The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation

By Watkins, Sean Edward | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, September 2012 | Go to article overview

The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation


Watkins, Sean Edward, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation. Saul Levmore and Martha C. Nussbaum, eds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. 312 pp. $27.95 hbk. $18.95 pbk.

The editors of this significant collection-Saul Levmore is the William B. Graham Professor of Law, and Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freud Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, both at the University of Chicago-have successfully examined The Offensive Internet from a novel vantage point.

While speech on the Internet has long been critiqued, this collection applies older media frameworks to the seemingly unquestioned power of free speech in cyberspace. The editors encourage us to understand that many concerns with speech, particularly offensive speech, have been dealt with in the past with older media technologies. They emphasize that the Internet has created a kind of "small village," where the global and local are now intermixed. The main issue with this, especially when it comes to privacy and speech, is the number of communicators in the system. In the past, for example, if one was bullied, it was kept to a small group and wouldn't necessarily affect one's reputation beyond the localized context. Now, that kind of interaction has both lingering and wide-reaching effects, but there are few laws set in place that punish the hosts of defamatory language.

The contributors to these thirteen chapters-examining issues ranging from the expected to "Internet misogyny," free speech and "cyber-cesspools," and social media challenges for academic administrators-attempt to grapple with First Amendment issues while working under the framework that free speech has always been limited in certain circumstances. Therefore, many of the authors rightfully start with examples drawn from older media restrictions and regulations to understand these case studies on the Internet. The book is organized in four sections-"The Internet and Its Problems," "Reputation," "Speech," and "Privacy"-although many of these issues overlap.

In particular, several chapters deal with privacy on the Internet. An overarching argument throughout much of the book is the idea that service providers, who are not liable for slanderous or defamatory discourse on their networks, have too much protection under the Communication Decency Act. The issue is that there are not protections put in place for individuals against negative and unwarranted attacks on their character.

In addition, some of the authors believe that there should be different categories of speech under the law. Legal scholar Geoffrey R. Stone of the University of Chicago Law School, for example, examines how case law has loosely defined low-value speech as primarily being communication that is highly negative and doesn't advance political discourse. Stone argues that this kind of speech shouldn't enjoy the same protections under the First Amendment as other kinds of speech. He also argues that the newsworthiness of information may change depending on the size of an audience. …

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