Michael Brutsch and a Lesson in Free Speech

'Reddit presence in SL' photo (c) 2012, ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓ - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I have been following the controversy of Michael Brutsch – the man who under the name Violentacrez became what could arguably be called, one of the most popular trolls online, through the social media platform Reddit.  He created multiple extremely popular subreddits like r/jailbait, r/rapejokes, and r/picsofdeadchildren.  Last week, Gawker revealed who Brutsch is to the world and he recently sat down with CNN reporter Drew Griffin, on Anderson 360.  The following is the interview.

Brutsch has since been fired from his job, lost his health insurance and is now worried about losing his home. The loss of his health insurance is a particularly difficult blow, because his wife is disabled. During the interview he revealed that the only reason he is stopping is because the world knows he is and that no one is going to buy into the Violentacrez persona anymore. Brutsch followed this up by adding that he has come to understand in the last few months that some of his creations can be harmful to people. To that I say uh huh.  It seems to me that when Brutsch was given a real world taste of what his online victims face, he simply couldn’t deal with the repercussions. Anderson did a piece last year on 360 about his Violentacrez persona and he continued on because he remained anonymous. If Brutsch had really grown a conscience, would he have proudly displayed the award he received from Reddit for creating the r/jailbait?

 Brutsch spent a great deal of time trying to disassociate himself from the persona that he created and blamed Reddit for enabling him.  He claims to have been playing to an audience of college kids for the thrill of receiving karma points (points given to a user when fellow users appreciate their contributions).  Though he tried to explain his behaviour, Brutsch came across as a small man, who thrived on the attention and positive affirmation that he received, even as his actions hurt women, children and people of colour.  The fact that he was so invested in Reddit that he created over 600 subreddits proves that his desire to feel powerful, was far more important to him than any harm he caused his victims.

Many of Brutsch’s supporters claim that the revelation of his identity to the world was a violation of his free speech rights.  Even if we accept the fact that Brutsch had the right to post images of people without their express written consent as part of his free speech rights, since when does free speech mean consequence free speech?  If Brutsch had the right to say whatever he wanted to online, then why does the public not have the right to react to his speech in any non-violent manner that they decide?  Certainly, the loss of his job and health insurance does constitute a form violence but in a society of free association, should his employer be forced to continue an relationship which would be harmful to their business? 

No one forced Brutsch to sit at his computer and post these harmful images, or moderate the subreddits that he created.  He did this for his own pleasure and amusement and now it seems that he is not comfortable with the consequences.  I will agree to a certain extent that Reddit did enable him by not banning his contributions but at the end of the day, Brutsch is a grown man and accountable for his own actions.  It is in the service of the public good that Brutsch’s actions are vigorously called out. It is a public good that people stand up and say that the exploitation of women and girls is not acceptable.  The mere fact that Brutsch was able to rise to such notoriety, is a stunning example of the rape culture in which we live. The pervasiveness of harmful behaviour does not make it acceptable or stand as proof that society should not attempt to bring an end to it.  At some point, every social evil that we today consider to be unacceptable was deemed unproblematic and championed by powerful people.  The very idea that he should be entitled to anonymity, when he granted no such right to the people whose images he posted rankles and disgusts me.

Many see the internet as the last bastion of free speech and in many cases I agree with this assessment. The internet has reverted control back to the public from large corporations and the media, who have quickly discovered that they can no longer control the spin on stories.  It is an important facet of global communication and social progress.  The response to the exposure of Brutsch’s identity and the public uproar that occurred, has some worried that this could backfire and lead to the outting of GLBT people for instance by homophobes, or have have other unintended consequences.  If anyone at anytime can be exposed to the world, if there is a social disgust or dislike of speech, does this then create a less free internet? Perhaps. The bottom line is however, despite his exposure, Brutsch is still free to continue his behaviour, it’s just that now, he will face the consequences. Trolling is not going to stop simply because one person has been revealed.  Men like Burtsch are going to continue to seek a cheap thrill through the debasement of marginalized people, but in a free society which is ever evolving, we must all stand up and say that this wrong.  Disciplining actions which many find to be socially abhorrent is how societies have influenced and corrected behaviour for centuries. The project of freedom is not hampered by a collective refutation of one man’s speech. In fact, the naming and shaming of Brutsch reflects free speech in its best form. Free speech should never mean consequence free speech.

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