Thursday, February 11, 2010

Free Speech: Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

Today, I resigned from an advisory board position.

The CEO of the startup in question, a man whom I like and respect, told me that if I did not delete this blog post, that he would ask for my resignation.

His opinion was that by not deleting some of the comments (written by others, not by me) that others might find offensive, I was supporting hate speech.

I am a big believer in freedom in general, and free speech in particular.

Until now, this belief did not have any financial impact.

While I would prefer to retain my stock options in the company in question, I would far rather retain my principles.

I support free speech, not as a matter of convenience, but as a matter of principle. And I am prepared to pay the price of standing up for that principle.

To other entrepreneurs who might seek out my advice (many of whom read this blog):

I support your dreams.

I want to help you achieve your goals.

I will do what I can to make your company a success.

But I will never censor myself or anyone else.

If you don't believe in this principle, you should look elsewhere for your advice.


Shefaly said...

Wow! That is an interesting one. Some of my clients/ business associates are devout Catholics and Muslims. Some of my friends are gay. I am trying to imagine what may happen if any of them tells me not to deal with the other just because of how they privately feel about the other. Good on you, Mr Yeh, for standing up for your values. More power to you.

PS: I think both said colleagues and said friends will learn that I have my own mind that I make up.

Jackie said...

Good for you, Chris. I think this CEO's demand is the ultimate comment on why some of us dislike San Francisco. Liberal? Not at all. It's quite conservative, as the censorship command demonstrates.

Gabe said...

Err, I'm not a constitutional lawyer but doesn't freedom of speech relate solely to the government's ability to infringe upon it?

In other words, it's perfectly OK for TV networks, corporations, schools, and private individuals to place restrictions upon speech. It only becomes a problem for "free speech" when government is the restricting party.

Removing certain comments from you blog would not detract in any way from your ability to stand forth as a staunch defender of free speech.

And removing someone's comments does not prevent them from starting their own blog, newspaper, or advocacy group promoting their views.

So the courage of your conviction is admirable in a way. But a small bout of private censorship wouldn't have contravened a belief in free speech.

I can understand being taken aback by someone else demanding you run your blog a certain away. ...But s/he wasn't asking you to abridge freedom of speech.

"But I will never censor myself or anyone else."

I presume there are certain words and activities you ban in the workplaces you supervise, no?

Chris said...


Not so, my fine friend. While we typically think about free speech in terms of the government, the concept itself is not restricted to the freedom from government interference. Free speech can be impinged on by private individuals and institutions.

Free speech is not necessarily a legal right, but it is a principle that is worth fighting for.

There is also the notion that hate speech (often ill-defined) is not subject to this principle, which has been used by some universities and the like to try to ban certain types of discourse. The courts have not been friendly to these attempts:

I probably could censor what people say on behalf of the company (though I don't), but I would never think to censor their personal blogs, Twitter accounts, etc.

Jackie said...

Chris, I've noticed a tendency amongst some Americans to think that rights are guaranteed by the Constitution. I suppose that, by such logic, people who live outside the US don't enjoy freedom of speech. Again, not exactly liberal thinking.

Ryan said...

Wow, that's ridiculous behavior on his part. I'd love to know who the entrepreneur was, just as a matter of gossip, but you're taking the high road by not naming names.

I assume the comments in question are the particularly silly and homophobic ones. I know you well enough to know that you don't endorse those comments. And I don't think anyone should be able to force you to censor your blog, be it the government or a business partner.

But that said, why not just clean up the comments? On my blog, I keep any comment that has a reasonable point even if I disagree, and I'm pretty lenient in my definition of "reasonable." But I censor the trolls who make blatantly offensive comments that don't add any value.

I've heard it expressed that a blog is a reflection of you, like your home. Keeping a blog clean shows respect toward your visitors, in the same way that you'd clean your house before having guests over. By leaving the worst comments up there, you're saying that the trolls are more important than the invited guests.

So why not just remove the offensive comments?

Chris said...


Once I start to apply moderation standards, not only do I start going down a slippery slope, I also start to incur the legal risk that I'm taking responsibility for the content.

If you think the comments here are bad, check out this post on one of my other blogs:

Mark Hendy said...


Bravo Sir. It takes people like you with principle to make a difference.

Geek Vader said...

Kudos to you for standing up for your principles.

The good news is that you probably haven't lost anything. Demanding that someone delete a blog post because of offensive comments is cowardly and pathetic. And since startups will not thrive when run by cowards, that company is almost certain to fail. Which means your stock options were worthless from the moment they were given.

Antoine Clarke said...

In this censorship case, I think the CEO got it wrong. The good thing is that anyone who sticks with you can advertise the fact that "this Chris fellow, he wouldn't stay with us if we weren't ethical." I'd want you on board.

I think it's up to the owner of a blog to decide if they want to moderate or not. I would remove comments that I consider spam, a specific threat to a person, or obviously designed to offend for the sake of it. If my readers asked me to act differently, I'd consider it.

In reply to a commentator, freedom of speech under the law is about saying "No, the government may not stop people from expressing their views, however silly or wicked."

But just because there is no law to state that one must wear a tie when having dinner at the Ritz, does not mean that the owners are not allowed to throw people out who refuse to wear one (one self expression grounds). It would be practical and polite to explain the rule first, but that's ultimately the Ritz's problem, not the rest of society's.

Paul said...

Chris - Hear me out!!

If the CEO of this company had the time to go all the way back on your blog to 2006 FOR CRYING OUT LOUD and read through ALL THOSE 9,000,000 COMMENTS then that company is doomed to fail.

1. No CEO I know has that kind of time.

2. They were obviously ACTIVELY looking to be offended - and who can stand working or even being around people like that?

You did the right thing.

Now, let's get down to business and make some money together.

Anonymous said...

Chris, I hate thinking that you have to pay a price for your principles. especially if those stock options can become lucrative later down the line. But if it's worth anything, I think you're the only example in my entire life where someone doesn't say "I didn't actually mean it" to their principles when shown a dollar sign.

Now I really like you. It's too bad you're already married.

Brian said...


My Agapic Life said...

I'm stunned that the original post would cost you an advisory board position. Honestly I thought the original post would be for something more charged.

I guess it's a case of 2 people standing up for what each believes in.

MeiMei said...


Bravo! I strongly support your decision to stick to your principles. I'm especially impressed that you did so in spite of the financial impact.

By the way, I'm the new community manager, social web at Stanford Alumni Association. I'm enjoying reading your blog! Looking for ways to engage alumni with Stanford via social media. If you have any ideas, feel free to share!

Best regards,
your classmate,
MeiMei Fox
Stanford BA '94, MA '95
twitter: @meimeifox