The Internet is a combative place with feisty, creative participants on both sides of every major debate. And while I generally agree that freedom to speak does not mean freedom to speak free of consequences, lately I have been wondering about some big questions that lurk behind these kinds of headlines: What kind of speech should trigger consequences? What should those consequences be if the government is staying out of it? And who gets to administer them and how?

Pearce got in touch with these women on her own, rather than drawing in support from across the Internet. But not everyone behaves the same way. Thanks to social media, it’s very easy to set large numbers of people on an individual who has erred. But it is much harder to determine what consequences that person ought to experience and who ought to mete them out.

For Justine Sacco, a public relations executive who violated the tenets of her own profession by posting a stupid, racially charged joke and then failing to apologize for it quickly enough because she was on a long plane flight, the penalty the Internet exacted was the loss of her job. When author Daniel Handler used his presenting spot at the National Book Awards to talk about African Americans’ supposed affinity for watermelon, the price of his penance was a $10,000 donation and a pledge to match an additional $100,000 in gifts to We Need Diverse Books. Not every author would have been able to offer so much.