A sad day in the neighborhood

Joel on Software, written by Joel Spolsky, is a great resource for software developers. He’s in my aggregator because you don’t have to be one to get something good from Joel’s writing.

Ryan Park reports on the posting there in an off-topic discussion board of a suicide note, along with one on the personal blog, by Chris McKinstry. Readers of the group tried to alert authorities, but it was too late. The non-moderated off-topic discussion group was permanently closed by Joel on January 24th as a result. Thanks to Dave Winer for the initial link.

What a sad, sad, series of events.

Let this be an example to what can happen to discussion boards. While there should be no legal liability for Joel as the publisher, the fact that it happened is enough of a concern. Section 230 of the Common Carrier communications regulations is entitled “Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material.” The intent of Section 230 is to provide immunity for most causes of action for the provider of an “interactive computer service” in which the provider is acting as a “publisher” or “speaker.” Under this section, the action Joel took in closing the discussion board was a sufficient response regarding the posting of the suicide note, which could have been considered offensive to some readers.

I’m all for free speech on the Internet, but you have to take bad days like this one along with all the good.

UPDATED TO ADD: I want to make it clear that I did not intend to imply that forum members were responsible for Chris’ death. Instead, they should be commended for their heroic efforts to try to prevent it. I was making a technical point about the note itself, which could be considered offensive material. For more on the facts, review the comments below, or read Mark’s excellent summary here. While I dispute Mark’s statements as to my intentions in writing the article, I will defend to the death his right to say what he wants.

7 Responses to A sad day in the neighborhood

  1. You may want to check your facts here and make some amendments so you look like less of a complete fool.

    “Let this be an example to what can happen to unmoderated discussion boards. While there should be no legal liability for Joel as the publisher, the fact that it happened is enough of a concern. Section 230 of the Common Carrier communications regulations is entitled “Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material.” The intent of Section 230 is to provide immunity for most causes of action for the provider of an “interactive computer service” in which the provider is acting as a “publisher” or “speaker.” Under this section, the action Joel took in closing the discussion board was a sufficient response. The situation could be different if it were a moderated group and the moderator had approved the posting. Thankfully, this is not the case here.”

    Firstly, the board WAS moderated. I was one of the moderators, in fact.

    Secondly, how in the world is a suicide note “offensive material” with any implied liability on the part of a site operator to screen or remove it?

    You seem to strongly imply here that the forum had something to do with Chris’ death, when in fact he had only recently discovered the forum, and posted identical suicide notes in multiple places, including his blog. There was nothing unique about what went on at Joel’s board except for the heroic efforts of the other members to forestall Chris’ plans.

    This article is basically a dressed up link to Ryan’s blog, along with some utterly incorrect conclusions and misleading information.

    You’ve failed on all fronts here. This blurb is not informative, entertaining, or even LITERATE, and you should be ashamed to have published it. You’ve made a fool of yourself.

  2. As someone who went through this tragic experience, I’m sure that has colored your interpretation of my comments.

    I wrote what I wrote, and I will not remove it or delete your comment.

    1. Ryan said it was unmoderated, so I believed him. Since I am wrong, you have corrected me.

    2. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would find reading a suicide note offensive. It’s certainly not part of my mother’s normal everyday reading, for example. We live in a society where a flash of anatomy at a sporting event was considered offensive. A suicide note could be considered offensive by enough people.

    3. My moderation comments were regarding a situation where in order for a post to see the light of day a moderator needs to approve it first. It sounds like that was not the case here. At best, a moderator could have removed the post under the situation at the time. If that is not the correct version of the moderation scheme that existed then, please let me know.

    4. The tone of the article was not to be entertaining. How could I possibly make Chris’ death an entertainment puff piece? It struck me as especially tragic because, as noted at the top of the article, I regularly read Joel’s blog. I don’t understand why you made that comment.

    I look forward to continuing this dialog with you, if you choose to do so.

  3. “I wrote what I wrote”

    But why did you write it? It’s fairly obvious to even the casual observer that you are talking out of your ass. You get the all the basic facts wrong and attempt to tie into your blog subject. This article is nothing short of a disgrace and you should be ashamed of yourself.

    “Ryan said it was unmoderated, so I believed him.”

    Ryan’s article makes no mention of whether or not it’s unmoderated. You assumed it was unmoderated as it served your purpose in writing this article. Unfortunately, even after being corrected the article remains. Pretty sad.

    “I’m sure there are plenty of people who would find reading a suicide note offensive.”

    There are plenty of people who would find reading a poorly researched incorrect blog article involving a suicide and those involved to be offensive. I ask that you remove the article and post a thorough retraction.

    “The tone of the article was not to be entertaining. How could I possibly make Chris’ death an entertainment puff piece?”

    And yet, there it as. News is entertainment. One could even argue that news made of total bull is more entertainment than anything else.

  4. Why did I write it? Because it was a compelling personal story about how real life intersected with the Internet that touched me on a personal level. I don’t get much traffic here, I don’t run ads. It certainly was not to profit from the story. I am still not sure why this came up *now*, about three weeks from the original post.

    My best guess for the reason I thought it was umoderated was Joel’s comments, here, in which he said it was “virtually uncensored.” http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2006/01/25.html

    It is my fault for reading too much into that and Ryan’s article to believe it was an unmoderated forum. For that, I apologize to you and everyone else.

    It still was a sad day in the neighborhood, regardless of whether the forum was moderated or unmoderated.

  5. Since you were trying to make a legal statement about the events, it would be nice if you could revisit the situation given the new information that has been provided.

    “Under this section [concerning offensive material], the action Joel took in closing the discussion board was a sufficient response.”

    New information, and questions:

    (a) The forum was moderated (censored and moderated are not the same thing). Are moderated forums liable for offense and/or not doing enough when suicide notes are posted?

    (b) The same material was posted on another forum (Robitron?). It was not shut down. Was it negligent for the owner of that forum not to take the same action that Joel Spolsky took? The material was also posted on Chris’s own blog. Was it negligent for his blog’s service provider to allow this material to remain?

    (c) The material was not offensive. i) The forum’s URL was not clearly marked from Joel Spolsky’s other forums. Access to it was like the adult section of video stores used to be in the 70’s, only for those in the know. ii) Suicide notes appear on television (for example, on Desperate Housewives). Is your mother so offended by them on DH that she calls the FCC to ask for ‘suffient responses’? iii) Since the forum was moderated, and the moderators (one of whom is in mental health professional training and undertook the alluded to heroic actions) clearly found this material unoffensive for the forum’s community.

    (d) Lastly, there’s been some discussion on the ?off forum’s rebirth site, crazyontap.com, whether publicizing specific information about suicide prompts others to commit suicide themselves. Any thoughts whether pulishers, who know about the studies on suicide contagion, have liability on this matter?

    Thoughts appreciated. Thanks.

  6. Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond, Cotster, but it’s been a busy week for me.

    I’m limited to what I can say since I cannot provide specific legal advice over this blog. This is not an advice column and I am bound by ethical rules of conduct as an attorney. I am licensed only in the State of Illinois, so I can only provide general answers about how some of your questions are answered under Illinois law. Your mileage may vary in other jurisdictions. Other questions you raise are too specific for me to ethically answer, it’s too close to my offering specific legal advice over the blog for my comfort level.

    You may want to contact an attorney where you live if you are really concerned about the questions I can’t answer, but generally speaking I doubt there is much to be concerned about unless there are one of two factual situations going on: 1) The person you have failed to help is someone you already owed another duty to, such as a person under your care like a minor child; or 2) You have done something to specifically induce or incite the action, like telling a person you already knew was unstable that they had no choice but to do it. There also is a difference between a moral obligation to help and a legal obligation to help. Do you understand the difference?

    Moving on to your questions that I can answer:

    a) Moderated forums can be more liable than unmoderated ones for the posting of indecent or offensive material. The amount of liability depends mainly on how much control the moderator had in approving the post. If it was just a situation where the moderator could remove the post, but didn’t, then there would be less liability. However, if the moderator had a message queue in which posts had to be approved before they were actually posted, then there could be more liability.

    b) I don’t know enough specifics about the other forums where items may have been posted to make any meaningful comments. As for service providers, they usually do not have liability unless they failed to comply with the provisions of Section 230 mentioned above in this post.

    c) Is this a question or a statement? Obviously you disagree that the material was offensive. You are entitled to your opinion.

    d) I don’t know enough about the research you mention to make any sort of meaningful comment, sorry.

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