Josh Wolf deal is not censorship, but it may not be cool either

One of my pet peeves is the misuse of the word “censor.”

To accuse a corporation or other private entity of “censorship” is to twist a vital distinction of the First Amendment.

A corporation, for example, has the same First Amendment rights as any private individual. Those rights include the rights not to publish.

YouTube, for example, is within its rights to remove videos it finds, at its sole discretion, violates its terms of service. That is not censorship.

When the GOVERNMENT forces YouTube to remove a video, or threatens a journalist with jail for publishing anything, THAT is censorship.

The government has the power to censor. Private entities do not.

Another slice of difference: If a corporation tells you not to publish something through its distribution channel, you have the right to take your content elsewhere. If the government says don’t publish, you risk jail even if you release that content to another country.

Even if by contract, the private corporation has the right to sue you for violating a contract, that is not censorship, because you agreed to the contract in the first place. The government, however, has the sanction of physical coercion to compel your compliance. Jail, torture and murder (if the government is really out of control) is a more menacing threat then a civil suit.
That last distinction explains, I think, why refraining from a cavalier use of “censorship” is important. We want the word remain as frightening as it actually is. It is not merely a synonym for violating journalistic independence or stifling free speech.

In this blog post from SFWeekly, Matt Smith is all over the word “censorship” as it relates to former jailed journalist Josh Wolf accepting a paid-for-blogging gig. His sponsor is an unnamed tech company and the contract allows that company to have some control over the content of the blog.

In the accompanying video, Smith even goes so far as to use the hilarious anachronism “the corporate man.”

However, when you have to private parties entering into a contract that specifies the terms of publication before hand, and both sides agree to the language, that is not censorship. It may not be the right thing to do, but it is not censorship.

What’s more disturbing from an ethical standpoint is that Wolf is apparently prohibited from EVER revealing who his sponsor is. I find that hard to believe, but that’s what I hear him saying in the video. If that’s true, that violates what I believe to be standard blogger ethics: to disclose your potential conflicts of interest.

Such an arrangement, if true, should cause any readers of Wolf’s blog to distrust everything he writes, because how are they to discern which words passed through third-party oversight for approval and which didn’t, and just who is this overlord anyway?

That’s not a good thing, I think.

UPDATE: Josh Wolf left a comment on this post and says it will be clear who the tech company is — the blog will be hosted on the company’s domain.

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2 thoughts on “Josh Wolf deal is not censorship, but it may not be cool either

  1. Wow, Matt Smith’s article sure did ignite a small firestorm. The project has not launched yet and without obtaining permission beforehand I felt it wasn’t sensible to disclose the identity of the company involved prior to their own announcement.

    The blog will be located at the domain of the tech-news company, so the notion of a secret sponsor is an assumption without any merit. While the sponsorship company does reserve the right to remove content it is essentially a standard clause which will absolve them of any potential liability were I to elect to engage in libelous or illegal communication.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Josh. It sure did sound to me like you said in the video that you wouldn’t ever be able to reveal the company, but since that sounded unbelievable to me, I was careful to note I wasn’t sure.

    I posted an update to the post to draw attention to your comment.

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