On Comment-Free Blogging (Updated)
In the comments to my previous post, I described refusing to allow comments on a blog as an “act of cowardice.” Ben Wittes, one of the contributors to Lawfare, a blog that does not allow comments as a matter of policy, doesn’t appreciate the description:
Anyone who wants to understand why Lawfare does not take comments need only take a brief look at this comment thread over at Opinio Juris blasting Lawfare–and others–for not taking comments. As the old saying goes, the thing speaks for itself.
I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether our comments policy is, as Kevin Jon Heller puts it, “an act of cowardice” or whether it is, as I like to think of it, what we used to call in the news business editorial judgment. But it certainly is, as Benjamin G. Davis puts it, “a control mechanism,” an effort at “total control of whom [sic] can post.” We run this blog to provide useful information and to express our views, not to operate a free-for-all for anyone who fashions himself as having something to say. Anyone who wants to comment should feel free to send an email, which we often post, or to post to our Facebook page. Or, in the alternative, it seems that you can post comments about Lawfare on Opinio Juris. Or, if you really feel strongly about it, you can start your own blog.
The offending comment thread to which Ben refers consists of precisely three comments addressing the issue at hand. The first criticized closing comments on an Opinio Juris post, not a Lawfare post. The second was mine, making the aforementioned claim. And the third was an extremely reasoned critique of blogs that do not allow comments — and of the exclusionary nature of the national-security-law world in general. That’s it.
I continue to believe that refusing to allow comments on a blog is indefensible — just as I believe that it is indefensible to comment on a blog anonymously (except in situations where one’s job could be threatened). Ben describes Lawfare’s no-comment policy as “editorial judgment.” It seems to me that the only editorial judgment involved is that no one other than the contributors to Lawfare — and those whose emails Lawfare deigns to post — have anything of value to say. Indeed, the elitism drips from Ben’s post; just consider his claim that to allow comments on Lawfare would be “to operate a free-for-all for anyone who fashions himself as having something to say.” How dare readers have the temerity to think they’re good enough to respond to Ben — on Lawfare, no less!
As a blogger who is prone to strong opinions, I am the first to admit that reading comments can be a painful experience. I have been accused of being anti-Semitic; of being a self-hating Jew; of not believing that Israel has a right to exist; of being anti-American; of being a communist; and so on. I’ve also had my mistakes pointed out to me more than once. But that is simply the price I pay for being something of a public intellectual. Blogs are not, as Ben assumes, simply fora for “experts” to make themselves heard — the online equivalent of the New York Times editorial page (which Ben never tires of attacking). They are places for discussion and debate, where some voices may be more important than others but no voice is excluded. Are bloggers obligated to allow comments? Of course not. But let’s not pretend that refusing to allow them is some kind of noble act designed to ensure the integrity of academic debate.
UPDATE: In light of Marko’s comment below (!), I have changed my mind about whether a no-comment policy is cowardly. It certainly can be, and I suspect that most bloggers who refuse comments are simply afraid of criticism. But it is not necessarily cowardly; it may simply reflect the blogger’s belief, so well expressed in Ben’s post, that the unwashed masses have nothing useful to contribute to discussion of complicated legal issues. Frankly, I think that kind of elitism is worse than cowardice.
UPDATE 2: Ben responds — sort of — at Lawfare. There isn’t much more that needs to be said on the issue; Ben is absolutely right that he and his colleagues are in no way “under some obligation to design this forum to Heller’s specifications.” They are well within their rights to run a blog without comments, just as I am within my rights to criticize them for doing so. (And in my humble opinion, describing a blog that doesn’t take comments as a “forum” seems like a stretch.)
For the record, I am delighted that my friend Steve Vladeck has joined Lawfare as a permanent contributor. Though no substitute for genuine openness, the ideological diversity that Steve brings to the blog is welcome, and the invitation to him to join speaks well of Ben and the others.