Web Culture

Free Speech vs. Harassment: Why Did Reddit Ban Five Subreddits?

Skye Hudson 12-06-2015

Reddit officially announced the decision to ban five subreddits TiVo Comes Online, Reddit Bans Haters, Teens Play Contra, & More... [Tech News Digest] TiVo Online launches for Web browsers, Reddit bans the haters, Spotify battles back against Apple Music, Twitter shares its block lists, and teenagers play Contra badly. Read More , due to ongoing harassment problems. This is a change in policy for the website, which has previously refused to ban even the most hateful subreddits because of their belief in free speech.


In 2012, then-CEO Yishan Wong said, “We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it.”

Current CEO Ellen Pao, and the rest of the Reddit management, have decided that they are going to ban subreddits that “allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don’t take action.”

Content warning: some of the banned subreddits include homophobic, fatphobic, and racist slurs.


What Was Banned And Why?

Only one banned subreddit was mentioned in the main post because it was the biggest, and that subreddit was /r/fatpeoplehate, which had over 150,000 subscribers. Pao later commented with the names of the four other banned subreddits:


four banned subreddits

Reddit administrators say that these five subreddits are responsible for seriously harassing people, and that is why they were banned. One administrator followed up with a comment about this to clarify:

When we are using the word “harass”, we’re not talking about “being annoying” or vote manipulation or anything. We’re talking about men and women whose lives are being affected and worry for their safety every day, because people from a certain community on reddit have decided to actually threaten them, online and off, every day. When you’ve had to talk to as many victims of it as we have, you’d understand that a brigade from one subreddit to another is miles away from the harassment we don’t want being generated on our site.

Users who try to visit any of these subreddits now will be greeted by this image:

banned page


The administrators said in their announcement that they are hoping to keep their involvement at a minimum, but they do hope to make “incremental changes” in the future to keep everyone safe.

Who Is Mad About It?

As with most topics, there are people on many different sides. Mainly, there are those who are completely against the new policy and those who feel it is a step in the right direction. Both of these sides (but mainly the former) have been tweeting with #RedditRevolt.

Let’s start with the backlash.

“We Are Being Censored!”

A large part of the Reddit community has been fighting back against what they call censorship. The front page of Reddit quickly had a Nazi swastika post ranking as the highest post so that when people googled Reddit’s CEO, they would find that symbol.


Some Redditors even started a Change.org petition to remove Ellen Pao from her position as CEO of Reddit, which, at the time of this writing, has almost 9,000 signatures.

Not everyone is being reasonable. Some within the community have been resorting to extremely racist depictions of Pao, relating her to Chairman Mao Zedong. Yeah. The CEO of a company makes a move that its community doesn’t like, and suddenly they think she’s comparable to the Chinese dictator who was responsible for “an estimated 40 to 70 million deaths through starvation, forced labour, and executions, ranking his tenure as the top incidence of democide in human history.”

Others have taken to vandalizing her Wikipedia page, saying she was born as the Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un (who was also guilty of many human rights violations). Pao’s page has since been corrected, but it’s incredible how Redditors are resorting to the exact kind of harassment that got the subreddits banned in the first place. It’s reminiscent of the time when Anita Sarkeesian talked about gender inequality Anita Sarkeesian, Gaming And Attempted Mob Censorship - Why It Didn't Work Read More in video games and was subsequently brutally harassed.


Most of the community, however, seems to be focusing on the free speech argument instead of such attacks. These people argue that even though they don’t approve of or endorse the content posted on all subreddits, they believe that all subreddits should be allowed to exist on the basis of free speech.

One Reddit moderator even resigned over the change in policy. BetterJosh resigned from /r/koans, a subreddit that is about modern Zen teachings. This was a major point of his statement:

But as for me- I simply refuse to spend any more time building content and traffic for an organization that simply does not share my core values anymore.

He did make a point that adds more nuance to the conversation, which others have been picking up on as well:

My biggest problem with the new pro-censorship policies of Ellen Pao is that they are inconsistent. I myself am extremely offended both by many of these remaining subreddits, and by the behavior of reddit admins. However, for reasons known only to reddit administration, some offensive subreddits will be banned, and other allowed to thrive.

Many have noticed that though five subreddits were banned, tons of other equally offensive and horrid subreddits still exist. You don’t have to search far on Reddit for something that will make you want to gag.

One Redditor suggested banning /r/shitredditsays because they have been found to harass people, but the response from administrators was that that subreddit didn’t have the same level of ongoing harassment as the five that were banned.

“This Isn’t Censorship!”

On the other side of this coin are the people who don’t believe that banning harassment is considered limiting free speech. This has been a huge debate in recent years on a variety of sites.

Facebook recently introduced a flagging feature Will Facebook's New Flagging Feature Stifle Freedom of Speech? Introduced ostensibly to help Facebook remove fake news stories, thereby stopping such a post going viral, it turns out that the new flagging feature is open to abuse. Read More to cut down on harassment, and Twitter is widely known for having a harassment problem Tweeting While Female: Harassment, and How Twitter Can Fix It Twitter's abuse problem is real. Here are some examples, along with expert opinion on how Twitter can solve this. Read More (especially for women and those in marginalized communities). Twitter has taken steps to rectify that in March Say Hello to Windows 10, Nintendo Embraces Smartphone Gaming [Tech News Digest] Launching Windows 10, Nintendo goes mobile, reviewing Android apps, reporting Twitter harassment, paying friends through Facebook, and Pixels depicts video games invading Earth. Read More and April Facebook Favors Friends Feeds, Tweaking Twitter Tackles Trolls, & More... [Tech News Digest] Facebook changes things up, Twitter tackles the trolls, YouTube stops working, Vine shares the love, celebrity Apple Watches, and the Age of Ultron trailer recreated in LEGO. Read More of this year, but those policy changes were widely criticized for not being effective enough.

Getting back to Reddit: one Twitter user used an XKCD comic to summarize the argument.

According to this argument, the right to free speech isn’t what is being infringed upon here because the government has said nothing about what users can and can’t post on Reddit. Instead, a private company is taking steps to cut out the most toxic, harassment-happy sections of its website.

The question, for Reddit, is this: is it worth having vitriolic, hateful content on your website – and for your site to be a place where people coordinate harassment campaigns on individuals – in order to say that you stand for free speech?

Unless they fold under the backlash, Reddit’s answer seems to be no. Reddit seems to believe that free speech has limits, and that harassment shouldn’t be tolerated.

One Reddit user brought this up in a thread about the Reddit Revolt:

Reddit is an US based company, therefore if it willingly ignores and allows communities that are cyberharassing people the company will have to deal with their own legal issues because in most states in the US have laws against cyber harassment.

I, for one, am all for the site doing what it can to stop cyber harassment instead of ignoring it, even if the only reason they do it is to make sure their own asses are covered legally.

This is not a “freedom of speech” issue for so many reasons, but one of the biggest reasons it is not, is because freedom of speech doesn’t give you freedom from facing consequences of breaking the law. Harassment is illegal and so is cyber harassment in a large portion of the US states.

This all comes after a survey done in March that showed that Reddit users were upset with the harassment rampant within the community. This resulted in a blog post from Reddit saying that they would be cracking down on harassment. Now they have actually followed up on that.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Reddit will continue to live on with millions of active users, who don’t mind (or even realize) that a few hateful subreddits were removed. It’s possible that Reddit will lose some members who are upset about this, but in the long-term, they’re aiming to draw in more people by making Reddit a safer place.

Do you use Reddit? What do you think about the banning of these subreddits? Let us know in the comments!

Related topics: Online Community, Reddit, Trolls.

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  1. Anonymous
    July 26, 2015 at 1:11 pm

    Just to answer the "do you use Reddit?" question - now that I know about these "groups" (subreddits), I won't ever read Reddit again!

  2. Anonymous
    June 14, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    Sorry about the double post about the theater comment. I thought the moderator nixed it for some reason, so I reposted without the link.

  3. Anonymous
    June 14, 2015 at 12:21 am

    Since MUO is a private site, it can ban any posts that the moderators do not like. The posts do not have to be egregious, just ones that the moderators do not agree with.

    "Congress shall make no law ............... abridging the freedom of speech"
    Between the Congress and the courts they have created so many exclusions to that provision of the First Amendment that the Founding Fathers would not recognize it. Saying anything negative about ethnic, religious and sexual preference groups has been declared "hate speech" and proscribed by law. Saying anything negative can be considered slander or libel and is proscribed by law. We are free to say anything we want UNLESS it is not approved by the Political Correctness crowd or the Thought Police.

  4. Anonymous
    June 14, 2015 at 12:18 am

    Howard, Mr Grimm is a troll.

    He doesn't seem like somebody who is willing to discuss this without making it personal attacks. Name calling and making derogatory comments about where you live is tactic for somebody who can't formulate some rational argument.

    You win when they do that. They can't be taken serious.

  5. Anonymous
    June 13, 2015 at 3:11 pm

    Another thought about FOS. Yelling fire in crowded theater, when there is no fire is not protected. It considered false and dangerous and not protected by free speech rights.

    Similarly, Iet's say you lie about the actions of a person and this creates dangerous mob mentality situation for that person. I doubt the court would protect you on the basis of free speech. I'm guessing it depends if they get hurt, but you're more likely to be sued.

    • Anonymous
      June 13, 2015 at 11:52 pm

      It is not protected because in most cases yo are on someone else's property where they are free to set the rules.

      In addition if you bought a ticket, you made a promise to be quiet so others could enjoy the show while the theater makes a promise to try and provide a quiet environment. You contract not to yell fire unless there is one.

      In both of these cases, freedom of speech does not apply.

  6. Anonymous
    June 13, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    Also yelling "fire" in a crowded movie movie theater, when there is no fire, might get you in trouble with the police if somebody gets hurt. You'd probably get banned from the theater too. Per wikipedia; its dangerous and false and not protected by free speech.

  7. Anonymous
    June 13, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    Greg Grimm - You don't waste anytime to make a personal attack do you? Also, what does the state he lives in have to do with his comment.

    His point more appropriate stated is that you would draw the line somewhere about what speech you would allow in your home. If you have no threshold on content of speech, then when would you mentally stop listening, and say you bore me or I don't care - STFU. You know? Reddit doing the same but being extremely tolerant before saying GTFO! They own the content on the servers.

    In article above they are talking about F.O.S. and not being arrested for what you say. Talk about deadly conspiracy towards the POTUS and I think you might have the the secret service knocking at your door or following you around town. I am surprised that this was overlooked in the article.

  8. Anonymous
    June 13, 2015 at 11:54 am

    It disgusts you? You're a touch hypersensitive about non-issues, huh? Like where people happen to live or the fact that autocorrect can sometimes insert extra words. Maybe you just like to put people down. Maybe you're really http://dilbert.com/strip/2015-06-07

  9. Anonymous
    June 12, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    Just like people don't have freedom of speech when they enter your house (property), people have no inherent freedom of speech in what they post post to Reddit.

    • Anonymous
      June 13, 2015 at 8:32 am

      People do have freedom of speech in your house you dumb hick.

      • Anonymous
        June 13, 2015 at 11:45 pm

        Do they ? Once in are thy free to call your wife/gf a whore ? And of course you may not respond by kicking that person out lest you violate his freedom of speech !

        Of course you do you dumb fascist

        • Anonymous
          June 14, 2015 at 12:43 am

          Just because you can kick them out of your house doesn't mean they can't say it.
          Also you call me a 'fascist' yet you're the one who just said that people are only allowed to say things you agree with while in your house (hug box/echo chamber).
          Also here ya go.

          Full Definition of LIBERTARIAN
          1: an advocate of the doctrine of free will
          2 a : a person who upholds the principles of individual liberty especially of thought and action
          b capitalized : a member of a political party advocating libertarian principles

        • Anonymous
          June 14, 2015 at 7:03 pm

          It does mean they don't have that right on your property where you get set the non-violent rules of behavior.

          And just because you have right to life doesn't mean I can't shoot you with my gun .... so what ?

        • Anonymous
          June 14, 2015 at 7:38 pm

          "I believe in peoples liberties but if I don't like what you say I'll shoot you." ~Howard A. Pearce 2015

          Please just use the gun on yourself.

    • Anonymous
      June 13, 2015 at 8:56 am

      I mean frankly it disgusts me that you claim to be a Libertarian while making this statement, but what should I expect from someone living in Florida. If I may ask how does one "post post"?

      • Anonymous
        June 13, 2015 at 11:47 pm

        Well, if you knew what a libertarian was, that might be a start.