Forum Community Guidelines: Why They Matter

Enrico Schaefer - December 2, 2019 - Internet Law, Website Agreement Tips


Forum Community Guidelines are important to include as part of your website’s terms if you have a website with a message board or other method of user interaction. Community Guidelines are are not the same kind of contractual agreement as Terms and Conditions (aka: Terms of Use, Terms of Service), which most websites require users to agree to in order to have access to the website’s interactive features. Terms of Use typically include a set of rules with legal ramifications if those rules are broken, whereas Community Guidelines are forward-looking rules that do not require as strict of adherence. Community Guidelines set out best practices so that the users of a website can interact respectfully and you can maintain the peace. Your users may also be more likely to participate in your website’s community features if you have a clear message of constructive best practices that can provide users with some assurance that their experience on your website will be a positive one.

Guide Your Users to Create and Curate the Content You Want

When users are interacting on your site, they are creating a virtually limitless portion of the content that other users will see when they visit your site. You likely spent a great deal of effort in drafting and maintaining the content that you are responsible for on your site, so why should this valuable user-generated content be any different? Community Guidelines allow you to steer the content being added to your site in the direction you want. At the same time, you want to balance this need for control with the value of the independently created thoughts and input of your users. Laying out a set of rules that all of your users will do their best to follow in posting to your website allows a significant portion of your users to generate the substance of your website, without the need for meticulous cleanup or even censorship to make their creations fit your vision for the site.

You may find that, without clear guidelines, your website is becoming a source for material that you do not want. Particularly if you do not make it clear what the intended age range is for your website, your users may not understand your intentions and begin to create (and ultimately, fail to self-police) mature content that makes your site unsafe or inappropriate for some of your target users. Even large social media sites can struggle with controlling adult material on their sites, posing a risk for young users, or any user who does not wish to encounter these sorts of things.

Cement Your Stance on Unwanted Behavior

Forum Community Guidelines can be crucial to support a pattern of moderation on your website. Your users will feel that they have been treated more fairly (even when they are the ones being penalized) if they can see that you are acting in accordance with preexisting rules that were accessible at any time when the unwanted behavior was happening. If you can point to violation of a certain rule whenever a user treats another disrespectfully, posts spam advertisements, or violates another user’s privacy, you can easily keep this kind of material off of your site. Some of the most productive online communities can perform these functions themselves if you give them enough rules to enforce on their own. Reporting functions can allow users to identify others who violate your guidelines, and moderators can subsequently use your guidelines to understand what you want controlled on your site and do that for you.

Maintain a Law-Abiding Community

Forum Community Guidelines are an ideal place to remind your users of best practices for following the letter of the law, not just the rules you created for your site. For instance, many of your users may be commenting on or sharing the intellectual property of others, and there are a whole host of pitfalls to avoid in this area. Use the guidelines to remind your users what they can and cannot do with other people’s creations. Users will see your rules and hopefully refrain from breaking these laws, saving a good deal of trouble in the future when it comes to mandatory takedowns of content on your site.

Another major consideration when users are exchanging information on your site is the privacy and security of that information. You want to discourage your users from sharing any confidential information while using your website in order to protect them, and also be certain that your users are not using your platform to share others’ information that they have illegally obtained. Your guidelines can tell your users that your site is a safe place were this kind of dangerous behavior is not tolerated, and your users can feel more secure when they come to you.

Bottom Line

If you have a website with a forum or user-to-user interactive component, Forum Community Guidelines can perform a number of important functions for you. Armed with an understanding of what you can ask of your users, how you can control them, and what laws they must follow, you can draft a strong set of guidelines that will make your living community of a website into a respectful place where users are happy to add to your creation and return to keep interacting. Need help drafting or fixing up your Forum Community Guidelines? Traverse Legal’s attorneys can help.

What the Top Players Are Doing

Curious as to what the big websites that feature community forums are doing with their guidelines? Below is a list with links to some of the most popular websites’ Forum Community Guidelines:

This blog post contributed, in part, by Traverse Legal Virtual Law Clerk Scott Pehoushek.

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This page has been written, edited, and reviewed by a team of legal writers following our comprehensive editorial guidelines. This page was approved by attorney Enrico Schaefer, who has more than 20 years of legal experience as a practicing Business, IP, and Technology Law litigation attorney.