Should communities ban the discussion of certain topics?

by Martin Reed on 13 June 2008 in Articles

Should online communities ban certain subjects?

It’s a fact that some subjects are more controversial than others. At times, courting controversy can be a good way to encourage debate and interaction in your online community. Sometimes though, controversy can breed contempt – the last thing you want to happen.

What subject is your online community based around?

The existing subject matter of your community will help you determine whether you need to make the discussion of certain topics off limits. If you run a forum based around current events for example, it would be rather unconstructive to disallow conversations of a political nature.

If you run a general interest community, it is far easier to disallow the discussion of certain topics as they may rarely be mentioned anyway. You may decide that you are not going to allow conversations about religion – in a general interest community this may be OK, however in a community based around philosophy or history you may be severely limiting the scope of discussions within your community.

What level of moderation can you provide?

Religion and politics are perhaps the two most controversial topics – people often feel very strongly about these subjects, and can become extremely passionate when discussing them. It is very easy for people who disagree with another member on such subjects to be perceived as personally attacking them. Of course, this is not always the case, but due to the emotional and passionate nature of these subjects, arguments and bad feelings are far more likely to occur.

On the flip side, the very fact that many people feel so strongly about these topics can lead to healthy discussion that can significantly increase the level of interaction and member engagement on your site. If you can provide the moderation that such topics will often require, then there is no reason why you should ban such discussions outright.

What type of members does your online community attract?

Every community is different – or at least is should be! If your members are generally mature and rational, then you will be far more likely to get away with allowing or even encouraging the discussion of controversial topics. If your community attracts younger members or those who are more sensitive to people disagreeing with them, perhaps you should consider not allowing certain topics to be discussed.

Give your members a chance

I prefer to adopt a laissez-faire approach when it comes to setting rules and moderating online communities. I try to avoid blanket bans or other measures that may stifle interaction. That being said, if a certain topic causes tensions in a community, action needs to be taken. This may involve warning a community member or removing posts. Only if there was evidence that a certain topic was persistently causing problems within a community would I consider banning all discussion on that subject.

Remember – the more you restrict your members, the less you are encouraging member interaction.

Your thoughts

Do you ban the discussion of certain topics? Do you actively encourage controversy and passionate debate? Has this ever come back to haunt you? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment below.

Share this community building advice


Similar Posts

Previous post:

Next post:


Simon Brown June 13, 2008 at 10:03 pm

I suggest starting a debate under a new account and using this to discover the reaction of your members. If there is a problem, the thread can easily be locked. In my opinion, starting a debate and then proceeding to lock it due to reaction may affect your forum’s image.

Samantha June 13, 2008 at 11:45 pm

I had a situation like this recently. I run an English language website for a Spanish singer and my forum is quite a small but passionate community. Anyway this singer did a campaign video for a particular American presidential candidate so I posted the video on the forum thinking it was no big deal but someone became quite angry at the singer’s political opinion and started giving her opposing view on immigration. I then got a pm from another member of the board saying she was offended and she asked if I could remove this thread because it was such a sensitive subject. At first I thought I should remove it because I didn’t want things to turn political but ultimately I felt I would be making a bigger deal out of it by taking it down so I left it up. A little bit of debate occured but then the topic eventually got left aside for something else. I think really the question each admin has to ask is whether they would be creating a bigger problem by using censorship – it’s a judgement call but as long as things don’t get too out of hand and people don’t become disrespectful to one another then probably the best thing to do is let it be.

Mr Woc June 14, 2008 at 12:20 pm

Hi there

I donít think any subjects should be banned, but on the other hand I do remove some of the more controversial postings, i.e. stuff about hanging, religion, and abortion.

It is a shame we have to do this, as the problem is some people just canít contribute to a serious debate and it always ends up in a slanging match or people just go too far without any thought to anyone elseís feelings, so we took the decison to try to avoid such controversial debates, I would love to have these kind of debates on my forums but we had a situation in the past, where someone created a controversial subject that was really close to someoneís heart and it caused uproar on my website, so never again!


Amish Made Furniture June 14, 2008 at 1:09 pm

I would not ban any topic. I would however moderate and encourage reporting abuse. It is indeed sad that we have occasions when in a forum passions are raised and instead of debates we get people reacting violently and even abusively. Such reactions can be effectively eliminated by the moderator.

Yogesh Sarkar June 14, 2008 at 6:11 pm

Totally agree with you Martin, sometime controversies produce rifts in the community and I feel that is unwarranted especially if the topic being discussed doesn’t belongs to your forum niche.

Eva White June 16, 2008 at 7:51 am

It all depends on who your members are and what the topic under discussion is. Afterall as long as no one finds the topic too deviant from the forum’s main goal its fine to discuss it. If however the member is being obsence or trying to get in some unwanted material for his own gain, its alright to lock it up.

SocialBang Chat rooms June 16, 2008 at 3:06 pm

It should be up to the users where possible but there are topics that aside from being unpleasant are actually illegal in many countries, so yes there are definitely topics that we’d be unwilling to host.

Ali June 16, 2008 at 4:15 pm


I believe in freedom of speech, but I also belie that open speech requires some moderation. I have had a number of distasteful comments on my Hawaii Travel Blog, and I’m glad I have the opportunity to edit them or delete them entirely.

Thanks for a great blog – I have subscribed to your RSS feed.


website creation guides June 17, 2008 at 3:50 pm

Depending on the community, controversy might be required (not the norm). Special interest sites have the easiest job in moderation. Since they narrow the discussion topics so much, everything that falls out can be dropped without any hard feelings. Nevertheless many online communities have a special forum for off-topic discussions about pretty much anything. If you stick to the basic rules of behavior the post will not be deleted. I think this is the norm. Keep most of the forums strictly on-topic with certain behavioral rules and keep an off-topic forum for everything else.

Online Sports Psychology June 19, 2008 at 5:17 am

This is a great question, and I think it depends on the crowd you are dealing with. Just like in ‘real life’ some topics are not wise for discussion among certain groups of people. What happens if you offend people? Or promote feelings of hostility between different groups? The idea that online communication is always a free-for-all wild west should not be viewed as such. It’s fine to have a no-holds-barred debate in a designated part of the forum, but I think allowing this attitude to spread in all areas could be destructive to the community.

It’s always the actions of a few who ruin the good times for everyone, and just as you lock your front door when you leave the house, you sometimes have to take precautions from inviting unwanted behavior.

Land Projects UK June 20, 2008 at 3:02 am

I think everything should be under moderation, in order to avoid non sense topics or comments and of course abuse. But. it would not be good to ban certain topics or conversations. Talking about certain topics is the best way wherein members could talk and share their thoughts.

Paul Nis June 25, 2008 at 6:51 pm

It’s a hard question to answer. I’ve seen many people leave communities not for what is said, but for how the aftermath is handled. A few places I visit seem to have the idea that if there is a problem, delete the thread and ban the people involved for a month.

This has resulted in a large number of people leaving and going to a similar but better run forum.

Jeren June 25, 2008 at 9:42 pm

One thing I have seen a few times, especially on a community forum I am regular at, is having a forum specifically for debatable topics. This forum is only viewable by those that are members of an open usergroup, so people can come and go as they wish. However, they don’t need to see it, and they’re warned already that the posts within may be heated debates.

UptakeInOH June 26, 2008 at 5:25 am

I am less of a fan of banning topics and more of a fan of banning posters who cannot abide by the rules of respecting other posters. It’s important to set boundaries about debating a person’s ideas vs. attacking the the individual. I’ve seen forums go either way–thrive or deteriorate over touchy subjects. The key to the successful community is for the mods to step in immediately with a warning to anyone who starts down the path of disrespect for the guidelines in place regarding other members.

Contemporary Furniture June 26, 2008 at 11:22 am

I think there are certain topics that should be banned. You should pick contents that are not case sensitive. You have to be careful, especially when writing particular subjects like religion. People who believe in that religion may feel uncomfortable or violated. Make sure when writing contents, it is informative in a good way.

Martin Reed - Blog Author June 26, 2008 at 6:49 pm

Simon – Thatís an interesting strategy. I would prefer to see if the issue cropped up in the first place rather than actively testing it out. After all, if it ainít broke, donít fix it.

Samantha – You make a very good point. Very often, a passionate debate can flare up but will only be exacerbated by intervention from moderators. I find that after a day or so of intensive debate, the topic is soon forgotten and no damage is one. In the meantime, you had a great burst of forum activity. You just need to ensure that threads donít become abusive or overly offensive Ė in this case, you DO need to take action.

Mr Woc – Some topics are naturally more controversial than others, but I wouldnít remove them until they actually became problematic. Unless you know for a fact that the mention of a particular subject will always create an abusive or unpleasant atmosphere, you should always give your members a chance to debate and discuss maturely.

Ramana – From time to time, passions will flare up and result in unpleasant exchanges. You are right that at these times, effective and confident moderation is required.

Yogesh – Controversies can create rifts, but communities where members always agree with each other can be a little dull. There is nothing wrong with disagreements from time to time, as long as they donít degenerate into outright abuse.

Eva – I agree with you; every forum is different, and every forum requires a different approach when it comes to moderation.

SocialBang – Of course, it goes without saying conversations about anything illegal should never be allowed in communities, regardless of whether members are happy to discuss such topics.

Ali – Whilst most community developers believe in free speech, some will argue that this doesnít apply when conversations happen within their communities. They would argue that only they determine what can be discussed without considering the wishes of the community members. I think this is a mistake, but everyone manages their communities in the fashion that is right for them.

Website – Special interest sites may have an easier time when it comes to moderation, but what about communities dedicated to the discussion of religion or politics? I doubt you could say they have an easier time moderating their forums compared to ones about dog walking!

Online Sports – I agree with you; it all depends on your membership base and the personality of your community. Moderators need to walk the fine line of encouraging debate and interaction without being oppressive.

Land Projects – I prefer not to ban the discussion of certain subjects outright; I think members should be given a chance and intervention should only be taken when absolutely necessary.

Paul – Arbitrary bans and over moderation can be more damaging to a community than letting occasional arguments flare up. People do not want to feel like they are back at school Ė they want to be respected and offered the opportunity to express themselves without fear of being punished through bans and post deletions.

Jeren – Allowing discussions of a more controversial nature to take place in ring-fenced areas can work well, but you still need to ensure that discussions do not get out of control and descend into abuse.

Uptake – Youíre right; there need to be clear boundaries and site rules for members to adhere to, otherwise how can you expect them to act appropriately? Moderators need to ensure that controversial subjects do not deteriorate into abuse Ė warning those that are stirring things up is one way of going about this.

Contemporary – As I wrote in my article, I disagree with this view. I think community members should always be given the benefit of the doubt and be allowed to discuss anything that isnít illegal or offensive.

Bat June 29, 2008 at 8:15 am

I think that most subjects can be discussed, even the more controversial subjects such as abortion, religion and politics, all of which can get pretty heated.

A healthy discussion about any subject is a good thing as long as it stays civil. It,s when things start getting personal and users start getting abusive towards each other, that I think a moderator should step in, and maybe warn the abusive poster in a pm about their behaviour.

It,s good in any community to have lively discussion boards but when things start getting personal and users get abusive towards each other, it ruins the thread for everyone. People need to know that they can give their opinion on any subject without being insulted for it, as sometimes happens.

John M July 11, 2008 at 10:14 pm

Forums related to politics are really hard to manage especially when they will have religion section. It is hard for people to augment all that discussions because they are very sensitive about their religions. Probably that is not a good community to start.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 17, 2008 at 1:11 am

Bat – Like you, I feel that discussion on all subjects should be permitted so long as they remain within the rules of the site. More controversial topics often generate the best debates and discussions which are essential for an online community. If such threads start to deteriorate though, action does need to be taken.

John – I don’t think I would start a community based around politics or religion. That’s not to say I have a problem with these topics being discussed on my existing communities, though. Having a community dedicated to such a controversial subject would require a huge amount of moderation to keep conversations civil!

MOin September 14, 2008 at 9:36 pm

the best idea is to make rules and regulations, after that if topic is breaking rules and regulations ban and remove that topic on the spot when it starts. otherwise if some topic started like “this forum’s admin is a gay” you just can’t stop that topic to keep your respect if thats not written in rules and regulations. better to face and tact these sort of topics wisely because they can be responsible for bigger events.

Martin Reed - Blog Author October 6, 2008 at 8:33 pm

MOin – I completely agree. All online communities need rules, and those rules need to be clear and easily accessible. If you don’t have rules, you are making it much harder to moderate with authority and credibility.

Greg October 8, 2008 at 5:21 pm

It will depend a lot on your community target. If its for adults, teens, national, international. Different cultures are offended by different topics. It will all depend I guess. I think it needs to be kept in somesort of boundaries, especially not to go off at a tangent all the time. But then again, members end up making a community, not the community itself!

Martin Reed - Blog Author October 23, 2008 at 9:21 pm

Greg – Yes, I agree with you. Your audience as well as who your site is targeted at will have a big influence in the type of discussions present in your community, and how other members will react to certain topics.

Sally December 29, 2008 at 2:03 am

I’ve seen moderators deliberatly keep up a thread that is controversial, just so they can sit back and watch the fighting. It sounds silly but it’s true. Of course these are sites that are already disfunctional in other ways. It is not a healthy site.
I feel some topics should not be allowed, unless you have the energy and the time to “sit” on that thread and keep people calm. Then you are just babysitting. It is just my own experience that topics such as religion, abortion never go anywhere worthwhile. I am also tired of sites that always seem to start up a topic on bdsm or even just sex in general. Too many posters find it offensive and the atmosphere becomes hostile very shortly.

Hollie Steel May 20, 2009 at 6:55 am

I think some level of moderation makes sense. It depends on the topic and how restrictive that moderation should be. In general, I think the less the better. But if the discussion detracts from the majority of readers it is something that I would considering limiting.

Christina March 23, 2010 at 6:14 pm

It’s a good idea to ban certain topics that are controversial, although they can sometimes result in great conversations. This way, you won’t have to appear to be censoring if you have to delete a certain post.

{ 1 trackback }