I read an article this morning on a non-profit called the American Widows Project and thought it sounded like a very worthy cause. In addition to helping them directly, I’d like to do my little part to get them some more publicity.

That reminded me of another recent article on allowable links on your website. That article specifically talks about the problems faced by public entities like school districts and whether they must allow links to private companies on their webpages. It’s a difficult question for any governmental organization. Under US law, they have an obligation to protect free speech but at the same time can not create the appearance of an unfair endorsement of a private opinion.

For a public entity, it depends on the exact nature of the page – if your township hosts a “forum” where citizens are allowed to express opinions and air grievances, there are very few allowable limits that can be placed on the free speech rights of the people participating in the forum. On the other hand, even public entities have non-public forums – places where completely free speech would get in the way of the very mission that the agency is supposed to carry out. Limits in those forums are more acceptable. Regardless, any limits should be

  1. clearly stated ahead of time
  2. based on reasonable protections of other rights (for example, ‘no hate speech’ or ‘stay on topic’) and
  3. be enforced with ruthless consistency.

If you work with a public entity with any online presence, I strongly urge you to read the eDiscoTech article.

As a private citizen, the calculations are different. First, you have no obligation to allow others to say anything. You are not required to let someone to take over your backyard to make their political rant even if the same speech would be strongly protected in the village square. But you want to allow interaction and linking on your personal website. That social contact is most of what makes the website valuable and brings in readers. The challenge is that your credibility is directly linked to all those outsiders. Anything you include or allow on your own website carries an implied endorsement. If there’s bad content on the other side of a link, it reflects back on you. So if you host a blog (whether Twitter or a more conventional blog like this one), you probably want to allow comments but you probably also want to keep some rights to control them if only to filter out the spam and other worthless content. And you should be fairly conservative about who you link to. Be sure they are the kind of people you want your reputation associated with.

Corporations have it hardest of all. They are private and have no legal obligation to allow their site to be used for the free speech of others but attempts to suppress or censor negative comments almost always create more backlash and ill-will than the original complaint. Corporations generally do best by enforcing clear rules (especially the “off-topic comments will be removed” rule) but otherwise allowing users to post whatever they really feel about the company’s products or services.

Ultimately, I decided to include a link to the American Widows Project – you can see it now in the blogroll on the right of the website. Deciding who you should link to is an interesting question, though.

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