Published: Sat, 29 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400
Last Build Date: Sat, 29 Apr 2017 15:11:34 -0400
Thu, 27 Apr 2017 11:00:00 -0400Reporters Without Borders, an organization analyzing and defending a free media worldwide, just released its 2017 rankings list and has determined that media freedom is on the decline. It has calculated that in almost two-thirds of the 180 countries in the index, press freedom has dropped over the previous year. While America is still extremely far from the kind of country that imprisons or kills people who engage in acts of journalism the government doesn't like, it dropped two ranks from 41 to 43. Yes, the election of President Donald Trump and his open display of contempt for critical media reporting of him plays a role. But the report is very clear that Trump is far from the originator of America's decline. He is taking advantage of a framework that has been developed by previous administrations, particularly President Barack Obama's pursuit of whistleblowers: US press freedom, enshrined in the First Amendment to the 1787 constitution, has encountered several major obstacles over the past few years, most recently with the election of President Donald Trump. He has declared the press an "enemy of the American people" in a series of verbal attacks toward journalists, while attempting to block White House access to multiple media outlets in retaliation for critical reporting. Despite the bleak outlook under Trump, it bears repeating that his predecessor left behind a flimsy legacy for press freedom and access to information. Journalists continue to be arrested for covering various protests around the country, with several currently facing criminal charges. The Obama administration waged a war on whistleblowers who leaked information about its activities, leading to the prosecution of more leakers than any previous administration combined. To this day, American journalists are still not protected by a federal "shield law" guaranteeing their right to protect their sources and other confidential work-related information. And over the past few years, there has been an increase in prolonged searches of journalists and their devices at the US border, with some foreign journalists being prevented from any travel to the US after they covered sensitive topics such as Colombia's FARC or Kurdistan. The report notes how populist movements that favor "strongmen" type candidates and leaders use attacks on the credibility of the media to grant them "anti-system" credibility with voters in the United States and Europe. And already existing strongmen and autocratic leaders in other less free countries have brought the hammer down even harder on the press. But more specifically for Western countries, governments have used fears of terrorism and general "national security" goals as mechanisms to expand the use of surveillance against journalists themselves as yet another way of tracking down sources or individuals trying to anonymously pass along information: In Germany (ranked 16th in the 2017 Index), the Bundestag passed a law in October 2016 extending the mass surveillance powers of the Federal Intelligence Agency (BND) without making any exception for journalists. The grounds cited for the new law was the need to combat terrorism, harmonize legislation, and bring it into compliance with the constitution. The BND can now legally spy on all non-German and non-EU nationals, including journalists and lawyers. It turns out that this controversial and much criticized law has helped to legalize existing practices. A few months after its adoption, Germans learned that the BND had already spied on at least 50 journalists and news organizations for indefinite periods since 1999. It was also in late 2016 that the United Kingdom (down 2 places at 40th) adopted a new law extending the surveillance powers of the British intelligence agencies. Dubbed the "Snoopers' Charter," the Investigatory Powers Act put the UK in the unenviable position of having adopted "the most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history", with a law that lacks sufficient protection mechanisms for journalists and their sources. Even more alarming, in early 2017, the Law[...]
Wed, 26 Apr 2017 04:00:00 -0400
(image) A Spanish court has sentenced Cassandra Vera to one year in jail for tweeting jokes about the 1973 assassination of prime minister Luis Carrero Blanco. The court said her jokes were "disrespectful" and did not form part of a "healthy humoristic environment."
Wed, 26 Apr 2017 00:15:00 -0400The University of California at Berkeley's inhospitality to conservative speakers, the subject of a federal lawsuit filed on Monday, prompted a Twitter rebuke from President Trump a few months ago. Yet his administration seems determined to demonstrate that suppression of opposing views is a bipartisan impulse. Berkeley College Republicans (BCR), which invited conservative commentator Ann Coulter to speak on campus this Thursday evening, and Young America's Foundation (YAF), which underwrote her visit, argue that Berkeley's vague, unwritten policy regarding "high-profile speakers" unconstitutionally discriminates against unpopular viewpoints. As a result of that policy, which was adopted after violent protests prompted the university to shut down a February 1 appearance by former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, Berkeley canceled Coulter's speech, then offered to reschedule it for next Tuesday afternoon, in the middle of the "dead week" between classes and exams. BCR says it felt compelled to cancel an April 12 talk by another conservative journalist, David Horowitz, after the university insisted that it take place at an inconvenient location and end by 3 p.m., meaning most students would be in class while Horowitz was speaking. BCR and YAF say the restrictions imposed by Berkeley in the name of public safety have not been applied to left-leaning speakers and amount to an "unlawful heckler's veto" that marginalizes conservative voices. After the Milo melee in February, Trump suggested on Twitter that Berkeley risks losing federal funds if it "does not allow free speech." If the president were sincerely committed to protecting First Amendment rights, he would issue similar warnings to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which recently demanded that Twitter reveal the identity of a DHS gadfly, and the Justice Department, which is considering criminal charges against people who share classified information leaked by others. Last month a special agent in charge at Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a division of DHS, issued a summons to Twitter seeking records that would unmask the person or persons behind @ALT_USCIS, an account that regularly criticizes the Trump administration's immigration policies. There did not seem to be any legal justification for the summons, which looked like a blatant attempt to intimidate critics. DHS dropped the summons the day after Twitter filed a lawsuit arguing that it threatened the First Amendment right to engage in pseudonymous political speech. Last week, in response to inquiries by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), DHS Inspector General John Roth revealed that his office is investigating whether the CBP summons was "improper." The day before Roth expressed concern about government inquiries that might have "a chilling effect on individuals' free speech rights," CNN and The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department is once again looking for a way to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for sharing classified documents with the public. The Obama administration abandoned that project after concluding that charging Assange with violating the Espionage Act would create a precedent that could be used against any news organization that publishes stories based on "defense information" from sources who obtained or divulged it illegally—a very common journalistic practice. CIA Director Mike Pompeo says we shouldn't worry about that because Assange is not a real journalist, a debatable and constitutionally irrelevant point. The "freedom of the press" that is guaranteed by the First Amendment is not the freedom of people who work for officially recognized news outlets; it is the freedom to use technologies of mass communication. That freedom extends to everyone in the United States, whether or not he is a professional journalist or an American citizen. If Assange broke the Espionage Act by distributing classified material within the U.S., that means he used "the press" there. Trump, who declared "I love WikiLeaks!" whe[...]
Tue, 11 Apr 2017 15:30:00 -0400Draft bills in at least 13 state legislatures would require all internet-enabled devices to come installed with an anti-porn filter, which adult consumers could choose to have removed for a fee of $20. They're calling it the Human Trafficking Prevention Act. The Daily Beast does a nice job today of exposing the huckster behind this legislation, a 40-year-old EDM musician and anti-porn crusader named Chris Sevier who tried to marry his computer in protest of same-sex marriage, was released early from an Iraq tour for mental-health issues, sued Apple over the dissolution of his marriage, and has been charged with harassing a teen girl as well as country singer John Rich. Beyond Sevier's questionable and colorful past, however, a bigger question remains: why are so many state lawmakers—overwhelming Republican—supporting this sort of nonsense? A cabal of legislative cheerleaders from Alabama to Wyoming has embraced the idea that we should require manufacturers of computers, tablets, iphones, smart TVs, and the like to equip devices with the anti-porn filters and require consumers to pay to remove the filters from their devices. South Carolina state Rep. Mike Burns, who co-sponsored one bill in his state, told the Beast that they "do not want more taxes. Period. But we are trying to make a statement, and $20 ain't gonna kill anybody." But of course it's not only monetary costs to consumers that are are a concern. The porn-filter proposal would also impose costs on product makers, and even steeper costs on U.S. civil liberties. "The way it's written, it would cover your router. It would cover your modem," said Electronic Frontier Foundation researcher Dave Maass. "Plus, now Best Buy is sitting on a database of people who wanted their porn filters removed." And then there's question of how the filters would decide what is and isn't porn—content filters designed to catch explicit content have historically been harsh on all sorts of sexuality-related content, from educational websites to news to art. Conservative lawmakers seem to support anti-porn proposals like this one because they please certain segments of their electoral base, give people easy fodder against lawmakers who vote in opposition (how does it look at a glance to be against the Human Trafficking Prevention Act?), and aren't generally a political dealbreaker for those who oppose the plans. The porn-filter laws might irk some or seem silly, but like Rep. Burns said, "$20 ain't gonna kill anybody." This justification might make sense if the idea was simply a tax on porn consumers. But the porn-filter bill is explicitly packaged as a response to porn being a "public health hazard" and "cancer on society" that "perpetuates a sexually toxic environment" in America, normalizes violence against women and children, "portrays rape and abuse as if such acts are harmless," promotes "problematic or harmful sexual behaviors," and "increases the demand for sex trafficking, prostitution, child sexual abuse images, and child pornography." If Republican lawmakers really believe that online pornography is a public health crisis that directly contributes to human trafficking, isn't $20 to access an unlimited quantity of it a bit low? Why shouldn't such a scourge just be banned entirely? Much like liberal counterparts who declare Donald Trump a fascist/Nazi/white supremacist and themselves the #Resistance and then demand more government control of broadcast media, arts funding, etc., conservative lawmakers demonstrate an extreme dissonance of rhetoric and response here. It leaves open three possibilities: Republicans really believe that internet porn is a public health crisis that ruins relationships and directly leads to human trafficking—and also that paying $20 absolves one of moral responsibility for such matters. Republicans believe porn is a public health crisis that causes sexual exploitation and the $20 fee proposal is just a ploy to get the law passed and filtering mechanisms in place[...]
Tue, 11 Apr 2017 15:00:00 -0400You would think that an elderly doctor (69 years old!) being filmed getting dragged by police off a United airplane in order to make room for the airline employees would be immune to the "He's no angel" defense of government violence. You would be wrong, though, and underestimating the willingness of media outlets to publish anything that has the potential to get them attention, even negative attention. Everybody's got a past that can be used against them. It has become a common practice that when a citizen has a very public, highly publicized encounter with law enforcement, his or her criminal background very quickly ends up in the hands of local media outlets. Sometimes it's relevant. If a criminal suspect gets wounded or killed in a confrontation with police, a history of convictions for violent crimes helps put it in context. It doesn't inherently mean the police's behavior was justified in any particular instance, but it is important information. And the public should know. But sometimes it's clearly an attempt to make the person subjected to police aggression look guilty in the eyes of the public and shield the authorities from criticism for bad behavior. All of that is to say the Courier-Journal in Kentucky got its hands on the criminal and licensing background of the guy that got forcibly yanked (and injured) by Chicago police off that United flight, and it turns out this David Dao fellow did some bad things, more than a decade ago. But they've decided to dredge it up anyway: Dao, who went to medical school in Vietnam in the 1970s before moving to the U.S., was working as a pulmonologist in Elizabethtown when he was arrested in 2003 and eventually convicted of drug-related offenses after an undercover investigation, according to documents filed with the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure last June. The documents allege that he was involved in fraudulent prescriptions for controlled substances and was sexually involved with a patient who used to work for his practice and assisted police in building a case against him. Dao was convicted of multiple felony counts of obtaining drugs by fraud or deceit in November 2004 and was placed on five years of supervised probation in January 2005. He surrendered his medical license the next month. The Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure permitted Dao to resume practicing medicine in 2015 under certain conditions. None of this provides any contextual information useful to understanding Dao's refusal to comply with United. It's a smear. There's no reason to believe any of it is not true, but it is not journalism that provides any actually useful context about Dao. They can't even say he was misleading the airline when he said he had patients to treat as an explanation for his refusal to disembark "voluntarily." The newspaper is being absolutely blasted on both their website and on Twitter for running with this story. There are maybe one or two people who defend the publishing and the idea that Dao should have complied and think his criminal background is in any way related. A poll asking whether the Courier-Journal should have published this story would likely lead to a very lopsided result telling the paper they made the wrong choice here. I did not see anywhere in these tweets or comments anybody saying the newspaper shouldn't be allowed to have published this information, which is good. This is a perfect example of using "more speech" to counter "bad speech." The media outlet arguably made a poor choice in what information to publish and is being publicly criticized for doing so. It would not surprise me if the editor there was being inundated with angry phone calls. Nevertheless, though there is no call for formal government censorship, it's worth looking at this story about Dao's checkered past and thinking about the development of "right to be forgotten" orders and regulations in the European Union. This is a "right" used to force censorship of the internet, requ[...]
Thu, 06 Apr 2017 14:20:00 -0400If you were financially responsible—to the tune of millions of dollars—for the content that users of your online platform posted online, you might take a bit of a dim view of giving them a lot of leeway in what they had to say. That is apparently what the government of Germany is hoping for. Germany does not share America's broad view of free speech. Like several European countries, it has laws and criminal penalties for hate speech and a broader conception of what an incitement to violence is (America tends to require an actual discernable threat). As part of the European Union, Germans are also able to invoke the online "Right to Be Forgotten," forcing online search engines to delete links to content about them that may be true, but is embarrassing or casts them in a bad light. Germany's now working to expand its authority to order online censorship by holding social media companies like Facebook and Twitter financially liable for user content that violates its restrictions on speech. And it's not a slap on the wrist either. Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet has approved possible fines of more than $50 million if social media companies don't respond quickly enough to remove speech that violates their laws. They have 24 hours to remove content calling for criminal behavior and a week to remove other types of "illegal" speech. Besides potentially resulting in social media companies censoring content by non-Germans posted outside of Germany, also puts these companies in the awkward position of having to determine what is and isn't legal to say under German laws, as though they were part of the country's judicial branch. They are uncomfortable at the idea, Reuters notes: A spokesman for Facebook, which has 29 million active users in Germany - more than a third of the total population - said the company was working hard to remove illegal content, but expressed concern at the draft law. "This legislation would force private companies rather than the courts to become the judges of what is illegal in Germany," he said, adding that Facebook's partner Arvato would employ up to 700 staff in Berlin for "content moderation" by year's end. A spokesman for Twitter declined to comment on the legislation, but said the company had made a number of changes in recent weeks, including adding new filtering options, putting limits on accounts it had identified as engaging in abusive behavior and stopping those users from creating new accounts. Given the financial risks involved here, it would not and should not be surprising if speech considered legal even by German standards ends up getting censored. Why take the risk? Before dismissing this all as just a German law-and-order quirk, note that there has been pressure across the European Union to force social media companies to engage in more overt censorship. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said he wants to take this proposed law (it still needs to be approved by Germany's parliament) and push it through all of the European Union. And while America may have different attitudes and laws protecting free speech, it still nevertheless has problems with its own broadly written laws that authorize censorship. America's federal laws designed to eliminate online piracy and copyright violations are frequently misused to censor online content that is actually constitutionally protected criticism. Furthermore, while we also have regulation shielding online companies from criminal and civil liability over much of the content written or posted by users (not the company itself), even those regulations are threatened all in the name of "public safety." As Elizabeth Nolan Brown has reported, activists who believe America has a sex trafficking problem want to compromise these regulations in order to hold web companies and social media platforms potentially responsible. And finally, before assuming "it can't happen here," a New York state legislator is attempting t[...]
Mon, 03 Apr 2017 10:00:00 -0400
Eugene Volokh has a few things to say about things that aren't supposed to be said. Volokh, a professor of free speech law at U.C.L.A., has seen books banned, professors censored, and the ordinary expression of students stifled on university campuses across the nation.
Volokh believes free speech and open inquiry, once paramount values of higher education, are increasingly jeopardized by restrictive university speech codes. Instead of formally banning speech, speech codes discourage broad categories of human expression. "Hate speech. Harassment. Micro-aggressions," Volokh says. "Often they're not defined. They're just assumed to be bad, assumed they're something we need to ban."
Volokh spoke at Reason Weekend, the annual event held by Reason Foundation.
Edited by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Jim Epstein and Meredith Bragg.
Thu, 30 Mar 2017 04:00:00 -0400
(image) Nova Scotia's Registrar of Motor Vehicles says Lorne Grabher's last name is "socially unacceptable." Lorne had a personalized license plate made with his last name for his father back in 1991. Since then, the plate has been used by three generations of the family. But the registrar's office say they got a complaint about it last year and have told Lorne he can no longer use it.
Thu, 23 Mar 2017 04:00:00 -0400
(image) German Justice Minister Heiko Maas says the government is drafting laws that could fine social media companies up to $53 million if they don't remove slanderous or threatening posts within 24 hours. In addition, the law would allow a company's top representative in Germany to be fined personally up to $5.3 million if such material is not removed in 24 hours.
Mon, 20 Mar 2017 04:00:00 -0400
(image) The Russian government has barred children under 16 from seeing the new version of Beauty and the Beast because it has a gay character. Russian law bars what it calls gay propaganda aimed at minors.
Wed, 15 Mar 2017 13:09:00 -0400The state of New York wants to tell you what's appropriate to post online and what should be removed. The concept behind the European Union's "right to be forgotten" has crossed the Atlantic, and two state lawmakers in New York want to attempt to institute it here. The "right to be forgotten" in the European Union originated from a court ruling demanding Google and search engines remove links to a story that embarrassed a Spanish man because it detailed a previous home repossession. The story was not factually inaccurate. He insisted it was no longer relevant and that it embarrassed him, and the court agreed he had the right to have the information censored from search engines. Since 2014, search engines like Google have received hundreds of thousands of requests to have links to news reports removed and not because there's anything factually incorrect about them, but because the people within them are embarrassed by having the information public. Now, in New York, Assemblyman David Weprin and State Sen. Tony Avella (both Democrats) are attempting to implement such a law in the United States. The bill (readable here) appears remarkably far-reaching. It would allow people to demand that identifying information and articles about them to be removed from search engines or publishers if the content is "inaccurate," "irrelevant," inadequate," or "excessive." And yes, there are potentially fines involved ($250 dollars a day plus attorney's fees) for those who don't comply. Here's how the legislation defines the rather vague justifications for removal: [C]ontent, which after a significant lapse in time from its first publication, is no longer material to current public debate or discourse, especially when considered in the light of the financial, reputational and/or demonstrable other harm that the information, article or other content is causing to the requester's professional, financial, reputational or other interest, with the exception of content related to convicted felonies, legal matters relating to violence, or a matter that is of significant current public interest, and as to which the requester's role in regard to the matter is central and substantial. This would put the courts in the position of having the authority to declare what is or isn't relevant for the public to know. Reason asked First Amendment attorney Ken White of Brown, White & Osborn (and also of Popehat fame) for his analysis of the bill. He did not hold back in an emailed statement: This bill is a constitutional and policy disaster that shows no sign that the drafters made any attempt whatsoever to conform to the requirements of the constitution. It purports to punish both speakers and search engines for publishing—or indexing—truthful information protected by the First Amendment. There's no First Amendment exception for speech deemed "irrelevant" or "inadequate" or "excessive," and the rules for punishing "inaccurate" speech are already well-established and not followed by this bill. The bill is hopelessly vague, requiring speakers to guess at what some fact-finder will decide is "irrelevant" or "no longer material to current public debate," or how a fact-finder will balance (in defiance of the First Amendment) the harm of the speech and its relevance. The exceptions are haphazard and poorly defined, and the role of the New York Secretary of State in administering the law is unclear. This would be a bonanza for anyone who wanted to harass reporters, bloggers, search engines, and web sites to take down negative information, and would incentivize such harassment and inflict massive legal costs on anyone who wanted to stand up to a vexatious litigant. Also of relevance: The law extends the statute of limitations for defamation complains for online content in a way that pretty [...]
Thu, 09 Mar 2017 04:00:00 -0500
(image) The European Union parliament has voted to remove the immunity of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen after a request from French prosecutors. The move allows Le Pen to be prosecuted under French law for publishing violent images. French officials are investigating Le Pen for posting images of executions committed by the Islamic State.
Tue, 07 Mar 2017 04:00:00 -0500
(image) A judge in Madrid, Spain, has banned a bus with an anti-transgender message on it from driving city streets. The judge said the message on the bus, which had been chartered by a Catholic group, was discriminatory and could provoke hate crimes.
Wed, 22 Feb 2017 09:40:00 -0500Political correctness frequently manifests itself when authority figures decide certain forms of expression are likely to offend delicate sensibilities and therefore must be curbed. That appears to be the spirit behind the Carroll County Public Schools' (Md.) decision to order the removal of posters depicting women of different ethnicities and religions from the classrooms of Westminster High School. Some teachers had hung the posters in support of "diversity," but school administrators decided the posters amounted to political advocacy on behalf of the teachers, the Carroll County Times reports. Carey Gaddis, a district spokesperson, told the Huffington Post that after receiving "at least one" complaint from a school staffer, teachers were asked to remove the posters "because they were being perceived as anti-Trump by the administration." Gaddis says the school district doesn't allow for political posters in the classroom unless "both sides" are represented. At first blush, the posters don't scream partisan politics. There is no mention of President Donald Trump or any political entity anywhere on the posters, the only words read, "We the People-Defend Dignity." However, the posters are political, at least according to their creator, Shepard Fairey—the street artist behind the iconic Barack Obama "Hope" image. Fairey told the Washington Post that thousands of prints of his "We the People" images were produced specifically to be used in protests against the Trump administration, and also told the Los Angeles Times, "It makes it easier for people who are afraid to express their point of view because they think they are out of step with the dominant ideology." This creates an interesting conundrum. If a teacher had hung a poster reading "Support Our Troops," would that be a political act requiring a "No War" poster to ensure both sides are represented? Would the "We the People" posters be acceptable if they were placed beside a "Build the Wall" poster? Some Westminster High students and alumni have found a clever way to get the message of the posters into their school without the approval of the administration, through a crowdfunding campaign to re-produce the posters' imagery on t-shirts. Gaddis confirmed to the Carroll County Times that students will be permitted to wear the shirts to school and that teachers have the right to contribute to the campaign on their own time, but per district policy will not be allowed to wear the shirts in the classroom. It's reasonable that to expect public school teachers to not explicitly stump for political candidates or causes in the classroom, but politics can be inferred in almost any social statement. If equal time is required for every viewpoint expressed on a poster (take environmentalism, for example), or if public schools must be made safe spaces from any form of expression with even a tangential political point of view, that could potentially create more problems than it solves.[...]
Fri, 03 Feb 2017 04:00:00 -0500
(image) The Chinese government has closed the social media sites of economist Mao Yushi as well as a think tank he is associated with. Mao, who received the 2012 Milton Friedman Prize, is a proponent of free markets and a critic of those inspired by the late Communist leader Mao Zedong.