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What Are Community Standards?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Community standards can be precise or imprecise notions that govern people’s ideas about what is acceptable behavior within a specific community. Community, itself, could refer to a small town, a state, a university campus, a group of Internet users that join a specific website or other defined collections of people. Some standards are written down clearly and others are reasonably inferred. The term may have greater specificity in legal settings where it refers to the average person’s judgment on what items, such as proposed works of art, stay within the bounds of decency or violate what the average person thinks of as decent or appropriate. In this sense, either the behavior or works of others can be judged in court, through jury deliberations, as residing within or without the limits of the average person’s moral judgment on decency.

The first definition of community standards exists in various forms within any grouping of people. Websites with any social networking function typically have a list of standards they expect users to follow, and they may expel users who don’t behave within standards. Schools define what they expect in a community too, but these definitions usually only go so far. Even when laws govern how community members are to behave, there are gray areas that go undefined, where it’s expected that people will reasonably infer basic standards on how to behave.

If definitions of unwritten community standards differ and conflict occurs, people may go to court to get judgment on which behaviors are appropriate. Court rulings may establish new laws and add to the sum total of standards that exist. Outside of the courts, other communities might add additional guidelines that help to resolve gray area issues.

In legal settings, the most common use of the term community standards is to evaluate an artistic output to determine if it violates average definitions of decency. Several important legal cases have established precedent for deciding if any form of art that touches on sexual matters is indecent or pornographic. In the US, a landmark case in this area was the 1957 Roth v. United States, which put forth that obscenity was determined most by application of community standards by the individuals or, rather, what the average individual would think was obscene. Another case of this nature was the 1970s Miller v. California, which expands on Roth’s definition.

It has been stated that it’s very difficult to judge such cases because the definition of what is obscene truly varies as to individuals, and people can belong to different communities concurrently. A resident of a particular state might be an avid Internet user or TV viewer whose definition of obscenity falls outside the bounds of community. It’s challenging to construct the “average” person of a smaller area when so many people belong to global communities of different sorts, and conversely, certain areas may be cut off with extremely rigid community standards that would not apply elsewhere, but that create especially harsh judgments.

What Happens If You Violate Community Standards?

As community standards can be written or inferred, it is challenging to determine liability in a legal setting. However, despite the challenges, most groups agree to adhere to basic standards of decency.

When an individual violates the standards of a community, the group will see fit to act. The actions a group might take will depend on the group, the severity of the violation, and any pre-discussed or disclosed consequences.

Social media platforms tend to work on a strike or warning policy. An individual is typically allotted so many mistakes before being removed or suspended from the platform. For instance, when an individual violates the community standards of Facebook or Instagram, the offending post is removed, and a strike is applied to the user’s account, depending on the severity of the post. When users continually violate community standards, Facebook might suspend, disable, or restrict the profile.

While it is relatively easy to obey community standards when they are written out, not all communities are so transparent. Some groups might simply require individuals to observe standards without ever providing instruction on the specific criteria. The inference of community standards typically relates to social norms or what is socially acceptable behavior.

The challenge legally is that community standards, especially those relying on inference, are challenging to prove and uphold in court. In some instances, there is little a court can do to protect the individual because they agree to the terms of participation on such independent platforms as Facebook. Therefore, individual users are often victims of the whims of the forum.

Who Can Create Community Standards?

Miller v. California (1973) aided in developing a definition of obscenity and community standards. Essentially, the Supreme Court defined obscenity as:

  • Appealing to the prurient interest

  • Describing or depicting in offensive ways sexual conduct defined by applicable laws

  • Lacking scientific, literary, political, or artistic value 

However, the court failed to institute national standards, leading to broad interpretations of the law and effectively delineating community standards over federal rule. Therefore, different parts of the country could express vastly different views of what constitutes obscenity.

The rise of the internet further muddied the law and who can create community standards. There are no longer geographic borders to constitute what is and is not obscene. Now, digital communities can specify standards, leading to more significant challenges in the judicial sphere.

However, despite the ambiguity of its definition and the growing list of communities, both digital and in-person, singular community standards are favored over national standards. Therefore, communities are primarily responsible for the creation and adherence to standards.

When reviewing online communities or social media platforms, the individual platforms are responsible for creating standards and adhering to them. Many social networks have come under increased scrutiny as of late because of the spread of misinformation. However, despite clear ramifications of the popularization of such lies, the protection of the first amendment leaves individual platforms responsible for how to deal with the propagation of such volatile and divisive drivel.

Community standards continue to adapt to a changing environment, and the law needs to evolve with it. Unfortunately, the digital medium is still relatively new, and the law takes time to progress.

Are Community Guidelines the Same as Community Standards?

When reviewing standards and guidelines, it is often hard to tell the difference. After all, a community can have both guidelines and standards, as can organizations and other entities.

For instance, corporate and data compliance will refer to organizational standards and guidelines. In such terms, a standard refers to quantifiable requirements, while a guideline refers to recommendations.

Therefore, when reviewing community standards and guidelines, the same can likely be true. A community standard is a requirement, and a guideline is a general suggestion.

Standards typically hold more weight than guidelines, meaning punishments or consequences generally are more severe. When a community member violates a guideline, they might be given a warning or reprimand. However, if the community member violates a standard, they might face penalties or exile.

The severity of the consequence depends on the violation and the transparency of the community rules. In many online forums, standards are written out with clear definitions of consequences for violations.

While the Supreme Court ruled on and defined obscenity, the evolving social structure and lack of national standards leave room for interpretation. Still, as the world continues to progress, legal changes will occur, altering definitions and possibly restricting the scope of localized standards.

Community Standards Examples

There are many different types of communities, all of which have different expectations for their members. Some examples of community standards include:

  • Social media terms of use
  • School and university codes of conduct
  • Workplace policies
  • Homeowner's association rules
  • Town and city ordinances
  • State and federal laws

Differences in Community Standards

Community standards can vary significantly from one organization or jurisdiction to another. This often reflects differences in culture and values. For example, a religious university may have different expectations of dress and behavior compared to a secular university.

Standards also vary depending on who belongs to the community. Social media is a good example of this. Online communities that include minors need to have rules in place to protect the children and teens in the community, while those that are limited to adults can get by with less stringent policies.

What Are the Three Community Care Common Standards?

In some cases, a governing authority establishes a common set of rules. Australia's community care common standards are one example. These standards apply to organizations that receive government funding to provide care services, and they are intended to ensure that all such organizations meet a minimum standard of care.

There are three standards by which all care services in Australia are evaluated.

1. Effective Management

Service providers must implement effective management procedures and ensure compliance with state regulations. This includes managing information, developing safety protocols, managing resources and ensuring that the organization is adequately staffed.

2. Appropriate Access and Service Delivery

Service providers must ensure that people who need their services can access them. This includes evaluating potential clients to determine what services they qualify for, working with clients to create a care plan that meets their needs, and providing referrals to other service providers when needed.

3. Service User Rights and Responsibilities

Clients who use care services need to understand their rights and the resources available to them. The organization must communicate clearly so the client can know what to expect and make an informed decision. Service providers must also protect clients' privacy and have a system in place to receive feedback and respond to complaints and concerns.

Why are Common Community Standards Important?

While all communities and institutions have policies that are specific to them, many also abide by common expectations set by a higher authority, as seen with Australia's community care common standards. These expectations help ensure consistency, fairness and accountability.

For example, a school may have rules that are specific to the individual institution, such as a dress code. However, the school must also adhere to certain common standards, such as common core educational standards. This helps provide equal educational opportunities for all students. Consistent educational standards also ensure an easier transition for students who need to change schools.

Establishing common community standards can also have legal implications. An established common standard for home care services, for example, ensures that there is legal recourse for clients who have not received appropriate care. In such cases, it is important that standards not only be consistent across all organizations, but also that they be clearly outlined to avoid ambiguity.

What Are Unwritten Community Standards?

Unwritten or unspoken community standards usually pertain to social etiquette, tradition or common sense. Often, these rules are never explicitly taught; people learn them through observation or experience. This can lead to confusion for some, such as neurodivergent individuals and people from other cultures.

Examples of Unwritten Community Standards

Unwritten rules observed in the United States include:

  • Giving up a seat to a pregnant or elderly person on public transportation
  • Calling before visiting someone's home
  • Not wearing white to a wedding
  • Using headphones when listening to music in public
  • Keeping to the right when walking down a hallway or sidewalk

Sometimes, unwritten rules are mistaken for laws. One common example is disability access. It is illegal to park in an accessible parking space without a permit. However, there is no legal protection for accessible bathroom stalls. It may be rude for an able-bodied person to use the accessible stall, but contrary to what some believe, it's not against the law.

Another source of confusion is that an unwritten standard in one jurisdiction may be a law in another. For example, when driving on a multi-lane highway, you should always move over to the next lane when you see a vehicle stopped on the side of the road, provided you can safely do so. In some U.S. states, this is merely an expectation, while in others, it is the law, and failure to do so will result in a fine.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia...
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