Do you censor user generated content that's not illegal and doesn't personally attack another user of your website for being hate speech? If so, where do you draw the line?

EDIT: A few cases where different people might have different ideas about whether speech should be censored:

"I would never vote for Obama because he's black and blacks have a lower IQ than whites"

"Homosexuality is a crime, just because some countries have legalized homosexuality doesn't mean that it isn't."

"Israelis should go home to where they came from."

"The holocaust never happened."

"Everyone who voted for Bush has blood on their hands."

"All Republicans are racist."

What principle would you use to decide which of those statements are hate speech?

7 Answers 7


As a general rule of thumb, I would moderate in keeping with how you want your website to be perceived. For example, if you have a business website, it may not be in your best interests to allow profanity or crude humor in your forums. Ultimately, you're responsible for what appears on your website, either by what you create or what you allow, and the perception of your site will reflect your policies.

Edit: In response to your added questions, again, it depends on what you're comfortable allowing. In some people's eyes, though not everyone's, what you allow on your site could be considered tacit approval. There are a few ways this could be handled:

  1. Promote an open atmosphere and clearly state that the views presented by users don't necessarily represent those of the website. Only curtail the most egregious instances.
  2. Keep the site strictly on-topic only and moderate any and everything off-topic. You haven't mentioned what your site is about, but depending on the community, it might be easiest to simply ban political discussion. Part of this is in how your site is organized. If you have a forum, simply don't create a political sub-forum. If you allow social bookmarking with comments, don't create a category for politics. Look at how StackOverflow is designed - How easy is it to have a political discussion there?
  3. Somewhere in between. You allow open discussion...to a point. You could post this very same list of questions as examples of discussions or questions that go over the line.

However you go about doing it, I would make it clear from the beginning what is allowed and what isn't. It's important that you have something to point to for consistency's sake. The community will adjust itself around your rules.

You had asked in the comments if I was using this myself. Again, not on my site yet, but I do help moderate a popular webmaster forum. There is a politics section there and we generally moderate it according to the third method I mentioned. It does get heated sometimes, but for the most part, people behave themselves. We have had to ban a few people, though. Our policy is usually to give a warning first (unless it's really bad), then a temporary ban, then a permanent ban. There are a few members that like to push the boundaries, but we keep an eye on them and as long as they don't go too far, they are generally tolerated.

Honestly, spam is a far bigger problem than hate speech, and the forum I help moderate has very low tolerance for it. The serial spammers will be obvious and they get an instant ban. Some people get a warning if it looks like they unknowingly did something spammy (there are actually a lot of these). We edit a lot of posts as well. Again, it's important to clearly and prominently post your policies. If you don't moderate consistently in regards to spam, word will spread and you will get more of it, especially if you have high PageRank (Adobe in particular has been a glaring example of this). In addition to aggressively moderating spam, I'd recommend either not allowing links or no-following all user submitted links.

In the end, you'll have to make a decision for how you want your site to be perceived and how you want your community to function. It's important to keep in mind, however, that internet communities aren't democracies - they're governed by the rules set forth by the site owners, administrators, and moderators. Unlimited free speech is not a fundamental right on any website, so it's up to you if you want to allow it.

  • The phrase "I would" suggests that you aren't making these kinds of decisions at the moment, is that true?
    – Christian
    Jul 20, 2010 at 18:59
  • I don't currently have user generated content on my site, but I will very soon and I will be moderating according to this guideline. Jul 20, 2010 at 20:16

It depends on context (as others have mentioned), but one rule of thumb would be to ask yourself "would I have written this for this website".

So on a business site you might not allow something you'd be OK about on a personal site.

However, hate speech is hate speech and while it might not be illegal or personally attacking a specific user it must be attacking someone or some group of people.

As long as you are up front about what content you won't allow and are consistent then nobody should be able to complain - though they probably will. Also remove (or don't publish) the entire post. Don't edit people's contributions.


I remember reading the terms of service when I signed up for Flickr, and they had what I thought was a very clever sentence near the end:

Don't be that guy ... You know .. that guy.

This told me that Flickr holds people accountable for their behavior and doesn't tolerate harassment. Note, harassment is subjective. One person may take what you say in stride or even 'tweet it, someone else may feel egregiously offended. "Hate speech" is really dependent on who is talking and who is listening.

Make it quite clear that users are expected to conduct themselves civilly, and that reports of abuse from other members are taken quite seriously. Make sure moderators or site administrators are active enough to see and stop arguments that just digress into nothing but name calling, threats, or worse.

Flickr's approach is novel in that it doesn't spell out a list of things that you aren't allowed to do, because surely nobody could make such a list without forgetting something.

That fits a political mud slinging site just as well as it fits community bible study.

Or, take the Stack Exchange creed:

Don't be a jerk

Either one explains itself quite well.

  • That's begging the question. If you moderate a website than you actually have to draw a line. You don't have to tell people your criteria's but I would bet that those people who moderate flickr have internal guidelines and don't let every community manager make different decisions about what he considers being a jerk.
    – Christian
    Jul 22, 2010 at 0:29
  • @Christian - I think its two categories .. people who complain and 'painfully obvious', given the size of Flickr, I'm pretty sure moderation is (mostly) complaint driven.
    – Tim Post
    Jul 22, 2010 at 1:45
  • @Christian - Just like judgement calls made by SO moderators, when flagged to a problematic post.
    – Tim Post
    Jul 22, 2010 at 1:46

This is almost entirely a content-dependent question. A political debate website will have stronger opinions that may come off as hate speech than a website devoted to furries. My only caveat to censoring any speech is that once you start censoring you will seem to (at least according to you users) to condone other opinions they may find hateful. As the previous poster said: if you have the power to censor it is mostly likely your site or some care of the site has been put in your hands so it will be a reflection of you as well.


This is dependent on the type of website and community, but my general rule of thumb is that user content should be something that adds value to the site. If something is rude or offensive and is adding nothing to discussion, then there is no reason to keep it around.


Any site that has user contributed content will have content that falls into that gray area. I prefer to let the users help me with those posts. I do have a line where i'll outright delete a comment (usually if it's illegal, or could be somehow construed as being legally questionable), but if it's just a matter of "indecent, but not illegal".. then I encourage users to shame the person, or report their post if they have a problem with it. When reported posts hit a certain number of "reports", the posts is put into question (grayed out), and a moderator can make the final decision.

Usually just the shaming of the other users is enough to make a person either stop being "that guy", or leave.


Keep in mind that you can't make everybody happy. If you have a Jewish reader and a reader who posts that the holocaust never happened, you're going to make at least one of them angry regardless of the course of action you choose.

Get used to the idea that somebody will always hate you, and that to somebody you'll always be wrong no matter what you choose.

With those points made, I suggest a simple test: If you had written this, would it create the image for your site that you want?

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