Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Is Griefing Free Speech?

I just went to an incredibly interesting panel at Life 2.0 on Intellectual Property, Privacy and Identity in Open Virtual Worlds. One thing that came up in the discussion was griefing, and was griefing free speech. Several people posited that it wasn't but I think that the issue is not so cut and dried. I also think that the supposition that griefing is limited to virtual world situations is incorrect. There are physical world analogies to the acts of griefing, and we may consider the real world analogies, as acts of free speech.

Just as a note, I am not saying that griefing is just fine - I am asking that we think about griefing in the context of speech and ask at what point an action goes beyond the bounds of valid free speech. Outside of virtual worlds there are disruptive actions taken, ften in the name of free speech. Some of these disruptions are seen as protests that are valid free speech - as they do not threaten the lives of others, and then there are protest actions amd disruptions that go beyond that that leave the domain of reasonable/valid free speech.

Likewise there are disruptive actions that some people define as griefing that may be seen as free speech and then there are points where griefing goes beyond reasonable/valid free speech. Defining that boundary of where virtual world disruption goes beyond "reasonable/valid free speech" is tricky because we want to use physical parallels, but an action in a virtual world is not necessarily identical to its analogue in the physical word.

One more point to mention, free speech does not only apply to protests and speech that are for "valid causes" (who decides valid.) Some of the fundamental cases that defined free speech as we know it now (within the US) were based on the rights of some less than pristine characters. Rights exist for scoundrels and angels alike.

To look at griefing and free speech in more detail lets look at some edge cases.
(For these examples I will ignore the aspect of this being private property verses a public venue. Private domains fall under a much different legal scope than public domains. Private domains can restrict who comes and what they do to a much greater extent.)

Lets take a look one of the more publicized "griefing" incidents in SL, the CNET interview with Anshe Chung. If the protesters had only held up signs protesting Anshe Chung and her business practices I think most people would claim it was free speech. However, when they threw phalluses it was elevated to "griefing" in most people's eyes.

Why? Because of the offensiveness of the object? Is free speech made invalid because it is offensive to some? Because in a physical world throwing something would be a valid action? But an we say that throwing things in a virtual world (which does not have the same physical impact) has the same status as throwing something in a physical world? The flying objects caused no physical damage to the people and created no laundry bills unlike throwing rotten tomatoes or rotten eggs

I am not saying that CNET and Anshe shouldn't be upset by it. Furthermore the effect on the public perception of SL adds to the emotional ire towards the event. But many protests in the real world have caused ire and affect the reputation of institutions. But at what point did the protest cease being free speech? And, at what point did this become griefing? Is that boundary the same?

Lets look at another example. Noisemaking devices can be very disruptive. Lets say that on some sim some group left a bunch of noisemakers that would alternate when they would make noise and turn off and on, over a period of time and then the noise makers would delete themselves. Would this be griefing? It seems disruptive and perhaps pointless and I know some would claim that it is griefing.

Well what about the Cell Phone Symphony at Improv Everywhere. I would posit that this is a near identical example, and something see as a glorious example of making art with free speech. And it also parallels some examples of griefing in the virtual world.

How much does the perspective of where it is (real/virtual), who is doing it, and why they are doing it change our desire to call something a valid act of free speech? Are the difference that change our reactions ones that actually change the validity of their right to speech?

It is true that (at least in the US context) that freedom of speech can be restricted in time, place and manner. But the ability to restrict these (within the public space) is limited and speech cannot be simply prohibited because it is offensive to some. This limitation on the restriction of speech within the public sphere brings us to a few questions which I think need to be asked, and do not yet have answers.

What are the public places within a virtual world? Must there be public places within a virtual world? If there are public places, to whom to we redress issues of excessive limitations of freedom of speech? If there are no public places, does the right to free speech exist within a virtual world?

Yes, right now virtual worlds could simply be left, or the protests published outside of the world, but as virtual worlds become more of a daily reality, does that mean that freedom of speech erodes?

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