The following was adapted from a message I sent to the Amber E-mail List in response to a restricted topic thread.


Few people seem to actually understand what "free speech" truly means, and I'd like to clarify some things about free speech and how it applies to e-mail lists and USENET.

In the United States, many people think it means that they have the right to say whatever they like whenever they like where ever they like. That is not correct. The US First Admendment bars the US *government* from restricting speech. As private individuals running *private* lists, list administrators are allowed to restrict (aka censor) the topics discussed on a given list.

We do actually have a number of restrictions on our speech. It's illegal to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater just because you want to see the mayhem of hundreds of people trampling each other as they run for the door. It's not illegal to yell the same slogan repeatedly at a public speech because you're "protesting" the speaker, but it's damn inconsiderate to those trying to listen to the speech (and who heard the yell the first time around and don't need to hear it repeated a hundred times).

In other words, there are appropriate places and times for certain kinds of speech. This is not censorship; it's basic courtesy, and it applies to the net too. Don't get upset that you can't rhapsodize about your cats in rec.collecting.stamps, go to the rec.pets.cats newsgroup where there is a large cat loving audience just waiting to hear you. And don't be surprised if, upon posting off-topic messages to a list or newsgroup, other people get angry at you.

If more people paid attention to the "appropriate places" part, we'd have less spam and off-topic messages on USENET and e-mail lists.


Why should we excuse poor and inconsiderate behavior on the net? Because it's "the net?" Does this somehow change common courtesy and make rudeness acceptable? No, and even more so, we should be even more aware of our behavior on the Net. Why?

Because your "free speech" on the net is costing someone money. Not everyone has the luxury of simply deleting unwanted messages at their leisure. Some people must pay for each e-mail and news message they download, and some people have e-mail quotas that prevent them from receiving new mail once their quota is reached. Off-topic messages cost people money. Off-topic messages may prevent people with e-mail quotas from being able to receive new e-mail, including non-list mail that may be anything from love letters to job offers. That's why people want to be able to control what and how much information they receive.

People choose to join an e-mail list or read a USENET newsgroup in order to read about a specific topic. If they wanted to read about other topics, they'd join lists and newsgroups about those topics. I don't go to a stamp show to talk about my cats, so why in the world would I do that in a newsgroup devoted to talking about collecting stamps?

Off-topic includes such things as: "I think some people will share this interest too even if this group I want to post to is not for this interest I'm going to post about." For example, announcing the sale of a P. K. Dick book collection in the Robert Jordan fan group. Or announcing a web site for poetry about cats in the SF composition group. In a few words: don't do it. The fact that there might be one or two people interested in such things doesn't make it okay.

Other off-topic posts that are major no-no's are computer virus warnings and internet scam warnings. No one joins the Amber List for the purpose of getting these kinds of warnings. If they want them, they can visit any number of web sites or join a list devoted to such things.

Perhaps the best analogy for off-topic posts and spam is to imagine how you'd feel if YOU had to pay for the paper junk mail that arrives in your mailbox every day. Think about this everytime you're tempted to post something off-topic to a list or newsgroup. This is why UCE spammers love e-mail: not only can they reach more people than they could through paper mail, they can shift the burden of cost from them paying for postage to you paying to receive their e-mail.

Post to USENET and your e-mail lists with some consideration for your fellow list members and netdenizens.


All members of an unmoderated e-mail list must recognize that conversations evolve over time and may wander into territory that is off-topic for the list. Such conversations should be allowed a bit of leeway. The key words are "a bit". We are social animals, not computers, and our rules for polite conversation must be flexible if they are to accomodate our humanity. If you feel that a conversation thread that started on-topic but has since wandered off-topic has gone on too long or is causing too much traffic, the best way to deal with that is to send a message to the List Administrator.


Lisa Leutheuser
Amber List Admin

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