequences to Bill and may be actionable. That, however, is not my decision to make or advise. But Jonathan says that he does not have time to read the blogs to gain a context for what is being said - and I certainly understand that. But his decision, as he explained it to me, is based upon a single word in a single sentence - which, in my view is subject to a very different interpretation than that assigned by him.
Finally, the action taken by Active Rain against Bill Burress is not a government action. But it is the action of a central authority over a community of 90,000 members. I recognize the complexity and difficulty in managing such a medium, but I believe that the free and open discussion of ideas is necessary to the health of this medium. If the membership that reads of this incident view the management action as being arbitrary and capricious, as I do, then the community is damaged and Jonathan's stated goals have been diminished despite his intentions. The chilling effect on discussion of opinions will be felt by all of us.
I am reminded of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar - "But Brutus is an honorable man."