Tag Archives: free speech

a case against free speech (not)

In today’s LA Times, a sociologist and legal scholar makes the case for restricting hate speech, on the grounds that not doing so subjects the “disadvantaged members of our society to shoulder a heavy burden with serious consequences.”

But she makes no mention of the fact that freedom of speech laws have actually protected the disadvantaged throughout our nation’s history. In fact, the first to suffer when speech becomes restricted are the disadvantaged, because they, by definition, lack the power to defend their rights of expression.

For example, during the Civil Rights Movement, black Americans were actually sent to jail for protesting segregation. The basis for which they were jailed was that they were in violation of speech restrictions! Some were even arrested for offenses as banal as praying on the steps of the Albany City Hall. One of those individuals you may have heard of, his name was Martin Luther King.

A year or so later, King and other movement leaders were ordered by Birmingham Sheriff, Bull Connor, that they were not allowed to engage in “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing,” or even “conduct customarily known as ‘kneel-ins’ in churches.” According to the ACLU, “It was King’s violation of this injunction that landed him in prison for the stint during which he wrote the famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” (See the ACLU article in the comments for more examples of egregious violations of constitutionally protected speech during the Civil Rights Movement.)

The professor who wrote this opinion piece is presumably aware of this history, but she leaves it out of her argument here. We are left to suppose that she has faith that a system which regulates “hate” (an ambiguous word on a good day) would only ever do so in a way that upholds her own (biased/political) definitions of what that word means. The very fact that she is making this argument amidst a Donald Trump presidency is baffling to me. But I guess nothing can be that surprising on the Internet.

I conclude with a quote from the article from the ACLU, “If we don’t stand up for the First Amendment when racist speech is censored, it is the weak, the powerless, minorities, and those who seek change who will be hurt most in the end.”

clear and present danger

In a speech yesterday at the 2017 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, Defense Secretary James Mattis called North Korea a “clear and present danger” to the world. In general, I don’t have any problem with that at face value. North Korea does pose a threat to global safety and security, and their reckless antics must not be ignored.

But I do find it peculiar that, of all the many ways to describe North Korea, Mattis invoked a legal term, “clear and present danger”, that was established by the Supreme Court as a test for determining when and where the government may impose restrictions on what would otherwise be Constitutionally protected speech. Basically, the Supreme Court set forth guidelines that for 1st Amendment rights to be overruled, there must be a “clear and present” danger that such speech will result in “imminent harm.” Think “yelling fire in a crowded theater.”

In general, the “clear and present danger” test helps to strengthen speech protections by making it more difficult for the government to prosecute speech it deems undesirable, and that’s a good thing.

But according to the ACLU, during the era of McCarthyism, the clear and present danger test was severely weakened when the Supreme Court fell prey to the “witchhunt mentality” and held that “speakers could be punished if they advocated overthrowing the government — even if the danger of such an occurrence were both slight and remote. As a result, many political activists were prosecuted and jailed simply for advocating communist revolution. Loyalty oath requirements for government employees were upheld; thousands of Americans lost their jobs on the basis of flimsy evidence supplied by secret witnesses.”

Thankfully, 1st Amendment protections were strengthened in 1969, when the Supreme Court “struck down the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan member, and established a new standard: Speech can be suppressed only if it is intended, and likely to produce, ‘imminent lawless action.’ Otherwise, even speech that advocates violence is protected. The Brandenberg standard prevails today.”

As it pertains to National Security, the ACLU explains how the government has “historically overused the concept of ‘national security’ to shield itself from criticism, and to discourage public discussion of controversial policies or decisions.”

As to whether the “clear and present danger” terminology has been used in this case to set the stage for legal battles to come is, at this point, anyone’s guess. However, it is not a leap to see how an administration so adverse to transparency, and so hostile to criticism, may want to exploit “national emergencies” to reassert its right to engage in censorship of speech it deems is dangerous or weakens its ability to defend the interests of this country from enemy actors, both foreign or domestic. Of course, what “weakens” an ability of a government to carry out its constitutional duties is open to interpretation, and its up to the citizens of this country to stay vigilant lest we fall victim to the dark shadows of censorship.

portland mayor calls for censorship

How does a community react to someone so disturbed and deranged as Jeremy Joseph Christian?

Someone so unpredictable?  Whose politics were so apparently confused and extreme, all at once?  A person who has been disowned and disavowed by just about every political faction in America, including white nationalists?

How do we even begin to understand what would influence a man to harness such an extreme mindset in the first place?  A man whose most recent Facebook cover photo is an aerial shot of the aftermath of the Jonestown Massacre, where nearly 900 people killed themselves at the behest of their charismatic leader, Jim Jones?  A man who bragged about being a nihilist?  Who has been labeled so many things, even though just about none of the labels—other than horrible—really fits upon further examination?

For example, the left was quick to label Jeremy Joseph Christian a Trump supporter, but Christian himself claims he did not vote for Donald Trump (in fact, he labeled him “fast poison” as compared to Hillary) and there was a lack of any evidence, besides a Brietbart “like”, that he was associated with anything to do with the Trump Train or traditional alt-right media outlets.

And here are some other things that Jeremy Joseph Christian had considered or showed an interest in at one point:

–  Bernie Sanders

–  Jill Stein

–  Lopping off the heads of people who circumcised children

–  A plan for American balkanization

–  Anti-zionism

In other words, he was pretty much a smorgasbord of ideas across the spectrum (many of them extreme), so why should he be considered the product of any one camp?  Did the alt-right create him?  Did the Bernie Bros influence him?  Was it Jill Stein who is responsible?  Donald Trump?  The anti-circumcision lobby?  Was it even politics or ideology that influenced his prior criminal record?  What about the kidnapping?  How does that factor in?

And the same is true about him on the night he stabbed those three men.  While initial reports said his tirade was primarily anti-Muslim, Portland Police Sgt. Pete Simpson said he was “yelling various remarks that would best be characterized as hate speech toward a variety of ethnicities and religions” and he was “talking about a lot of different things, not just specifically anti-Muslim.”

The problem is, unlike ideologues or religious extremists, there is no single book one can point to in order to understand Christian’s worldview.  He wasn’t a Marxist.  Nor was he really, truly alt-right.  He didn’t receive his direction from any known network of religious extremists.  And Christian certainly wasn’t inspired to kill random strangers because of any American politician.  Bernie hasn’t called for such behavior, nor has Donald Trump.  There are no easy explanations.  One would have to read many books across the political spectrum, shuffle them around, and then attempt to stitch together something that looked like what may have been going on inside of Christian’s head.  And even then one would probably be wrong, with the exception of the fact that we know Christian wanted to practice his right to offend just about everyone, under the auspices of the 1st Amendment.  And that is so because Christian is an extreme person, not a coherent one.  He is a jumbled mess.  He is fringe.  Rare by definition.  And thank god for that.

Which is why I am confused why Portland Mayor Todd Wheeler is calling on the federal government to revoke the permits of two right wing political events that are unrelated to Jeremy Joseph Christian, with the exception of the fact that both appear to be standing up for free speech?  He says, “My concern is they’re coming here to peddle a message of hatred and bigotry.”  But “hatred and bigotry” are not illegal—even though many people think, or want to believe, they are—assuming the mayor is even accurate in his portrayal of the events.

And if divisive messaging is the mayor’s concern, then why stop with alt-right events?  Are they not but one of many political movements in America that have irresponsibly pitted groups against groups, often with little evidence but strong emotion?  What about Black Lives Matter?  Have not some BLM leaders been called out for their own form of bigoted and highly charged political speech?  If the Mayor would like examples, I’d be happy to provide them.

Perhaps the mayor will justify his call for censorship because he believes organized protests caused Christian to murder those men?  But Christian was not at an organized rally, he was on a train, so it would be hard to reference as the cause of a behavior something that was not even relevant during the commission of the crime.  Then maybe the mayor thinks it was not the events themselves, per se, but the general right to freedom of extreme speech that caused Christian’s behavior, because Christian was quite clearly engaging in all forms of offensive speech. But it’s a leap to draw a connection between a right to say something and actually committing murder.  Besides, isn’t it better to know what folks like Christian are thinking, than to be caught totally off guard?

And if the mayor were to blame a political right available to all Americans, he must first take into account the fact that the vast majority of people don’t behave like Christian.  So even if Christian’s political rights were a factor, they only seem to matter with rare individuals who display highly emotional and unstable characteristics (and even those individuals rarely act out in such a hideous manner).  The mayor should be used to this way of nuanced, statistical thinking given that he probably also believes Islamic terrorism is a low probability event that has nothing to do with Islam.  And he almost certainly would not have supported, if asked, the recent calls to no platform Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour, whose critics said advocates for “boycotts against Jewish businesses in Israel and random acts of violence against the innocent,” because to him, Sarsour is more emblematic of left feminism than she is of anything to do with hate speech and biased words.  In other words, to him, I’m guessing, Linda is part of the home team.  So less scrutiny there, I’m sure.

Perhaps then, if it wasn’t protests or freedom of speech specifically, it was just the atmosphere of division that caused Christian to lash out in violence against three innocent lives, killing two of them. While that may be closer to the truth, at least on one level, there is still much to be known about cause and effect here.  Determining causation is not easy to do, at least in any serious sense.  Note, here I differentiate between the average person confusing causation with patterns (or the appearance of causation), and actual statistical causation (real causation that actually caused something).  Often times, determining causation is far more complicated than pattern matching.  The Mayor is ostensibly saying that free speech causes violence by seeking the censorship of some political protest in the wake of this event (he would not censor said events in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption or bad weather), so we must contend with the mayor’s own thesis that the events must be censored, because too much free speech in Portlandia causes people to murder.

And while we are having this “speech/belief causes behavior” discussion, what about Islamic political groups?  After all, have you not read the Quran lately?  There is good reason to believe many individuals have acted out in violence upon reading the words of that book, and although some may disagree that Quranic doctrine causes antisocial behavior (like terrorism), that’s hardly an argument for why the mayor should not cast a wider net in his campaign to tone down the political atmosphere in Portland, because if speech/belief doesn’t cause behavior there, it probably doesn’t cause behavior anywhere.  Hence, behavior is random or influenced only by macro level forces, and suppression of speech would do very little to accomplish anything at all.  So the mayor might just as well censor everyone, because it doesn’t matter anyway.

Furthermore, one could just as easily argue that Christian’s incoherent worldview did not cause his behavior so much as that his life history (including variables such as his genes + environment) culminated in an inevitable tragedy.  The point here is not to obfuscate the causes, but to highlight that there are probably more than one, and a reactionary response is likely to be unproductive and result in far more harm than good.

But it seems the mayor has already determined causation, and as it turns out—by sheer coincidence that nobody would have seen coming ever—the source happens to be the mayor’s political opposites.  It’s funny how in an indifferent and uncaring universe, all 7 billion of us just happened to luck into a storyline where it’s always our rivals who are wrong and evil.  In fact, the mayor, so distraught and unable to cope with the rights of others, has called upon what would normally be his political opponent, Donald Trump (or his surrogates in high places), and asked that he or they withdrawal the rights of those the mayor deems inappropriate for Portland.

Once again, the mayor is seeking to normalize a behavior via a man who would, quite happily, censor the hell out of all of the mayor’s favorite stars if he could, because the mayor of Portland is unable to, in this time of grieving for that community, demonstrate resolve (or a spine) and carry on defending the fundamental protections that have resulted in many of the civil rights the mayor, I’m almost certain, cares so deeply about!  (See free speech and the Civil Rights Movement, for starters.)

How slapdash and careless, negligent and haphazard.  Amidst this environment, during these times, the liberal Mayor of Portland would rather acquiesce to the Censor’s Pen than, I don’t know, actually lead the city out of this time of morning in a manner that would celebrate the very rights Jeremy Joseph Christian so ignorantly and eagerly misunderstood.  Instead, we have here the Mayor of Portland, the Censor’s Stooge, calling on Federal Authorities to, amidst a tragedy, freeze those most basic of American rights.  Of the many ways that the Mayor could react, he takes a knee and bows his head in the direction of authoritarian dreams, and minority/under privileged nightmares.

In terms of the question I started this post with, how should a community react in the face of something as tragic as Jeremy Joseph Christian—the Mayor of Portland is doing it all wrong.  While there are no easy answers, and I certainly don’t have them, one thing I can say is that whatever the answer, it’s almost certainly not restricting the rights of political protest we find abhorrent, because, as per the ACLU, if we do, “it won’t be long before the speech of people we support will be under attack.”  And that would be a shame, because so many movements the Mayor supports would be at risk in environments far less like Portlandia and far more like, oh, I don’t know, the Deep American South. But maybe the Mayor hasn’t thought that far ahead.  Myopia is the dagger that has killed many a good things.

inconvenient truths 

The latest in campus outrage and the suppression of controversial speakers has happened again, this time against Heather Mac Donald.  ​

Mac Donald is a conservative writer who uses data and statistics to dismantle many of the claims made by Black Lives Matter, a leftist activist group that uses postmodern race theory, with its Marxist underpinnings, and the politics of personal experience, which they prioritize over objective fact, to argue that the police systematically discriminate against African Americans. 

Like Charles Murray, Mac Donald’s views are inconvenient to a left liberal worldview that the current order of things can only be described as racist and oppressive (versus, more simply, unequal due to many variables that sometimes may include racism and oppression, and sometimes not).  

To this form of social justice activism, believing certain facts about the world is tantamount to racism, even if the facts are true.  Such as that, for example, when adjusted for violent crime rate, blacks are no more likely than whites to be shot and killed by the police (and may even be less likely).  

Jonathan Haidt has recently argued that this form of social justice activism, which seeks to shut down truths they deem unorthodox, is similar to religion in the way that they command what is right, and forbid what is wrong.  But whether he’s correct or not, it’s hard to not be concerned that our young people have gotten so far off course.  

And whatever​ you may think about Mac Donald’s social conservatism and her position that most of the reason for the distress in our African American communities can be blamed on a breakdown of the family (FWIW, I don’t fully agree with her here), it’s hard to argue that espousing such a viewpoint is equivalent to racism.  Especially since Mac Donald, as noted above, has committed herself to making truth claims that are backed by empirical fact, versus subjective knowledge, to support her worldview.  

Anyway, I find all this all so ironic, because those very same people attempting to suppress inconvenient truths are also the ones quick in their smugness to point out the intellectual failure of the right-wing when they attack scientific positions on climate change.

But when a movement equates unorthodox speech with violence against the oppressed, as if words can cause physical harm in the same way as bullets, it’s easy to understand why they are so threatened.  Unfortunately for them and fortunately for the rest of us, our world is better off because people like Mac Donald have been brave enough to commit their lives to questioning the tenet’s of such self-righteous zealots, who are often so blinded by their own fanatical zeal that they are impervious to the real harm they are causing in their denial of reality.  

Let’s hope that this movement against free speech on campus is short lived, and does not get picked up and legitimized by their foes on the right.  Because the day our society loses its ability to question the sacred tenets of dogmatic groups will be the day when I can say with confidence that we are no longer free.

on the free people of north korea

North Korea is a society that prizes free expression. They resent the very notion that people don’t change their minds, and their people in fact pride themselves on the ability to update their opinions as new information comes in. They are an open society and they use critical opinion to weed out bad ideas.

The ability to remove the powerful without violence is a hallmark of the North Korean way, and their leaders routinely resign from powerful positions when their prominent media spotlight corruption and nepotism. People can live there freely without fear that their words will get them killed. Theirs is a society that reads multiple points of view, and recognizes the fallible nature of the individual. They understand that individuals are all limited by time and a varying capacity for knowledge acquisition, and that even the most highly able learners in their society may be at times biased in favor of ill conceived notions. They cherish science and their heroes are intellectuals and the institutions that make them possible. The university is a playground. Books are recess. They seek knowledge and understanding. They are pragmatic but ambitious in their ways.

Dogmatism is frowned upon. Humility is a virtue. Controversial opinions are tolerated as a matter of principle. They understand that the best way to handle hateful speech is through more speech. Decency and respect for their fellow citizen is fundamental to the North Korean style. If they offend you, they immediately find ways to rectify the situation. If you offend them, their ethos is based on the framework that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never, can never hurt me”. Their people and their country are anti-fragile. They are not afraid of failure, and they are especially not afraid of getting hurt.

Respect for the institutions that make their society a success is paramount, but they do not idealize them to the extent that they are unwilling to change them where necessary and prudent. They see not limit to their ability to achieve great things, but recognize that nothing is guaranteed, and all the good they have today may be lost tomorrow. They never give up. They are pragmatic optimists and speak clearly and honestly about the world as it is. They are a high trust society. Their people are happy and hardworking. They cherish their freedoms.

Actually, none of the above is true, and the possibility of the above existing in a society like present day North Korea, the real North Korea, is impossible. Values are worth fighting for, because values make a society.

in defense of free speech (all of it)

The primary function of free speech in a society is to root out bad ideas through criticism, which will in time leave its people with an ever deepening pool of good ideas that are hard to vary. In other words, ideas can eventually become so strong that they are difficult to change, or “vary”, without also making them less good in some way. The more ideas a society has that are hard to vary, the better off its citizens will be.

Thus, speech advocates defend offensive speech not because we enjoy “punching down” at the weak, but because we know that eliminating such ideas through threat or force is a mathematical problem that also reduces the number of good ideas in a society. This is also known as “chilling speech” — because it increases the risk of speaking some good ideas so much that many people will stop speaking them. Instead, we advocate for countering offensive speech with stronger ideas, rather than trying to eliminate them altogether.

Unfortunately, the creeping desire by the left, and in some cases the right, to consider more and more variations of speech “hate speech” risks our ability to maintain the largest possible pool of good ideas, which is why we should be careful about the use of that term. Obviously, there are some forms of speech that are reasonably off limits (such as yelling fire in a crowded theater, calling for mass genocide over public airwaves, etc), so there is justification for placing some constraints on very specific kinds of speech — even if that means some good ideas might also be lost. But when deciding which speech is off limits, we should do so with a scalpel and not a hammer, because better outcomes for the future of humanity is, ultimately, what’s most at stake.