Facebook: public place or not?

Facebook has created all kinds of legal dilemmas, for the main reason that no one knows exactly how to pigeonhole it. Is it a public place? A mere website? How do we consider what people post and how they respond to others’ posts? The latest issue arose this past week over how the “like” button is supposed to be considered legally: is it free speech or not? Here’s a little bit more info, but I’m not going to review it all. Suffice it to say that the Internet and just Facebook alone are making legal types a bit dizzy.

Personally, I consider Facebook to be essentially a public forum. This is mostly thanks to the changes FB continues to make to how it shows and shares user information. Even though it keeps telling us as users that we can change privacy settings and other settings of how we see friends’ information and how they see ours, FB’s settings are automatically set to make us share and see as much information as possible. Even the settings that are tweakable are not nearly tweakable enough. I simply cannot make the kinds of restrictions that I would like to make.

Therefore, Facebook is public. I’m not friends with everyone, but it’s certain that I can see a whole lot of what my friends’ friends post on their walls and vice versa. We may not be sitting out on the sidewalk on a busy street, metaphorically speaking, but we are still sitting in a rather large room in a restaurant, let’s just say. People can overhear us and I can overhear others.

F-word, indeed.

I wrote before about profanity and vulgarity in public places, and now I’m going to apply this same stance to Facebook and other online forums. Imagine that you like to share crude and vulgar jokes with friends. OK, that’s absolutely your right. But you wouldn’t be able to do it at my gym, for instance, if you were working out next to me. The gym has rules against using profanity and vulgarity there. I don’t want to work out and hear you saying the f-word a bunch to your friend on the other machine near us. Simple as that. If you want to tell that joke or show that picture in private, like in your car or at home, then great. But not at the gym.

Facebook is going that same direction. Regardless of the settings, which are really, really imperfect and limited, and which change ALL THE TIME, it is still much like the big main exercise room at my gym. I can overhear you. Please try to find ways to share that vulgar stuff with your friends in a more private way that won’t be seen by so many people who probably don’t want to hear/see it.

Unfortunately, my little “rant” here isn’t going to change anything or anyone’s minds. Most of the people who post this vulgar stuff willy-nilly, tagging all their friends, are either young people who haven’t been taught to respect boundaries or other people’s feelings and accuse everyone else of being either prudes or being overly sensitive, etc.; or they’re older people who have never grown out of that immature phase. Mature people recognize that other people have feelings and boundaries, and we try to respect those as much as possible. I just remember my parents telling me when I was younger that “your right to swing your arm stops where your arm hits my face” or something along those lines. We are free to say and do what we want, UNTIL what we say and do hurts someone else. That’s why we have laws against stealing or assault, for example, and why we have basic courtesy. Yes, we live in a free country, but freedom is for everyone, and we simply can’t infringe on someone else’s freedom.

Yep, this all applies on Facebook and other public places online. The courts are going to have to scramble to figure out how to define and make old laws apply in new situations that didn’t exist even 20 years ago, let alone in 1776 or 1787. In the meantime, we as individuals can do our best to show a little courtesy to others in these public places.

Author: Cathy Carmode Lim

I'm a copy editor, writer, and book reviewer with three decades of experience. My book review website is RatedReads.com. I'm a mom of four and grandma of three.

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