I have long thought that the ‘freedom of speech means no filtering’ argument is dumb where blogs are concerned — it is the blogger’s space, and he or she should feel free to delete, disemvowel, or otherwise dispose of material, for any reason, or no reason.
1. The ‘freedom of speech means no filtering’ view is dumb for reasons that are not specific to blogs. The value of free speech lies in its contribution to reasoned debate, as J.S. Mill himself recognized. We're not infallible, and so rational progress is made more likely if critics are allowed to question the conventional wisdom. (And even if we're right, reasoned challenges keep us on our toes, and prevent the truth from becoming a 'dead dogma'.)
But "no filtering" won't necessarily advance this end. If someone in a town meeting is yelling so loudly that no-one else can be heard, their unfiltered contribution is in fact preventing reasoned debate from taking place. In this way, they are violating the spirit and purpose of free speech. So it may be necessary to silence the loudmouth precisely for the sake of (everyone else's) free speech. The same goes for blog comments: nonconstructive or abusive comments should be deleted precisely for the sake of ensuring that the blog can remain a venue for reasoned debate.
Not all forms of speech are valuable. Strictly speaking, we should replace 'free speech' as a slogan with the 'free exchange of reasons/ideas'. Abuse is not an idea. And it merely serves to scare off those who might actually make a positive contribution to our discourse. So, while we ought to tolerate any civil disagreement (no matter how strongly we disagree with the substance of the view expressed), the arguments for free speech do not extend to the protection of abusive or otherwise unreasoned discourse.
2. I'm also puzzled by the suggestion that there are no ethical limits to what a blogger might do in "their space". Imagine, for example, a blogger who deletes civil but critical comments -- merely because the blogger doesn't want his mistakes to be exposed. Surely such intellectual dishonesty is unethical in any situation. It's possible to act badly even in your own home, after all!
This does seem a remarkably common view, however. For example, earlier this year NZ blogger Span (in an otherwise excellent post, which noted that accusations of spin have become a too-common substitute for reasoned counterargument) wrote:
What do bloggers owe their readers? Do we owe you honesty? Do we owe you truth? No, not really.
A comment Make Tea Not War made (on a post she wrote about phalloblogcentrism at What We Said) challenged me to think about the annoyance I feel when other bloggers don't link or hat tip - we don't even owe each other that. There is no code of ethics for nz pol bloggers.
No Right Turn concurred, adding that he chooses to "maintain some basic intellectual standards" - as if it were just a personal quirk - YMMV, and all that. I don't think he really believes that, fortunately, as he's quite scornful of the 'sewer', and isn't shy to denounce their lies and bullshit. But then I'm puzzled by his claim that there are no "obligations" in the blogosphere. (Why so critical of the sewer-dwellers if they haven't done anything wrong?) Perhaps he was talking about enforceable obligations.
People have the "right" to act like jerks, in the limited sense that it would be wrong for others to coercively prevent them. But the mere fact that we are at liberty to act in some way, says little about whether we should so act, or whether it's even morally permissible. The relevant question is not, 'Are others allowed to stop me from doing this?' but 'Is this something that any minimally decent human being would do?'. Morality obliges us to be minimally decent people. Blogging, like any other arena in life, provides ample opportunity to violate this most minimal standard, e.g. through abusive or intellectually dishonest behaviour.
(That's not to endorse proposals for a blogging 'code of ethics'. Rules are tedious and often stupid. We can merely point to some general virtues - civility, honesty, etc. - and let people discern for themselves how these apply in any particular situation.)