WordPress.com Boots Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theory Sites, Bans Malicious Publication of Unauthorized Images of Minors

WordPress.com came under fire this week for hosting a site with conspiracy theories claiming the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax. The New York Times published an article titled “This Company Keeps Lies About Sandy Hook on the Web,” setting off a hailstorm of angry posts on social media that demanded Automattic take action.

“Posting conspiracy theories or untrue content is not banned from WordPress.com, and unfortunately this is one of those situations,” Automattic told the New York Times in a statement. “It is a truly awful situation, and we are sympathetic to the Pozner family.”

Leonard Pozner, father of Sandy Hook Elementary shooting victim Noah Pozner, claims that images of his son were being misused on a WordPress.com-hosted site where the author denied the tragedy and called his son a crisis actor. He filed copyright infringement claims on the images used on the conspiracy site in an attempt to get the content removed.

Automattic examined the images and determined that there was nothing illegal about their use on the site. The company sent Pozner a reply that said, “because we believe this to be fair use of the material, we will not be removing it at this time.”

In the New York Times article, Automattic admits its insensitivity in handling the situation, apologizing to the family, but said the posts in question “are not violating any current user guidelines, or copyright law.”

“The pain that the family has suffered is very real and if tied to the contents of sites we host, we want to have policies to address that,” Automattic told the New York Times.

WordPress.com Updates it Privacy Policy, Banning Malicious Publication of Unauthorized, Identifying Images of Minors

After consulting with the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, it appears WordPress.com has quietly updated its privacy policy, which now includes unauthorized images of minors on the list of things the platform considers private information. The previous policy appears below:

The updated policy adds “the malicious publication of unauthorized, identifying images of minors” to that list.

Searching Twitter for discussion surrounding Sandy Hook conspiracy sites turns up a slew of tweets calling on people to boycott WordPress.com and other Automattic products. However, there are also responses on the other end of the spectrum, with Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist supporters retweeting a user who claims that WordPress.com has shut down his site.

The site in question (fellowshipofminds.com) appears to have been removed, along with an interim site the author created following the first suspension. A number of other related sites have also recently been removed. These events are outlined in a post on memoryholeblog.org, a site maintained by James F. Tracy, a former professor of journalism and media who became known for his research questioning the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and Boston Marathon bombing. Tracy’s blog was also removed from WordPress.com in 2016 for violation of Automattic’s Terms of Service.

Automattic did not detail specific infractions in either case of removal. It’s not clear whether the site referenced in the New York Times article was removed for a new offense or a previous one. The removals seem to have coincided with WordPress.com’s updated privacy policy, but Automattic’s PR department has not responded to a request for comment on the matter.

“As with Automattic’s treatment of MHB, FOTM’s disappearance strongly suggests how WordPress.com’s policies are being tailored to placate outside parties whose foremost interest is in stifling political speech on potential high crimes, and how in this instance such poorly-founded grounds for censorship have triumphed over free speech,” Tracy said.

Historically, Automattic has been a stalwart defender of free speech on the web. It’s outlined as part of the WordPress.com’s User Guidelines:

WordPress.com strongly believes in freedom of speech. We have a vast audience spread across many cultures, countries and backgrounds with varying values and our service is designed to let users freely express any ideas and opinions without us censoring or endorsing them.

It’s not clear whether Automattic changed its policy in response to this situation or whether this situation revealed holes in it that the company wanted to improve. In either case, the policy change seems to have enabled Automattic to do what outraged onlookers wanted them to do, except outside of the emotional mandate issued by the New York Times.

Without the new privacy policy in place, removal of a site based on offensive material constitutes censorship. Automattic had already determined that the post using the child’s image, while distasteful and offensive, was fair use for the material. The image had likely already been used thousands of times by news organizations with a different narrative attached to it that is more in alignment with the majority’s view of the tragedy.

As it is a private company, Automattic’s terms of service do not have to reflect the full freedom of speech allowed by the law. However, the company has always upheld its reputation in the past as an uncompromising defender of its users when presented with requests for censorship.

In a recent post on Techdirt, Automattic general counsel Paul Sieminski and Holly Hogan detail how WordPress.com handles its role in managing intermediary liability when the company receives complaints regarding defamatory content:

Making online hosts and other intermediaries like WordPress.com liable for the allegedly defamatory content posted by users is often criticized for burdening hosts and stifling innovation. But intermediary liability isn’t just bad for online hosts. It’s also terrible for online speech. The looming possibility of writing a large check incentivizes hosts like Automattic to do one thing when we first receive a complaint about content: Remove it. That decision may legally protect the host, but it doesn’t protect users or their online speech.

That article explains the level of nuance involved in handling complaints and the costs associated with protecting its users’ freedom of speech. Automattic’s counsel concludes with an observation that “leaving such important decisions to the discretion of Internet hosts is misplaced and tilts the balance in favor of silencing often legitimate voices.”

WordPress.com is a Host for Websites, Not a Social Media Silo

WordPress.com’s platform is distinct from social networks in that it is not a social media silo. It acts more as a host and cannot have one-off shutdowns of sites anytime there is a public outcry.

“WordPress.com is much closer to being a common carrier than Facebook and other social media,” Dan Kennedy, associate professor at Northeastern University’s school of Journalism, said in response to the NYT article. “That difference really doesn’t get highlighted here.”

Self-hosted WordPress (.org) user and data journalist Matt Stiles also commented on the distinction, and followed up with me privately, identifying WordPress.com as “a free-speech sidewalk for the Internet.”

“WordPress.com needs to make clear to the public that it’s a host, not a place that controls — through algorithms or other curation, and revenue — content,” Stiles said. “I am NOT a supporter of sites like this. I just want WordPress to thrive as an open-source tool and as an important paid host for web sites. I’m also worried about WordPress.com having to make arbitrary decisions about content. It’s tough to define hate speech. We know it when we see it, but I worry about censorship on private platforms.”

Dave Winer also commented that the article failed to capture the distinction of WordPress.com as a host for websites:

WordPress.com isn’t like the others, it isn’t a silo, so banning him from that service will not necessarily have any affect on the presence of his site. He will be able to export his site, set up his own server, point the DNS entry at that server, and proceed on the open web and it will appear to outside viewers as if nothing happened. This will be the end of the discussion, unless the anti-speech advocates try to exert pressure on the open web. There they will find there is no CEO, no corporate headquarters, no shareholders afraid of losing value, none of the usual pressure points.

This particular situation regarding the Sandy Hook conspiracy site seems to have hit a nerve due to the fact that there are children involved. Despite WordPress.com’s quick privacy policy change in this instance, Automattic is still a rare outlier among publishing companies when it comes to support of free speech on the web. Media outlets and tech companies are increasingly clamoring for offensive content to be removed, instead of taking a principled stand against censorship.

Today more than 200 newspapers, including the New York Times, are coordinating to publish editorials calling out President Trump’s characterization of the press as the “enemy of the people.” Corporate-owned news media is ready to decry attacks on free speech, but do they really believe in it when it counts? That freedom isn’t predicated on whether the speech is true or unoffensive to readers.

Calling out a free speech platform like WordPress.com, without any distinction for its vital role in enabling journalists across the globe, is a coercive attempt to exact a desired result. What WordPress.com has done is groundbreaking in democratizing publishing and enabling bloggers to break news on their own sites.

The New York Times raking WordPress.com over the coals for its refusal to censor its users is an egregious double standard. A publication cannot call for free speech for itself while eating up the rights of everyone else they don’t agree with. Principles aren’t principles if they only serve you when they are convenient.

Forcing the censorship of offensive speech may feel like swift justice in the short term, but it weakens the fabric of a free society. Let discerning readers make up their own minds when they come across sites disseminating conspiracy theories. Although it may be an unpopular stance, the tragic nature of this particular offense cannot bypass the principles that underpin our basic freedoms.

38 Comments


  1. I’d just like to say that I 100% agree with that final paragraph—very well put.

    I hope that WordPress.com will be able to satisfactorily explain their reasons for taking this action.

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  2. Taking a step back from the specifics of this case, what we may see here is a slow realization that the hardline stance on free speech above all is problematic because free speech is not superior to other rights; it is part of a set of rights which work together to ensure freedom.

    The freedom of expression does not for example give anyone the right to use that expression to remove the right to “life, liberty and security of person” or “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” This is clearly stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    The rules we make to govern our online spaces and the companies that manage them need to be based on the full array of freedoms afforded every human being. In most cases that means protecting free speech when such speech challenges ideas, authority, money, governments. But lines must be drawn to prevent free speech from being used to take other rights and freedoms away from people.

    Taking a “principled stance against censorship” is not the same as “allowing all speech, even when such speech removes the rights of others.” That is a hard-line interpretation of one part of a set of rights which puts it above other rights, effectively changing the function and purpose of those rights. It is also an interpretation which divorces speech acts from the harm they can cause, which sets a dangerous precedent.

    While I agree this move is a retroactive clawback of what is permitted on the site, it is not as far as I’m concerned a weakening of the protections of free speech. Rather it is an acknowledgement that free speech is not the only right afforded to us. If there is a slippery slope, it’s important to realize when you’ve reached the bottom so you can start working your way back up. That’s what is happening here, and in other places on the web.

    This issue, as so many we face today, boils down to the need for a deep conversation about values and ethics in tech. The decisions designers and developers and companies make carve a path into the future. We need to talk about what we want that future to look like.

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    1. Taking a “principled stance against censorship” is not the same as “allowing all speech, even when such speech removes the rights of others.

      This is a slippery slope, as in no time you will have situation were you cannot say anything, because it will offend someone… don’t you remember Insult me campaign?

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      1. Someone will always be offended. That doesn’t mean they can get something removed from the web. That’s not how this works, nor is it what anyone wants. We have things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Human Rights Tribunals specifically to address this issue: When someone claims to be offended, they need to be able to prove to, and get agreement from, an objective audience that their other rights are restricted or infringed upon by said speech. Simply disagreeing with something does not stand that test. Showing harm being done does. This is the basis of the social contract we all adhere to as members of modern society.

        The “someone will always be offended” argument is based on a false premise that simply being offended is enough to get something taken down. That is never the case, nor does anyone reasonable want it to be. In this case, and many others, the reason for taking something down is direct harm or infringement on other rights.

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    2. If one has to seek out the material (or have it forwarded to them) in order to be offended, how are their rights being violated? The ‘victims’ of the posts actually have to go out of their way to be exposed to it. In other words, they are choosing it.

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  3. In the US there is the first amendment, In Canada we have freedom of expression.
    UK. EU, etc…have whatever they have.

    First Amendment and other countries’s free speech laws, apply to the government and you. Not private companies like facebook, automattic, twitter, etc…they can do whatever they really want.

    The site that got banned, then 2 days later the new site…If your site, profile, or whatever you call it, gets banned and you create a new site, profile or whatever you call it, you are circumventing the ban. Most sites have in their TOS that you agreed to, that you can’t circumvent a ban.

    Free speech, freedom of expression, etc…give you a right to speak your mind, however you don’t have a right for an audience. You can’t force anyone to listen to you/your message.

    I lean more on the free speech side but it isn’t really censorship when a site shuts you down. You agreed when you signed up for an account there that the site can do that if you violate their TOS.

    If wordpress.com deletes you, then feel free to go to namecheap, hostgator, godaddy, iwanttohostyourwebsite, or whatever, get some hosting and a domain then download WordPress and install it that way. Hell, if you don’t want to use WordPress, then use Drupal or even old HTML.

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    1. “If wordpress.com deletes you, then feel free to go to namecheap, hostgator, godaddy, iwanttohostyourwebsite, or whatever, get some hosting and a domain then download WordPress and install it that way.”

      As we saw with neo-Nazi sites last year, that option is going away as a blanket statement. Tier 1 internet hosts are starting to restrict downstream providers from hosting such content. As such, it may be difficult – if not impossible – to find such a host some lawful content, without going to restricted nations to host at. Then you get into the legality of doing business with a restricted nation, to host your free speech.

      People will cry not for the neo-Nazi, or the Sandy Hook denier. As they shouldn’t. But we are walking very close to a line where mainstream political views could become under assault. Banks are starting to deny lawful uses like gun manufacturing. We’re starting to see mainstream commercial activities become controversial and restricted.

      Soon, we may reach an era where you have to work with a political party to do many forms of commerce, including speech. It’s a dark new future we’re entering.

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    2. UK, EU, etc … have whatever they have

      A history of numerous fascist regimes on European soil and a death toll north of half a billion. You live, you learn.

      (Not taking issue with your comment, Miroslav, just seemed an appropriate addition.)

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      1. Please tell why bringing up old dark history is relevant to a discussion about free speech in 2018.

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  4. First, huge respect to Sarah for putting together this article, as it may be a risky business for her.

    It is interesting if WP.com will crack down on all topics, labeled by mainstream media as “conspiracy theories”? What about huge crowd of architectural engineers and scientists who claim that 9/11 was inside job? Many people died (perhaps even children) during that tragedy…

    When money is involved, it is hard to stay true to the principals…

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  5. Free speech is nothing if not exercised without responsibility. This Sandy Hook site didn’t just peddle baseless conspiracies, it also targeted families of dead children and worse, and this is the distinction made by the the NYT etc. After all, they take responsibility for everything they write.
    I’m pretty sure WordPress.com already doesn’t allow racism or child abuse promoting sites on its platform, and is anyone complaining about restriction of free speech in that case?
    It’s about time platforms like WordPress and Facebook took more responsibility for what appears on their platforms, and doing do is not a threat to democracy at all, particularly at a time when free speech without responsibility is being used to undermine it.

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    1. WordPress & Facebook serve two entirely different purposes.
      WordPress is a structure
      Facebook is a service that uses a structure (not WordPress, but similar idea)
      Do you blame the office building, where NYT is located, for what the NYT writes?

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      1. The Freedom of Expression is one part of a larger system of rights afforded every human through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of which the US is a signatory. As I stated earlier, the freedom of expression is not superior to other rights, and when speech is used to infringe on those other rights, it is no longer automatically granted.

        http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

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  6. I am surprised that Automattic did not give notice of a terms of service change. So nobody will quote me out of context: This site is deplorable, the terms of service change is reasonable.

    What is surprising is, given the time taken, why some reasonable notice wasn’t sent to parties – so that they could not cry censorship. The company (Automattic), turned a good resolution, into a bad one here.

    One could argue this was done so as to ensure that the affected site, could not simply remove the offending images, and continue operations. It has a chilling effect on hosting controvertial discourse on WordPress.com – because what happens if another social interest group cries foul with a loud enough voice?

    Changing the rules, and then insta-banning someone for violating them, is always going to be taken with a dim view in society – as it should. And it should be here, regardless of the deplorable content.

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  7. “The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.” — Henry Steele Commager

    And just like that, Matt Mullenweg follows his idol Zuck down the rabbit hole of hipster-leftist mob censorship…

    Despite his flaws, it was always immensely inspiring to see Matt champion the “open web” of not just free software, but free expression and a true exchange of ideas.

    Recall the Guccifer 2 scandal, hosted on WordPress.com which is still online to this day: https://guccifer2.wordpress.com

    “Forcing the censorship of offensive speech may feel like swift justice in the short term, but it weakens the fabric of a free society. Let discerning readers make up their own minds when they come across sites disseminating conspiracy theories. Although it may be an unpopular stance, the tragic nature of this particular offense cannot bypass the principles that underpin our basic freedoms.”

    Bravo, Sarah.

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  8. I’m really happy to see that WP Tavern is on the right side of this debate. We shouldn’t be censoring unpopular or even outright hateful or wackydoodle opinions.

    The stated goal of WordPress is to democratize publishing. Ive heard it straight out of Matt Mullenweg’s mouth more times than I can count.

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    1. That goal is great, right up to the point that democratising publishing is used to undermine democracy, promote hate and spread outright lies.

      Did Matt say that was his aim, too?

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      1. That ship already sailed. Consider the late Paul Horner, who Rolling Stone called “The Fake Newsman Who Accidentally Helped Trump Win the White House“, on the basis of a network of fake news sites which started out as a joke but ultimately influenced the 2016 election. In testimony to a European Parliament committee on fake news in March 2017, he told them “It’s all CSS and Javascript and WordPress and databases.”

        We have our own little filter bubble in this site and in our community which only sees democratising publishing as a force for good. Outside of our filter bubble, our project is the tool of the trade for individual actions which are undermining the project’s values and reputation faster than anyone in the project leadership is prepared to comprehend.

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  9. Let discerning readers make up their own minds when they come across sites disseminating conspiracy theories.

    In the UK at least, the Brexit campaign has shown that sentiment to be wishful thinking at best.

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      1. No. Freedom of speech is a right, and trumps privileges, but not other rights (of other people).

        The distinction between rights and privileges are important.

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  10. The New York Times raking WordPress.com over the coals for its refusal to censor its users is an egregious double standard. A publication cannot call for free speech for itself while eating up the rights of everyone else they don’t agree with. Principles aren’t principles if they only serve you when they are convenient.

    Although I agree with many parts of the article — including the fact that the article in question should have better explained (and that the author should have better understood) the differences between being a web host and a social network, I have to comment to disagree with this passage.

    News organizations — good ones anyway — are able to publish content that doesn’t always align. It’s part of the process and frankly, is part of the free press.

    Although the traditional distinction is between editorial and news, those layers often intersect.

    So to me, the NYT signing an editorial op-ed calling for freedom of speech and protection of the press while also reporting and arguably criticizing a different speech scenario is completely fine.

    That isn’t to say I’m not bothered by the slippery slope of hosts removing content that doesn’t violate laws (child pornography, for example), because no matter how egregious the content, a web host making those decisions DOES bother me. (That said, the Automattic response in regards to photos and targeted harassment messages bothers me too).

    But I would be more bothered by a news outlet that would refuse to publish editorials that disagree with the opinions or reportings of others.

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  11. WordPress, thank you, thank you thank you!

    WordPress is falling in line with a world that will not suffer through the ignorance of accepting hate speech, or false accusations without facts as free speech.

    We the people need to stand up to the stupidity of a world whose only purpose is to sustain arguments and not seek solutions.

    The wealthy planter-class of American politicians who wrote and signed the Constitution recognized their free speech against the King of England and never considered the working class and slaves.

    So, we the educated generation of people who ancestors died and suffered through a Civil War, two world wars, McCarthyism and The Civil Rights movement are beginning to understand that hate speech is not free speech.

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  12. WordPress is falling in line with, a small part of, a world that fall in line to a bunch of bullies that spew their hate upon those that have differing opinions. The hate they spew is not born of fact or logic but based upon what they feel others should be feeling.
    There, I fixed it for you.
    Hate to one is not hate for another.

    The media has been lying to US for decades. It has become easier to just regurgitate what others have said/written and assume it is factual. Laziness is the true evil and those that accept what others call as hate, because they are the most vocal, should be ashamed.

    Just because you “hate flame-broiled”, does not make you anymore righteous than anyone else.
    It is the new “McCarthyism”, campaign against “them” and those spewing the hate against “them” do not care if they take down some innocents along the way.

    Next time you cheer because the “haters” get taken down, think about how some believed that the suffragettes were a bunch of “ignorant-haters”, the Selma marchers were a bunch of ignorant-folks who deserved what they got on March 7 or that ignorant seditionist/revolutionist who spewed out such hateful words and committed “horrendous” acts back in 1773.

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  13. I find the increased need to deplatform, ban people and companies, worry some. What people are arguing for is that the big companies should decide who can have a voice or not. Credit card companies pressuring hosting and payment providers to remove sites and people from their service or else they can’t use credit cards to sell their services.

    Are people really this naive? Do you not see what you are arguing for when you want to ban etc?
    What you are working for is a future where the global companies decides which political parties should be allowed to exist, which companies should be allowed to sell their services, who should be able to have an email or what not.

    Wake up people, you are working towards a company run global state. To have China be the role model for the world is not good.

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  14. I’m so torn on issues like this. I believe 100% in free speech, even if what you have to say is stupid and absurd. I also believe that as a business if you don’t want certain content on your platform you absolutely should have the right to refuse to publish that content. With that said though large platforms such as facebook, twitter, youtube, and WordPress I almost feel like the waters get a little muddy for me. Those platforms are so large with such a massive audience its the best place to practice your right to free speech. Users also have the ability to follow, or not follow whoever they want so you don’t have to take part in what theorists say. If it’s not illegal content, maybe it should always be allowed.

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  15. This article started strong, then ended with some weak arguments about censorship.

    Let’s get it straight: Everyone has the right to free speech, you don’t have the right to a megaphone.

    Everyone has the right to free speech, but when your “free speech” starts infringing on my rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we’ve got a problem.

    The sites that spew hate speech, or harass people whose children were killed in a massacre infringe on the rights of others to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

    Just like we’ve seen the alt-right (neo-Nazi) assemblies in the US recently, no one is denying them free speech.

    But, corporations have Terms of Service. They reserve the right to have you not use their platform. Freedom of speech does not equal a megaphone on a private corporation’s platform.

    WP, Apple, Spotify, GoDaddy, hosting companies all have the right to kick you off their platform if they feel you violate the Terms of Service (or if they fear they will get hit with a libel suit by allowing you to keep defaming people on their platform).

    Your freedom of speech does not override my right to live my life in peace. When it becomes harassment or hate speech, it is no longer free speech.

    The slippery slope argument doesn’t hold up, because we’re already at the bottom of the slope, and trying to work our way back up the hill.

    WP is well within *their* rights to kick off whoever they see fit. That’s not censorship. The person can always host their site on their own.

    Side note: It’s funny how people are all about the free market, until the free market says “we don’t like what you are peddling”. The market has spoken. Accept it.

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    1. But, corporations have Terms of Service. They reserve the right to have you not use their platform. …

      WP, Apple, Spotify, GoDaddy, hosting companies all have the right to kick you off their platform if they feel you violate the Terms of Service.

      If you compare WP.com to all those corporations, then yes, but from what we all see, WP is positioning themselves as the fighter for free speech and democracy in publishing… then these actions affect WP brand image – they do not walk what they talk.

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  16. but when your “free speech” starts infringing on my rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we’ve got a problem.

    Was someone forcing you to go to a conspiracy theory website?

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    1. In this case, the question is whether the publication of a photo of a murdered child, used to support a conspiracy theory which states that child is not dead and that the parents are covering it up, is infringing on the rights of the parents to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It has nothing to do with the individual visitor and everything to do with the harm imposed on the parents.

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  17. Although it may be an unpopular stance, the tragic nature of this particular offense cannot bypass the principles that underpin our basic freedoms.

    A basic freedom is that private companies can decide what content they wish to host, distribute, or profit from.

    The parents of a murdered child have been subject to death threats and have had to move house several times.
    Tech companies deciding they don’t want to host content that fuels that is not weakening “the fabric of a free society”.

    People are still free to say Sandy Hook was a hoax, it doesn’t mean private companies have an obligation to help them reach a wider audience.

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  18. Being civil to one another is a moral that must remain intact when online. Too many publishers these days believe their rights give them free reign to not be civil.

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  19. Very, very disappointed to see WordPress cave on this. Abandoning free speech to silence critics is not the answer. At least there’s still hosts like Nearlyfreespeech and Dreamhost.

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