“Response to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park”

By Shiou Loh

Dear RPK,

I think I am with you with respect to frustration over many silly and sometimes downright out-of-topic comments.

However, I disagree with your suggestion of banning some users' comments while allowing others. Here are my arguments:

Let's step back to think of the reasons behind upholding the "freedom of expression". The main reasons we hold "freedom of expression" dearly are:

a) "Freedom of expression" prevents dictatorship, which obliterates the rights and interests of common people. The freedom of expression provides the biggest equalizer between the powers-that-be and the common people. Everyone has a say, regardless of current status quo.

b) "Freedom of expression" provides genuine social stability. With freedom of expression, one can no longer claim with strong validity that the society as a whole suppresses her because she has her say. Once she expresses her thought, she is reaching out, and she will get the feedback from her audience. If the audience's response is negative, she has no choice but to accept the verdict and be made mindful of her own capability and general circumstances. In short, she might be frustrated, but she can no longer claim to be unjustly treated by authorities. Society made of people not thinking of themselves as unjustly treated is a stable society.

Preventing tyranny and genuine social instability are great values that directly contribute to the value we place on the freedom of expression. We exalt the freedom of expression in many ways, including enshrining it in our constitution, UN Human Right Declaration, and of course in the First Amendment of the United States' constitution.

In other words, there are only very few other higher values that could be justified to compromise the freedom of expression. An example of such higher values is human life. Other higher or equal values are preventing tyranny and maintaining genuine social stability, from which we give the value to the freedom of expression.

As bad as Steven Ong's comment and intention may be, no life was harmed. Neither did his comment cause social instability in the short term nor was it a call for violence. Banning his comment is compromising the freedom of expression and over time, when such banning is allowed repeatedly on Steve Ong's comments and other people's comments, the value of the freedom of expression will be weakened. A weakened value of freedom of expression is not capable of preventing dictatorship nor forging genuine social stability, as what we have observed in this nation.

Some might argue that Steven Ong's comment or the like can cause society instability in the long run. As more and more such comments appear, our society is doomed eventually. Such argument is hinged on the assumption that there will be more and more such comments appearing and people will be agitated so much that they go berserk. That is a little bit far-fetched but not impossible; I think there are some valid concerns. After all, genuine social stability is of equal value to the freedom of expression. The value of the freedom of expression is in part derived from the value we place on genuine social stability as argued above.

Some might argue that allowing Steven Ong's comment in MT is driving many people away from MT. After all, MT is working toward preventing dictatorship, which has value equivalent to the freedom of expression. MT also has promoted freedom of expression in a way not seen before in other mainstream media. What is the harm by compromising freedom of expression a little for comments many deem indecent? I think there are some valid points here.

Despite the above two valid concerns, I still disagree with your suggestion to ban Steven Ong's and similar comments. My disagreement with your suggestion is based on my assertion that the great value of "freedom of expression" and other greater values can be made to co-exist if we give more thought on how to make them co-exist.


May I propose a solution here for you to consider so that we could cover both the need for freedom of expression as well as other higher (or equal) values:

1) Instead of deleting the comments, the editor could add one more special button for each comment and allow only the editor to designate MT's warning: "1 – Editor censored – Abusive Language Used; 2 – Editor censored – Probably seditious by law; 3 – Editor frown – Extreme far right/left view; 4 – Editor frown – Completely out of topic".

2) For each warned comment, please give it a different color coding to differentiate them from normal comments.

3) For each warned comment, if the net negative votes get less than -10, then make the comment hide by default. i.e. readers need to give an extra click to see those comments that are warned and less than -10 vote-net-value. This hiding is similar to what you had before but with more leadership role from the editor with a chance to see if other readers follow the lead.

4) For those commenters who have been warned for 3 consecutive times, the names of those commenters can be attached with a label such as "Editor-warned-commenter". The label can be removed once the particular commenter provides 3 next comments with no warning from the editor.

Most of the above mechanisms, except the editor's decision to warn, can be automated in the web server software itself. With that automation, we hope we don't create extra effort for the editor.

There is cost to upholding the value of the freedom of expression. But the cost of compromising freedom of expression is higher; those are the costs of dictatorship and chaotic society. Freedom is not free, and MT members might be willing to foot the bill.

Before I sign off, I have to admit it is hard to disagree with you without thinking all my arguments seem "pure academic" when you are the one out there in exile, walking the talk, and sacrificing for many of us. Stay safe.