When I began following free speech controversies, I was a First Amendment absolutist. Now I’m something less comfortable. I still think free speech is a good idea, certainly better than alternatives I’ve come across, but I’ve learned that everyone has a line that can’t be crossed, a word that sticks in the craw, an image that feels like a kick to the gut. The First Amendment, bless its little heart, always eventually lets us down (self-protection is innate, tolerance an acquired taste), so how can I not be bothered by its limitations?

This is a running log of arguments over free speech – some silly, some funny, some hard -- because free speech is all about argument. Being able to speak our mind makes us feel good and it's essential to real democracy and fairness. Yet, in the end, one of the best reasons to keep our speech rights intact is that we miss them when they’re gone.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Push sure does come to shove

If there were ever a "I'm not in favor of censorship, but" moment for liberal-minded Americans, these post-Charlottesville days are it, maybe especially in Boston, where we're being treated to a "free speech rally" on the Common on Saturday. Free speech appears to be the self-rebranding of ultra-right, neo-Nazi and other racist and anti-Semitic groups with the apparent aim of confusing the issue. It's working, at least to a degree. Even the ACLU (who once defended Nazis wanting to march in Skokie, Illinois) is contending with it, balking at representing groups carrying guns. John Medlar, an organizer of the Boston rally (who sounds like he's in over his head, but maybe that's giving him too much credit) was interviewed on Radio Boston and fell all over himself attesting to the peaceful intentions of the event. My favorite line was when he implied that his guys were under threat of injury from violent counter-demonstrators, but they, the victims, were nonetheless "going in full Mahatma Gandhi." Let's hope so.

Once again, it bears repeating that we can champion free speech, in both theory and practice, and at the same time dispute racist speech and stop or counterbalance racist actions -- as we must. (What about all those politicians who are outraged, outraged! to find that racism is going on here, while giving full support to vitiated health care, deportation and blocking of immigrants, and ever more money to wage war -- all of which have racist consequences?) The option of simply ignoring such hateful and hate-filled speech was eliminated by the murder of Heather Heyer and the pusillanimous response of Donald Trump, but, as someone suggested wisely, let's counter the rightwing assholes on our terms, not theirs. 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

I'm not in favor of Ann Coulter either, but...

The University of California, Berkeley, birthplace of the 1960's Free Speech Movement, caved in to threats of violence and cancelled a planned speech by rightwing provocateur Ann Coulter. University officials wrote to the sponsoring group, the Berkeley College Republicans, that they were "unable to find a safe and stable venue," while a spokesman affirmed Berkeley's commitment to a diversity of voices

Sound familiar?

So I'll sound familiar too by repeating that the right response to threatened speech is not to suppress it, but to get rid of the threat.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Protest politely please, we're American

"We support the First Amendment altogether," said state Senator George B. Gainer [R-FL] but...
     It's okay to plow your car into demonstrators (according to a bill filed in Tennessee)
     Protesters can be sued for policing costs (according to a Minnesota bill)
     It's illegal to "threaten, intimidate, or retaliate" (aka heckle) state officials (bill expected in N. Carolina)

Welcome to Political Protest 2.0. where it's fine to protest or demonstrate, but only so no one is inconvenienced enough to notice.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

If I can't dance, it's not my revolution

One more reason why it's not my revolution in Iran.  (Or is this too easy a shot?) But aren't they all such pretty dancers? They must have been dancing for a while before and after, no?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Censorship top to bottom

In today's newspaper, one story on top of the other (yes, an advantage of news in print is that you get information in a context someone has thought about):

First, a judge in New Mexico decided that a village can't keep residents from saying not nice things about the government at local council meetings.  So, score one for First Amendment 101, the law being  clear that those with the power to shut people up can't pick and choose among the messages they'll tolerate.

Second, in the story below that, a judge in Oregon started out strong, then whiffled on the TSA's No Fly list when she ruled that the procedures to challenge placement on the list -- or, rather, the lack of procedures, or anything else available to people who, inexplicably, find themselves there -- are unconstitutional. That's the good part. The other part is that she did nothing to create new procedures, just told Homeland Security, which oversees the Orwellian list, that they should find a way for people on that list to see the unclassified info that put them there.  Ya think maybe?

Then, on the facing page, we get the (not) news that no one in our great ally, Egypt, is going to do anything to reverse the outrageous prison sentences for 3 Al Jazeera journalists.  So, I think we can safely say that Egypt is in favor of censorship, no if's, and's or but's.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Happy Sunshine Week, everybody

AP reports on the state of FOIA and lotsa good talk about government transparency, but little real light of day -- or, in perhaps the only instance where 2 positives make a negative, Yeah, right.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

don't like him, but...

"Snowden, I don't like him at all, but we would never have known what happened if he hadn't told us."
Rep. Ted Poe [Texas - GOP]

Snowden, I'm withholding judgement, although everybody I've talked to about him seem to have misgivings -- about his motives, personality, maneuvering -- whatever they choose to call what it is about him that bugs them.  Yet, the significance of his actions may be the one thing Mr. Poe and I will ever agree on.  Whistleblowers inform us and it's usually information those in power prefer to keep away from the public.  The part of the public who've been following -- or trying our best to follow -- the huge govt secrecy puzzle won't be deeply surprised, but Snowden's disclosures shove another piece of that puzzle into place and, probably more important, have gotten us (Congress? hello?) to acknowledge that the puzzle exists. (In large part because of legislation Congress passed, btw.  Shades of gambling going on in Casablanca, anyone?)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

On the cover of Rolling Stone

Is the argument over Rolling Stone's cover photo of Tsarnaev jr.perhaps a way of deflecting our anxiety over our inability to ferret out murderous intentions in our midst, despite unprecedented government surveillance of our everyday activities, which are supposed to do just that; i.e. make us safe?  Wouldn't be the first time.

Friday, June 7, 2013

I spy with my little eye

Strangely, the pile-up of news about the government's intrusive domestic spying (a redundancy, probably: is any domestic spying not intrusive?) stirs a bit of optimism in me.  I mean, this has been going on for a while, even if most Americans have been either ignorant of it or ignoring it.  I wrote about the offending clause in the PATRIOT Act -- the dreaded article 215 -- in my last book and since it takes me forever to finish a book, that's got to be a looong time ago. (I'm pissed off about the IRS bullying tea partyistas too, but that's a different kettle of govt intrusion & overreach.)

The concern then was the FBI demanding records from libraries and bookstores.  Not to worry, said then-Atty Gen. John Ashcroft, we have better things to do than track who takes out what from the library.  Whereupon, the FBI proceeded to demand records of who took out what from the library and, in the bargain, gagged librarians from even acknowledging it was going on.  Four librarians in Connecticut sued and the FBI eventually backpedaled, but you can bet that didn't stop similar fishing expeditions.  When PATRIOT came up for reauthorization in 2011, what had been dubbed "the library records provision" -- which is apparently what the feds now claim allows then to gather records on who Googles or Netflixes what -- was tucked safely in place.

Technology has outstripped the legislation, as it always does, so we're now finding out about reams of usage records of Verizon customers stored somewhere in the government's vast and secret data mines and the phones of AP reporters being tapped after they embarrassed the government, which, to my way of thinking, is part of their job.  The spy stories will no doubt continue to grow in the coming days, weeks, months....as long as someone keeps paying attention.  Which is my point.

Maybe now that we are paying attention, there will be enough outrage that government spying on citizens with no cause for suspicion will be dialed back.  (I'm not so optimistic as to think it will be ended.)  It's happened before, post-Watergate, for instance, and the government can occasionally be embarrassed into doing the right thing.  Here's hoping.  And complaining.  And cheering for those -- Glenn Greenwald take a bow -- who bring this crap to light.  It's what we've got going for us.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Supreme sanity

It got pretty much buried by the June surprise from the Supreme Court, upholding the essence of the only health care plan to make it through Congress since Medicare, but sanity did prevail when the court struck down the Stolen Valor Act, which had made it a crime to lay claim to military honors you never got.  Frankly, this wasn't even one of the hard free speech puzzles; as the court ruled, it's a bad idea to empower the government to make a list of things you can't lie about.  So, good for you guys and girls (please, no feminist outrage; I honor the women on the court sufficiently) -- or at least the 6 justices who got it right.  Not a valiant act, exactly, but a sensible one.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Muzzles of 2012

From the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression comes this year's list of particularly ham-fisted censorship with its Muzzle awards.  This makes a nice pairing with the list of under- & unreported stories compiled by Project Censored.  As I've often said, when it comes to permitted expression, everyone seems to have a line which should not be crossed.  For our amusement -- and alarm -- may of those lines have irony written all over them.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Know which way the wind blows

       A Marine meteorologist (that's Marine, as in branch of the military) has lost his security clearance, without which he can't do his job, because he refused to stop posting satire and criticism of the President on Facebook.  (Details from AP)  Sergeant Gary Stein did stuff like superimposing Obama's face on a poster for the movie "Jackass."  OMG!
       Stein's lawyer points out that he broke no law and the ACLU has trotted out that pesky First Amendment, but the Marines counter that he violated military policy, which severely limits a Marine or soldier's political speech while in uniform.  (Does this raise the question of what he was wearing when he went online?)  Apparently, the policy has been in place since the Civil War.
       Stein's postings may have been disrespectful of his commander-in-chief, but they also seem to be satire, which has been explicitly protected under the First Amendment since 1988 in Hustler v. Falwell.  Satire seeks to undermine authority, but it's doubtful that these parodies would make much difference in conducting military operations or, in this case, predicting the weather.
       More significant is that the Marines decided to go after Stein after he wrote on Facebook that he wouldn't follow unlawful orders from the prez.  That challenge -- Stein first wrote just that he wouldn't follow Obama's orders, adding "unlawful" later -- goes to the defense military resisters, such as Camilo Mejia and Ehren Watada, tried when they were prosecuted for refusing to fight in Iraq.  It relates to the "Nuremberg defense," which holds that subordinates are not liable for criminal acts they commit while following orders -- and by extension, sanctions soldiers refusal of unlawful orders.  Military and civilian judges very, very seldom allow such an argument to be introduced (and didn't in either Mejia's or Watada's trials).
       So here we have a case of slippery slopes all round.  For the Marines, the slip would be in allowing a weatherman to show which way he thinks the wind blows.  For civil libertarians, it's in continuing a restrictive policy which tramples the First Amendment rights of those whom we laud as heroes as soon as they put on the uniform -- and apparently relinquish their right to speak their minds.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

I went to war. Not.

       The Stolen Valor Act is bouncing around the courts.  The latest ruling at the appellate level has determined that the law, which makes it a crime to lie about your military record, does not violate the First Amendment because, the court reasoned, the F.A. doesn't protect lies.  That case involves Rick Strandlof, who told some whoppers in Colorado a few years ago. The veterans he lied too, including some active in IVAW, were mostly as reluctant to challenge him as were civilians. (The Supremes will consider a different challenge to the law, also on First Amendment grounds, probably next month.)
       Advocates of unfettered speech are concerned that this expands potential punishment for "false statements of fact" and threatens journalists who publish erroneous news reports. We all know we're not supposed to lie, but if that decision stands, it would be a significant roll backward on press freedom. 
      I have a different concern, a question: Why are the facts about whether someone was a soldier more sacrosanct than other speech?  Making up or exaggerating a military record is remarkably common: politicians, professors and other storytellers get outed for it regularly.  Some get away with it (Geo. W. Bush, anyone?), some resign in disgrace. 
       On the other hand, a lot of veterans play down their wartime actions --out of modesty or revulsion at the question, Did you kill anybody?  But sometimes they do it out of guilt for what they did and took part in.  Are those false statements also illegal under this law, or would that have to be the Stolen Guilt Act?   Because it's all there in the name: that knee-jerk, too-simple-by-half assumption that anyone who puts on a military uniform and makes it out of boot camp is a person of valor; i.e. a hero.  And no one should steal from a hero, right?  Unless, of course, real valor can be neither bestowed, nor taken away.

Friday, December 9, 2011

how big is the First Amendment's tent?

       I'm interrupting my viewing of the live feed from Occupy Boston (which may or may not be in the process of dismantling itself or being dismantled by the Boston Police Department) while occasionally checking on how the stock market is doing (quite well today, thanks to Merkozay's latest deal to "save the euro") (embodying therein my, and much of the country's, internal contradictions) to consider the recent ruling by a Massachusetts judge who found that "The act of occupation...is not speech" and is therefore not protected from "prosecution for trespass or other crimes."  In other words, the city of Boston can kick the protesters out of Dewey Square, where they've set up a community, which seems to function as well as most, for the past 2 months -- no thanks to city officials, who have cited health and safety violations, while preventing the camp from improving its plumbing/sanitation and shelters/winterization.
       So are we in favor of free speech, but?
       The occupiers mean to be provocative; that's the point of protest, but it seems to me that, as a matter of strategy, it's smarter for officials just to let the encampments be.  Across the country, the movement has gotten the most attention when police attacked the protesters -- from the first videos of young women being pepper sprayed in NYC to the veteran in Oakland, eyes rolling back in his head as he's carried to  the hospital, to campus cops pepper spraying students at UC Davis.  In Boston, it was the night when 141 protesters were arrested, starting with the perfect photo-op of aging veterans getting knocked down & hauled away as they recited the oath of loyalty to the Constitution they had taken on enlistment.  And last night, as protesters awaited another police action, the news media were all over it.
       In contrast, ignoring protest, as the Bush administration did with the massive marches against the invasion of Iraq, proved to be quite effective.  Within months, we were told that the antiwar movement had gone away.  (Not true, but most people -- including much of the antiwar movement -- believed it.)
     But power seems to need to assert itself and finding a legal loophole is an effective way of doing that.  At least for a while.  Change comes when enough people become ungovernable.  The occupy movement isn't there yet, but it has made politicians uneasy enough to try to squash it and has altered the discussion -- which is another purpose of the protest.  In response to the court's decision, posters went up at Occupy Boston saying, "You can't evict an idea."
     Actually, you probably can, but you can't be certain of silencing it by pulling down tents, which is what matters now.  There are lots of public spaces left to occupy for some length of time and lots of other strategies for keeping that idea alive and promoted as a thorn in the side of the powerful.  Being forced to close down the tent cities before winter makes them really miserable is a gift to the movement.  It can declare, not victory, but persecution, which brings public sympathy and attention.  Then it can regroup and continue to build and find other ways to speak eloquently against unfairness and corruption.