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A Cautionary Tale: The First Amendment, Good Taste and Writers’ Rights

This article is a cautionary tale for all bloggers.

Background

scalesofjustice.png A situation in the blogosphere saddens me, but illustrates, yet again, the need for bloggers to deal with each other in good faith and with integrity and respect. This is a topic I wrote about recently, concluding that we all have a responsibility to post responsibly.

I recently submitted “Thirteen Reasons I Wish You Could Have Known My Father” to a blog carnival. I previously participated in one of the “proprietor’s” carnivals, e-mailed casually with him on a couple of occasions and recently, as you saw from the “sticky” post that appeared here for a few days, agreed to host an upcoming edition.

Last evening, I received an e-mail from the individual hosting the current edition of the carnival, letting me know that the post announcing the carnival had been published. So, anxious to read all of the entries, I visited the host’s blog. I was stunned when I saw the introduction to my article. It bore no resemblance to the verbiage I included when I submitted my entry and was, in fact, completely nonsensical.

So I politely e-mailed the host and said, “I am confused by your description of my post . . . I have no idea what the rest of that verbiage means.”

I fully admit that I was not prepared for his hostile and defensive response. He also let me know that he changed the introduction to my article to read as follows:

Colloquium is the site of JHS, Esq., from Livable, Lovable Lodi, California. Thirteen Reasons Why I Wish You Could Have Known My Father is her meme. My answer to this question, if I were doing this meme, would be that if you knew my father you would know why I think he was a spineless [vulgarity deleted].

I jokingly tell people that, given my profession, not much shocks me. But I was taken aback when I saw what that introduction to my memorial tribute to my father.

Controlling Principles

I believe in and and am sworn to uphold the First Amendment. I would “defend to the death” any blogger’s right to free speech.

However, not all rights are absolute. Rather, the exercise of certain rights must be tempered by reasonableness which is why, for instance, although Americans possess the right to free speech, you cannot lawfully yell “fire” in a crowded auditorium nor can you joke in the security line at the airport about highjackings or terrorist acts committed upon airliners.

Writers also have rights and when we submit our posts/articles to the various , we need to be clear about what we will and, most importantly, will not allow to be done with our written product.

The two competing rights at issue — bloggers’ First Amendment right to free speech vs. the right of carnival participants and guest bloggers to retain control over their written product, as well as the manner in which that product is advertised/promoted — are of equal value and importance.

In this instance, the carnival rules were brief, but included this statement: “[N]o profanity in blog titles.” Therefore, it never occurred to me that profanity would be utilized in the blurb introducing my submission.

I am not a prude, but I simply will not tolerate having my writing — or my parents’ memories — associated with what I deem to be filth. That is my right. And this is where the “good taste” component comes into play. Don’t ask me to define “good taste” because to do so is as difficult as nailing Jell-O to a wall or herding cats. (You will recall that the U.S. Supreme Court could not define “obscenity.”) “Good taste” is a completely subjective and fluid concept, changing and evolving in accordance with the particularized circumstances being evaluated.

In this instance, I submitted a post that I drafted in honor of my father on the occasion of the fifteenth anniversary of his death. I wrote from my heart about a man who, as I described therein, was “a gentleman who would never use foul or distasteful language in the presence of his wife or daughters — or allow anyone else to do so.” In fact, my article includes the following story:

I remember once bringing a videotape of “The Verdict” over to my parents’ house. I really thought they would enjoy watching it. But the beginning scene is the last one they saw. When Jack Warden’s character comes to the office of Paul Newman’s character to find him passed out and late for a court appearance, Jack Warden drops several f-bombs in the process of rousing Paul Newman’s character. My father got up, pulled the tape out of the vcr, and told me in no uncertain terms that we would not be watching the rest of the movie because of that language. I was surprised and, at first, annoyed because they were going to miss one of my all-time favorite movies. But I respected his feelings on the subject.

Obviously, were my father alive today, he would not, for a couple of very specific reasons, be pleased to have an article that was written in his honor entwined and associated with the commentary included by the carnival host.

The first is, of course, the language used. It is not, in my estimation or my father’s, in good taste. It constitutes vulgarity which is entirely gratuitous. Bloggers are free, of course, to use foul language or obscenity in their writing. Readers are free to avoid the sites of bloggers who do so. It is precisely like the incident I described with my parents: My father had every right to remove the videotape and refuse to watch the movie in his own home where he established and enforced the rules. It’s a beautiful system, isn’t it?

I am of the opinion that writers too-frequently use profanity and vulgarity because they either have limited skills and are incapable of conveying their thoughts without using such terminology as a crutch or, worse, are lazy and can’t be bothered expressing themselves in a more sophisticated manner. Either way, I am not interested in reading such writing and will not have my efforts associated with such writing.

Suggested Guidelines for Blog Carnival Hosts

What is the role of a blog carnival host? If you host blog carnival(s), do you spell out the duties of the host and host site? Do you have specific parameters governing the manner in which submissions are to be handled, i.e., what kinds of posts will or will not be accepted, how the carnival host should handle submission(s) that he/she feels are not in keeping with the standards and guidelines he/she maintains for his/her own site, how the carnival will be publicized/promoted?

It is my belief that the purpose of a blog carnival is to spotlight writers’ efforts. Therefore, although bloggers have the right to speak freely, it is the blog host’s job to sacrifice, for that one post only, his/her own platform in favor of promoting — in a wholly positive and empowering manner — the work of the carnival participants.

I do not believe it is appropriate for a carnival host to inject his/her opinions, feelings or criticisms when introducing the carnival submissions. Those blurbs should be drafted so as to encourage readers to visit the participants’ sites and read what they have to say. Therefore, they are advertisements and should be drafted as such, reflecting respect for and understanding of the article being highlighted, as well as the author(s). When an advertising agency agrees to design a promotional campaign for a particular product, the focus is on that product. There is no discussion of how the agency’s personnel feel about the product or any competitors in the marketplace. The agency is hired to do one thing: Come up with a campaign that will make the public want to buy the product. So it is, in my opinion, with blog carnivals: It is the host’s job to make his/her readers want to read the participants’ submissions. Nothing more. Nothing less.

I found the blog host’s introduction to my tribute to my dead father, which demonstrated only disrespect and contempt for his own father, to be in extremely poor taste. Worse, it detracted from and demeaned not just the purpose and intent of my writing, but of the blog carnival itself. That is my opinion and it will remain so no matter how many insults the blog carnival host and “proprietor” wish to fling at me or how many vile and vulgar names they choose to childishly call me via e-mail or on their own blogs.

Civility, Respect for Each Others’ Different Viewpoints and “ Responsibly

Unfortunately, when I insisted my submission either be removed from the carnival or the offensive verbiage (cited above) deleted, the host devolved into insults and name-calling. However, to his credit, he did remove any reference to me or Colloquium from his blog which is a completely satisfactory result.

And what of the blog carnival “proprietor”? I thought that, after reading the host’s derisive e-mails to me, he would agree that the host was out of line, abusive and unprofessional.

Sadly, that individual’s behavior was less honorable than that of the host. He saw fit to post “Complaining, Whining And [sic] [offensive, gender-specific, misogynistic term deleted] About A [sic] Carnival Post Like A [sic] Spoiled Brat. Don’t Do It. I Don’t Want To [sic] Hear About It.” In addition to the hate speech included in the title, the body of the post contains vulgarities that will never be published on this site.1

Suggested Guidelines for Bloggers When Contemplating Whether to Participate in a Blog Carnival

Bloggers should exercise caution when submitting original work to various blog carnivals.

* Visit the host site at least a couple of times and make sure that you will be comfortable having your name, site and written product associated with and linked from that blog.

* Contact the host if you are the least bit uncomfortable with his/her philosophy and/or the host site’s content. Express your concerns in a considerate and respectful, but firm, manner to assure that he/she understands and will respect your perspective.

* Set limits when submitting your post to a blog carnival. Set forth in details any limits you place upon the use of or linking to your work, politely advising the host that, if the parameters you have outlined are unacceptable, he/she should decline to include your post in the carnival.

If, as the proprietor of the carnival in question has now posted, the host advises that “[t]here is not and there will not be any limit on the freedom a host has to create their carnival,” you can make an informed decision about whether or not you wish to risk participating, keeping in mind the twenty-first century version of the age-old proviso: “Buyer Blogger beware.”

My standards and guidelines here at Colloquium are straight-forward and easy to follow. I strive, at all times, to blog responsibly and challenge all other bloggers to do the same. There will never be any profanity, vulgarity, obscenity or hate-speech published here or in the comments. No exceptions. I agree with David Culpepper of Pure Blogging who, in establishing guidelines for guest bloggers, classifies the use of profanity as “unacceptable content,” noting “You can make your point without the use of profanity.”

You have a right, of course, to define precisely what “responsibly” means for you and your blog, within the bounds of reasonableness, just as I define “responsibly” in the manner I see fit. We don’t have to agree. We don’t have to define “good taste,” “vulgarity,” “profanity,” “obscenity” or any similar terms in the same fashion. We can agree to disagree and co-exist peacefully in the blogosphere.

I will sleep well tonight knowing that my father would be proud and approve of my standards and commend me for standing up for them. In these matters, thanks for your wisdom, counsel and the quiet but clear example you set, Papa.

  1. Update: He has revised the post a few times and each time it becomes more vile, serving only to demean its author since it is nothing more than an ad hominem attack upon me and completely devoid of any reasoned argument or assertion of well-founded facts. Therein, he calls me a liar, apparently forgetting that attorneys preserve evidence which, in this instance, takes the form of e-mail transmissions readily available for inspection.

2 Comments

  1. I’ve had this post on my mind since I first read it from your SheWhoBlogs interview.

    I do have a tendency to use too much profanity and I’m trying to get better about it so as to not get blocked from everything blog related.

    Tonight I used a section of this in a blog post of mine. (And did link back to your blog, but not this particular post)

    It does have vulgarity in it (of a PG or maybe PG13 strength), but it’s supposed to be tongue in cheek. Just wanted you to know in case you came across it no harm is meant and I WILL remove it if you want me to.

    Nona’s last blog post..The Places Stupidity Takes Me

  2. Pingback: The All-Time Best Blogging Articles of June 2008 | Super Blogging

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