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Jeffrey Pfeffer
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Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and author of the Sept. 2010 book, POWER: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t.

Newmark fighting for free speech, upholding the law

Q: In defending Craigslist against charges that it facilitates prostitution and casual sex and undermines the news business, founder Craig Newmark relies on an unwavering commitment to free expression, free markets and an open Internet. Is such an unwavering commitment to core principles the essence of leadership, or is leadership more about accommodating core principles to other social needs and values?

In Ghosbusters, Bill Murray encounters Sigourney Weaver, possessed by the devil. As Weaver tries to seduce him, Murray notes that his company has a policy of not sleeping with clients. When Weaver becomes even more seductive and aggressive, Murray recants a little, noting that it's more of a guideline than a strict policy.

This humorous scenario came to mind when contemplating the contretemps over Craigslist and its policies toward its adult services section. Should the company be as flexible as the character played by Bill Murray, or hold to its principles? On the one hand, leaders steering their organizations through the various exigencies presented by changing business circumstances must be flexible and adapt to both political and market realities. On the other hand, as suggested by the Ghostbusters scene, principles frequently compromised or changed soon aren't really "principles" any more.

I believe the answer depends on the particulars. In this instance, Craig Newmark and his colleagues are doing the right thing in trying to stick by their ideals. That's because from everything I've read, the law is quite clear: publishers of advertising content are not responsible for all the legal implications of the content they publish. Moreover, the efforts to crack down on Craigslist won't be successful in accomplishing the intended objectives. Telephone directories run advertisements for escort services, some of which are undoubtedly fronts for prostitution. Papers run personal ads, and I doubt if they check to be sure the ads aren't being used to sell illegal products or services. The principle that Newmark is fighting for is essential for both free speech and the operation of the internet.

That's not to say that I think prostitution or pornography are so-called "victimless crimes", far from it. But as Newmark and others have noted, even if and when the adult services section is closed (as it has been temporarily with the word "censored") the ads will just move to other sections of the site or to other sites. Policing should be left to the police and not be the responsibility of companies that don't have either the resources or the expertise to do the task.

Legislatures pass laws and courts interpret those laws. It is up to leaders to live by the laws, both those they like and those they don't. Otherwise, we won't have a rule of law, we will have mob rule. Come to think of it, as I see the controversy over the location of mosques and politicians' comments about not adhering to laws they don't like, we may already be well on our way to this unfortunate state of affairs.

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

 |  September 7, 2010; 8:42 AM ET
Category:  CEOs , Corporate leadership , Ethics Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Falling back on the same old song | Next: Confusing leadership and values

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The professors column is fun, but wrongheaded. It's certainly true that Craigslist has the right to post sleazy material like this. But even if they don't get sued for posting all the prostitution ads, they should ask themselves if this is right for their business.

The fact is that Craigslist is to some extent becoming known as the spot to go to find a prostitute. It's also becoming known as a place where you can get cheated by scam artists.

And that's not a good message for any business. To me this isn't a free speech issue, it's a question of what kind of business you want to create.

Does Craig want to be known for having a site where you can get valuable stuff for not much money or as a sleazy classified ads place.

Free speech isn't a value that exists in isolation. It is something that needs to be balanced with other principles and goals. And Craig should be deciding on what to do based on HIS company goals, not based on whether a prostitute has the right to solicit on his site.

Posted by: ttrub | September 7, 2010 5:10 PM
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An advertisement is not about free expression, it is a business tool.

Craigslist actually does limit listings on its site, both in types of items for sale and services offered(see prohibitions in its general FAQ) and in its terms of use, there are also detailed descriptions of types of advertisements Craigslist will not accept.

Therefore Craigslist does limit "expression" on its site and so the question is not is Craigslist defending freedom of expression but rather do the ads in question cross the line into categories Craigslist itself has identified as not acceptable.

Posted by: m00dl3s | September 7, 2010 2:28 PM
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Obviously you need to read some more. And try consulting sources who actually know the law. Your claim that, "{F]rom everything I've read, the law is quite clear: publishers of advertising content are not responsible for all the legal implications of the content they publish" is simply 180 degrees in error. Publishers enjoy no immunity (outside the limited area of copyright infringement law) from the real-world consequences of their decision to publish or not publish an ad or any other material. In particular, they are fully liable for promoting prostitution or any other illegal activity when they have received warning, knowledge, or have been put on notice that they are hosting or otherwise re-publishing illegal material.

You seem also to be laboring under the illusion that publishers enjoy some greater First Amendment right to speak than do individuals. They do not. If it is permissible for a state criminal code to outlaw an individual from advertising sexual services, then it is equally permissible for that criminal code to outlaw a publisher - online or offline - from doing the same thing.

Posted by: dajhilton | September 7, 2010 1:09 PM
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