There are already at least a couple of questions (1, 2) about how to handle potentially inappropriate profile pictures, but the answer given in both cases (and other duplicates of those) essentially comes down to "flag it and let the moderators deal with it." Well, as a moderator, how exactly am I supposed to deal with it?

As far as I can tell, Stack Exchange does not have a clear policy about what sorts of images are inappropriate. The closest thing is this clause in the terms of service:

Subscriber represents, warrants and agrees that it will not contribute any Subscriber Content that [...] (d) is libelous, defamatory, abusive, threatening, harassing, hateful, offensive or otherwise violates any law or right of any third party....

but people do not always agree on what constitutes hateful or offensive content, or even on what constitutes libel or defamation (considering the prevalence of lawsuits). I don't think it's reasonable that my own opinions on the topic should be the basis for judging whether a picture is acceptable or not, simply because I'm the one tasked with handling (or not handling) the flag.

I'd like to establish a more specific policy to guide moderators tasked with handling potentially inappropriate profile pictures. Certainly I'm not suggesting we set up an exhaustive list of inappropriate profile pictures, but something more than what is in the ToS would be useful. For example: "X, Y, and Z are always inappropriate; for anything else, defer to the community team," with specific details about what X, Y, and Z are. I have my own ideas, but I'll omit them to avoid influencing the responses.

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    I would like to see each such case discussed independently in a private moderators chat room (Teachers Lounge, if I'm not mistaken), since it's not really possible to come with a list. Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 15:53
  • @DavidZ In your experience, is there a particular type of questionable profile picture that you see pop up more than others, that could serve as a specific basis for an additional guideline? Even though a more specific guideline wouldn't cover everything, if there is something that is often problematic then a guideline specifically targeting that might be justified to take care of the majority of cases, with the rest still left open for individual judgment as they currently are.
    – Jason C
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 23:36
  • @JasonC Personally I've only had to deal with this once, so I couldn't say, based only on my own experience. But from what I hear, the most common offenders seem to be explicit nudity and Nazi symbols. I'm pretty sure there have been other types of potentially offensive profile pictures, but I don't remember the details.
    – David Z
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 5:05
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    Out of curiosity: does anyone know whether the Confederate flag is being / would be allowed?
    – stafusa
    Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 23:05

4 Answers 4


Our stance on this is simple, but quite subjective. It's first worth reiterating that within reason, a user's profile page is their own domain. Given that:

  • We like people being creative
  • Profile pages aren't the most visible thing on the site
  • To some users, their own profile is often the most visited thing on the site, so we want them to love it

.. we like to allow some leeway. If an average, rational person would not find it offensive, then it's probably okay. There are some caveats to this, such as the expanded user cards. It's your responsibility to make sure that what expands wouldn't embarrass someone if they were caught viewing it at work or with their family.

Avatars are much more visible as we show them under every single post that you write, and as such, are open to a tad more scrutiny. If the avatar:

  • Depicts or promotes hate in any form
  • Insults, is insulting to or negatively objectifies those belonging to a certain race, gender or religion
  • Otherwise creates disruptions that moderators must deal with

... then we're probably going to require you to use another avatar. The key here is in the third bullet, creating disruptions. We aren't nannies, and we don't want to tell you how to depict yourself online. However, if the manner that you choose to do it creates disruptions within our communities, we're going to need to have a chat. I can't possibly categorize every kind of avatar that we might act upon, if folks find it objectionable and we can clearly see why, then you need to change it.

Now, what should you do?

As a user:

  • Flag any post that the user has written for moderator attention and / or contact us to let us know about it.

As a moderator:

  • If at all in doubt, contact us or find one of us in chat prior to doing anything.

  • If it's clearly something that should be changed, go ahead and change it to the default 'identicon', then message the user to let them know:

    Several in our community have flagged your avatar as not quite appropriate for a community that caters to users 13 years of age and above, often browsing from work or school. I've changed your avatar to a generic identicon, you're welcome to change it again, but please use an avatar that is appropriate for viewing by someone browsing from work or school. If you have any questions, please contact our community management team directly and they'll assist you with your concerns.

... customize as needed. Try to be as specific as you can about whatever isn't appropriate where the avatar is concerned. Remember, folks come from lots of different cultures. Put emphasis on the why.

Obviously, if they just put it back, a suspension is probably warranted and you've reached the point that we (the community team) need to be involved as soon as possible.

All and all, and all:

Try to be as tolerant as you can of other people, and assume good intentions until you have evidence to the contrary. "It offended me" is much different from "might offend someone", so don't go out of your way to flag something unless you truly believe it's a problem that requires immediate intervention.

As a moderator, doing anything to a user's profile should be left as a last resort. If you are at all unsure, contact us first and let us have a look at it.

  • I appreciate the answer, though it is still somewhat vague. Don't get me wrong, I understand why you don't want to be too specific, but to clarify my understanding: is there a particular reason you didn't include anything like "If a profile picture is pornographic, remove it"? Is it supposed to be obvious to any moderator that porn should be removed from a profile picture? Or are we okay to leave it alone if people aren't objecting to the image? To be fair, this probably is obvious to all mods, but what about other types of potentially objectionable pictures? (cont.)
    – David Z
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 12:00
  • (cont.) Should each individual moderator bring any picture that they themselves consider potentially objectionable to the community team? There's a lot of variability in what gets reported to you and what doesn't, in that case. Anyway, sorry to be a pain (I know I am being a pain), but my goal in asking this question is to tease out as much information about handling objectionable pictures as we can get without considering a specific case.
    – David Z
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 12:03
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    @DavidZ It's not a question of if porn should be removed, but more of what constitutes porn. A bathing suit pic? Debatable. The things to focus on are offensive to most people browsing from school or work and creating disruptions. If either of those two are met, then the avatar probably needs to go. Some people are just very easily offended, some not so much, there's no way to make a checklist for it. You know it when you see it, if ever unsure, have us take a look too is the best guidance I can give.
    – user50049
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 12:14
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    @DavidZ Strictly speaking pornography is a depiction of a sex act. A picture of fully clothed musician twerking on stage is actually more pornographic than a picture of a nude Playboy centerfold, which technically isn't porn at all. Most people though don't realize this and have their own various definitions of what exactly porn is, so it's not really a good criteria for what should and shouldn't be permitted here.
    – Ross Ridge
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 22:36
  • @RossRidge in that case, substitute your preferred description of something which you think should unambiguously, obviously, not be allowed in a profile picture. What I really wanted to know was, did Tim intentionally not mention any specific categories because there is no such thing as a category of images that is unambiguously, obviously, not allowed? (Based on his response the answer seems to be "yes" if only because any description of such a category is subject to interpretation.)
    – David Z
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 5:23
  • My point is only that the specific criteria you gave as an example is a particularly bad example. It's absence doesn't imply that a reasonably unambiguous category of images couldn't be defined that uses words that are more generally well understood. Something like say "Depicts or promotes hate in any form".
    – Ross Ridge
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 5:57
  • If something stands on end when you look at the image (for example, the hair on the back of your neck) or you blush, then it is probably not acceptable.
    – user291305
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 19:45

I think an explicit and specific policy would make the problem worse, not better.

The problem with specifics is that there will always be trolls who will use images that comply with the words of a specific policy, while breaking the spirit. Add more specifics, and they'll tweak things once again to be compliant with the new wording but still against the spirit. It's a never-ending battle that just results in ever more complex and unreadable rules.

Adding specifics just creates more grounds for trolls to argue about the wording of the specifics, rather than allowing moderators to enforce the spirit.

So the current arrangements, whereby moderators discuss the problematic image in mod-only chat rooms, and in doubtful cases, consult the community team, continue to be the most flexible and appropriate arrangements.

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    I don't think so. It seems that the argument you're making here relies on the premise that making the policy any more specific than it is would remove any role for case-by-case judgment. I don't believe that's true. We can have a policy that is more informative than the current one while still retaining the ability to make individual judgments.
    – David Z
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 14:36
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    One can say , "X is disallowed (including Y, Z, W, ...)". This gives the best of both worlds. Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 14:38
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    @Manishearth but that parenthetical comment adds clutter and doesn't help. In all of the cases I've seen, the intention to offend has been pretty clearly communicated, and examples would have been redundant. Unambiguously describing fine distinctions that lie just over the line wouldn't be possible, and identifying transgressions far over the line wouldn't be helpful.
    – 410 gone
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 14:44
  • @EnergyNumbers it gives a direct answer for some common cases. Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 14:48
  • @EnergyNumbers this question was prompted by an instance where the intent was not clear.
    – David Z
    Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 15:36
  • An explicit listing such as "X, Y, Z, and any other image that causes disruption" would work.
    – Mark
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 4:09

I regard the Terms of Service as something that SE enforces, not something that we moderators should enforce. The ToS are a legal document and contain quite a few cases that I am not qualified to judge.

What we moderators enforce are the rules of each community, and the general guidelines set by SE. Those can be more strict than the ToS, but they are really more guidelines than a strict legal code.

I think there is a reasonable consensus on which avatars should be removed, but there is a substantial grey area where it simply comes down to a judgement call. My interpretation of the consensus is roughly the following:

Avatars which a reasonable person would consider offensive are removed. This includes stuff like swastikas, which have been used in contexts where they are not offensive, but are so widely associated with the Nazis that many, if not most people would consider them offensive.

This does not mean that anyone taking offense is enough, if a user is offended by the logo of his most hated sports team, that is not enough to have it removed if someone uses it as their avatar.

Pornographic avatars are removed. Offensiveness is not the reason here, but such avatars are simply inappropriate for a professional context. I'd also remove stuff like graphic violence under this rule, but I haven't seen such a case. In general, avatars should not be 18+ rated.

Impersonation is another reason why avatars would be removed by a moderator.

  • I think swastikas shouldn't be considered offensive as it have religious significance. Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 7:24
  • @AnkitSharma so all you have to do is declare something religious and you can get away with anything. Touchdown!
    – user291305
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 19:49
  • So declaring anything offensive is fine but something having religious significance is wrong, great! Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 20:26

The Terms of Service are quite explicit about Subscriber Content not being able to "violate any law". Use of Nazi symbols in particular is easily classed as violation of German law.

Wikipedia has (my emphasis)

Strafgesetzbuch Section 86a

(1) Whoever domestically disseminates or produces, stocks, imports or exports or makes publicly accessible through data storage media for dissemination domestically or abroad, means of propaganda:

  1. of a party which has been declared to be unconstitutional by the Federal Constitutional Court or a party or organization, as to which it has been determined, no longer subject to appeal, that it is a substitute organization of such a party;


  1. means of propaganda, the contents of which are intended to further the aims of a former National Socialist organization,

shall be punished with imprisonment for not more than three years or a fine. […]

(3) Subsection (1) shall not be applicable if the means of propaganda or the act serves to further civil enlightenment, to avert unconstitutional aims, to promote art or science, research or teaching, reporting about current historical events or similar purposes. […]

That Wikipedia page has examples of images banned under German law, all of which would fall foul of the Term quoted in the question.

Stack Exchange also protects its own trademarks, and I've been presented with a user who thought it a good idea to use the SE "speech bubble" (Community User avatar) as his own user image. In that case, I reverted it to the Gravatar image and messaged the user to say that I'd done that and referred him to the relevant Term. I also said that he was welcome to change it again to an image which did not violate the terms.

Where an image is immediately obvious as violating the Terms, it should be summarily removed. If a user replies to the moderator message explaining how his avatar does not break the rules, fine; it can be restored, and the conversation serves as a record.

In a less-obvious case, CMs or the Team should be asked to adjudicate.

It should be possible to build a portfolio of images which have been adjudged unsuitable [and also those judged acceptable], either private to Stack Exchange or shared with moderators, in order to allow a consistent approach to be taken.

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    Unfortunately I'm pretty sure that content on SE only needs to follow US laws. Otherwise pretty much nothing would be allowed here. Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 14:47
  • 5
    They may only need to follow US laws. But choosing to follow other countries' applicable laws may provide an easy (and watertight) method of dealing with undesirable content. Certainly the German law applies to SE content, although without a company presence in Germany it may not be easily enforced. (However, it looks like there is a German presence). Commented Nov 9, 2014 at 18:31
  • It is ironic that depicting examples of what is not allowed is... not allowed. "Just use your imagination, OK?" "I'll know it when I see it." etc.
    – user291305
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 19:48

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