As you are probably well aware, self-proclaimed 'front page of the internet' Reddit has been in the news lately. It recently updated its site policies to allow it to ban certain toxic subreddits that have been found to be habitually targeting individuals for harassment. Soon after the change, Reddit enforced the policy by banning five execrable forums on the site. (I won't mention the banned subreddits here, as they don't deserve the attention, even in memoriam.) The banning has caused quite the uproar amongst those who feel the bans run counter to the free speech-centric spirit of the site.
Wired writer Davey Alba has an article, "No Matter What Reddit Does, It's Going to Alienate People," that goes into some detail about the situation. The title of the article is, I think, both very true but also too limited. I would replace the word "Reddit" in with "Any Community," because what is happening on Reddit is what happens in all places when it comes to the right to free speech, and the conflicts that arise from that right.
Online or not, any community is going to have its, well, its completely awful human beings. The struggle, in both United States law and now with online communities in the 21st century, is how to balance the rights of individuals with the rights, privacy, and health of the community. Basically, the issue is this: What do you do with those who use their rights to say horrible things? Mind you, not just things you may disagree with, but things any decent human being would find revolting? U.S. law in the real world has been pretty clear: when it comes to the free speech rights of hideous groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church, courts have ruled repeatedly that they have a right to do what they do.
But there is a difference in how things work online. We know who the members of the WBC are. When they protest, they actually show up places with their signs and their awfulness, and people can organize counter-protests or choose to ignore them. Online, one person can harass or threaten another person basically from anywhere to anyone. They can do so anonymously. And they can act largely without consequence. As a private company, Reddit has more leeway to create policies that address this kind of speech, but the balance it must strike is even trickier.
Too permissive, and Reddit risks letting trolls subvert and ruin the community without the community having any recourse. Too strict (as some believe it is being right now) and it risks the rise of the mob, and countering the spirit the site was founded upon. And, as the Wired article states, no policy or action is going to make everybody happy.
Maybe I'm mistaken or naive, but I've always thought that part of the responsibility of free speech means publicly standing behind the things you say. How much courage is there in your convictions if you aren't willing to risk the consequences of them? But that's not how things work on the internet. And in an increasingly online world we're either going to find a way to effectively deal with things, or we're just going to have to get used to things being that way.