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Published: Wed, 22 Nov 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Wed, 22 Nov 2017 10:20:14 -0500


Cynical Politicians Turn #FakeNews Into a Rallying Cry for Censorship

Tue, 07 Nov 2017 00:01:00 -0500

Who knew the republic was so vulnerable that our elections could be monkeywrenched by Russian dirty-tricksters spending their office coffee budget on a motley collection of social media ads that would make the authors of Nigerian prince scam emails wince at their clumsiness? Or, more likely, cynical politicians are making much ado about Putin and company's low-rent effort to make themselves look relevant in order to justify government interference in political speech. Just consider Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) threat to Facebook, Google, and Twitter during Senate hearings over the clumsy Russky meddling: "You created these platforms, and now they're being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it—or we will." Feinstein thinks government should exercise more control over speech? Such a shocker—unless you saw her try to smother encryption in 2016, or heard her insist in 2015 that edgy material like The Anarchist Cookbook "should be removed from the internet" or her similar effort to ban bomb-making instructions in 1997. And then there was her scheme to narrowly define "journalists" to limit legal protections for people reporting news events, and her vote for the COICA bill that would seize domain names from websites accused of piracy… Feinstein is hardly alone in these efforts at muzzling unwelcome voices—18 other senators joined her on that COICA vote. Alternet's Max Blumenthal points out that "the liberal Democrats in #TechHearings are most outspoken opponents of press freedom & supporters of media censorship," but the latest stab at regulating online political ads draws support from both sides of the aisle (co-sponsor Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) rivals Feinstein in the degree to which he disdains unfettered speech). So it's business as usual for legislators who apparently see everything as justification for a mass purchase of blue pencils. That few of these censorship efforts get passed into law—and even fewer survive constitutional scrutiny—doesn't mute the message to people on the receiving end, who have been warned that Big Brother is watching. Twitter defensively says that "the number of accounts we could link to Russia and that were Tweeting election-related content was comparatively small—around one one-hundredth of a percent of total Twitter accounts at the time we studied." Nevertheless, the company has banned major Russian media operations from advertising, just in case their rare and ham-handed efforts might change a mind or two. Even before the current kerfuffle—before the election itself—Twitter "detected and hid just under half (48%) of the Tweets relating to variants of another notable hashtag, #DNCLeak, which concerned the disclosure of leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee," according to the company's Senate testimony. That should earn them a pat on the head from lawmakers, at least. Facebook has been equally busy suppressing content that might make officialdom mad. Election efforts aside, the social media company's automated tools squelched political journalist James Bovard's attempt to repost a piece about controversial former Attorney General Janet Reno. Bovard bypassed the robo-censors by changing an image and a headline that apparently raised red flags. "This was not the first time Facebook erased an iconic image that the U.S. government would be happy to see vanish," Bovard cautions. "Facebook likely deleted thousands of postings of the 1972 photo of a young Vietnamese girl running naked after a plane dropped napalm on her village." Admittedly, the company is in a bind operating around the world under a variety of legal restrictions; it advises its moderators that "we will not censor content unless a nation has demonstrated the political will to enforce its censorship laws." Members of Congress certainly seem determined to demonstrate such political will here in the U.S., even without overt censorship laws in place. The end result may or may not be to shield our fragile republic from the dubious products of Russian Internet pranksters, but [...]

Sen. Feinstein's Threat to 'Do Something' to Social Media Companies Is a Bigger Danger to Democracy Than Russia

Fri, 03 Nov 2017 13:25:00 -0400

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) took the opportunity this week to remind social media companies that she's as authoritarian as President Donald Trump and isn't afraid to try to push people around. Reason's Jacob Sullum and Jesse Walker have ably punctured the hysteria surrounding the Russian government's attempts to influence America's elections with really, really lame social media ads. The ads attempted to exploit our polarized electorate to Russia's advantage, and apparently some of our senators take issue with that. Perhaps they don't like the competition? Feinstein certainly knows a thing or two about taking advantage of a polarized electorate. Perhaps that explains her Mafia-don approach this week when social media companies failed to kiss her ring sufficiently at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. From The Verge: Senators raised the stakes against some of America's biggest tech companies on Wednesday, telling them they must take more comprehensive action against foreign actors misusing their platforms. "You created these platforms...and now they're being misused," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told the top lawyers at Facebook, Google, and Twitter. "And you have to be the ones who do something about it—or we will."... "We are not going to go away, gentlemen," Feinstein continued. "And this is a very big deal. I went home last night with profound disappointment. I asked specific questions, I got vague answers. And that just won't do. You have a huge problem on your hands. And the US is going to be the first of the countries to bring it to your attention, and other countries are going to follow I'm sure. Because you bear this responsibility." Just imagine somebody saying this about the printing press. Actually, you don't have to imagine it: Powerful political figures did indeed abuse their authority (and continue to abuse their authority) to hold printing press owners responsible for how their "platforms" were "being misused." Very little coverage of this conflict between the Senate and the social media companies seems interested in pointing out that lawmakers are not neutral, disinterested parties here. Any policy Feinstein might enact here could erect barriers for people using social media tools to challenge her position and power as a senator. Feinstein, it's worth noting, is running for re-election next year and has a personal stake in any policies that control how political speech is presented online. What sort of ads are going to pop up on Facebook and Twitter next year, and what will they be saying about her? So look at those terrible Russian Facebook ads that try to exploit Americans' unhappiness about their government. And then look at Feinstein declaring that communication tools are being "misused" and must be regulated, possibly by her and other lawmakers unless the companies implement stronger censorship policies on their own. Which presents a greater threat to the proper, open functioning of American democracy? By the way: This week, as part of this investigation into Russian meddling, Feinstein sent the CEO of Twitter a letter asking that he provide him with a bunch of records, including the content of private direct messages from Julian Assange and other Twitter users. No, she doesn't have a warrant.[...]

U.K. Anti-Terror Censorship Law Stupidly Used Against Guy Who Fights Terrorism

Tue, 31 Oct 2017 14:35:00 -0400

Prosecutors in the United Kingdom didn't think Josh Walker was an actual terrorist. But they treated him as if he were one anyway, because of a book they found in his bedroom. Fortunately, they failed. But the case, highlighted at The Intercept, details some of the terrible consequences of trying to criminalize dangerous thoughts or ideas rather than actions. Walker was prosecuted for downloading and having in his possession a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook, an infamous guide to homemade explosives (and other tools for lawbreaking) that was first published in 1971. Walker wasn't plotting a terrorist attack. He was, in fact, doing the opposite. According to The Intercept and the court case, he was using the book as a reference material for a terror crisis management simulation at a college. The United Kingdom does not have the same broad First Amendment freedom of speech protections that Americans have. The Terrorism Act of 2000 in Section 58 criminalizes the ownership of "information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism." There is a defense that a person has a "reasonable excuse" for having the material, and that's what Walker had to lean on during the trial. The whole thing seemed particularly absurd because Walker had returned to the United Kingdom from Syria, where he was helping a Kurdish militia fight the Islamic State. I wasn't kidding when I said he was the opposite of a terrorist. And prosecutors knew that. From The Intercept: As the case moved forward, the prosecution acknowledged that Walker was not suspected of plotting any kind of terrorist atrocity. The government was instead arguing that his mere possession of the book was a violation of the Terrorism Act's Section 58 because it contained information that could have been useful to a terrorist if discovered. The book is freely available to anyone on the internet, and versions of it can even be purchased on Amazon. Regardless, prosecution lawyer Robin Sellers said it was possible a "radicalized" person could find Walker's copy of the book and use it to prepare an attack. The prosecution's argument seemed bizarre and without precedent. People in the U.K. have been prosecuted before under the Terrorism Act for possessing the "Anarchist Cookbook," but usually the defendants have been involved in some other kind of nefarious activity as well. In 2010, for example, a member of a violent neo-Nazi group called the "Wolf Pack" was convicted of a terrorism offense for possessing the book. He was linked, through his father, to a plot to overthrow the government and poison people. In another case, in 2011, a man was sentenced to three years in prison for selling the "Cookbook" and Al Qaeda training manuals, pocketing $113,000 in the process. Walker's case was different: He was being prosecuted solely because he downloaded and stored a copy of the book. Fortunately for Walker, the jury also found the prosecution's argument bizarre. Last week they found him not guilty. Despite the absurdity of this prosecution, the U.K.'s home secretary (essentially the equivalent of the head of America's Department of Homeland Security) actually wants to expand this anti-terror censorship law. Section 58 doesn't currently cover viewing or reading content online. So this month Secretary Amber Rudd said she wants to expand the law's reach to cover people who view "terrorist content online, including jihadi websites, far-right propaganda and bomb-making instructions." (If you'd like to know how the U.K. government would be able to know what you've been viewing online, they've covered that with the Investigatory Powers Act that went into effect at the start of the year.) Rudd says that the "reasonable excuse" exemption will remain for people such as journalists and academics who write about ideas the government has classified as "extremist." But even when prosecutors acknowledged that Walker was not a terrorist, they still put him on trial. This law is obviously open to prosecutorial abu[...]

Attn, London Reasonoids! Nick Gillespie Speaking at Battle of Ideas, 10/28-29

Wed, 25 Oct 2017 18:57:00 -0400

(image) I'll be appearing on three panels during the Battle of Ideas, a London event organized by the Institute of Ideas. It takes place this Saturday and Sunday, October 28 and 29. As Claire Fox, the IoI's director puts it:

The Battle of Ideas festival aims to be...a uniquely open forum, where you can meet your 'enemy', listen to opinions you have never heard before, argue back, and even occasionally change your mind. We promise no off-the-shelf answers. More modestly, we bring together a vast range of international speakers to kick-start passionate, serious-minded discussion and public conversations with free-thinking, inquisitive, opinionated attendees. Between us all, we will try and untangle everything from the bastardisation of political language to understanding what makes modern America and Brexit Britain tick beyond the headlines. Since 2005, the festival's slogan has been FREE SPEECH ALLOWED, a crucial rebuttal to today's climate of offence-taking.

(image) There are panels and debates on virtually every possible topic that's in the news. Here are the three I'm appearing on:

Saturday 28 October, 14:00 Frobisher Auditorium 1

Sunday 29 October, 14:00 Cinema 1

Sunday 29 October, 16:00 Frobisher Auditorium 2

For more details and tickets, go here.

Brickbat: To Ban a Mockingbird

Thu, 19 Oct 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) Officials in the Biloxi, Mississippi, school system stopped eighth-grade students from reading To Kill a Mockingbird after they'd already begun reading it for a literature class. Superintendent Arthur McMillan is refusing to answer questions from the media about why the book was pulled from the curriculum. School board vice president Kenny Holloway says there were complaints about the language in the book, presumably the use of the n-word.

'I Believe in the First Amendment,' Says FCC Chair, Rejecting Trump's Censorious Tweets

Tue, 17 Oct 2017 13:45:00 -0400

(image) Today FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who pre-emptively repudiated Donald Trump's suggestion that TV stations should lose their broadcast licenses if their news reports offend him, reiterated his commitment to freedom of speech and emphasized that his agency has no authority to take journalistic content into account when making such decisions. Asked directly about the president's censorious tweets during a forum on telecommunications reform at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, Pai replied:

I believe in the First Amendment. The FCC under my leadership will stand for the First Amendment, and under the law the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.

Pai added that, notwithstanding Trump's argument that purveyors of "fake news" should be investigated by the government, such a role "has not been within the FCC's jurisdiction." He also criticized the so-called Fairness Doctrine, under which the FCC used to require that broadcast stations present contrasting views on controversial subjects. "It was an affront to the First Amendment to have the government micromanaging how much time a particular broadcast outlet decided to devote to a particular topic," he said.

Trump has raised the possibility of reviving the Fairness Doctrine, which the FCC abandoned in 1987. "Late Night host are dealing with the Democrats for their very 'unfunny' & repetitive material, always anti-Trump!" he tweeted on October 7. "Should we get Equal Time?" Four minutes later, he added, "More and more people are suggesting that Republicans (and me) should be given Equal Time on T.V. when you look at the one-sided coverage?" Trump used a question mark instead of a period, and he said "Equal Time" instead of "Fairness Doctrine," invoking a different rule that applies to competing candidates for public office. But you get the idea: If people on TV are saying things that make Trump look bad, the stations on which they appear should be forced to air rebuttals.

That proposal, like Trump's assertion that "licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked" in response to "partisan, distorted and fake" news coverage, is obviously anathema to the First Amendment. Pai, in his low-key, matter-of-fact manner, is commendably willing to say so, apparently as many times as it takes.

Addendum: On Sunday, another member of the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, beat Pai to the punch in responding to Trump's tweets about broadcast licenses. "History won't be kind to silence," the Democratic appointee said on CNN, "and I think it's important for all the commissioners to make clear that they support the First Amendment and that the agency will not revoke a broadcast license simply because the president is dissatisfied with the licensee's coverage."

Brickbat: See No Evil

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) United Kingdom Home Secretary Amber Rudd has called for a law that would criminalize reading "terrorist content" online, including "jihadi websites" and "far right propaganda." Those convicted under the law would face up to 15 years in prison.

Brickbat: Nice Social Networking Service You Have There

Tue, 10 Oct 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) Congressional Black Caucus members Bonnie Watson Coleman and Emanuel Cleaver have warned Twitter officials that if the service does not do more to stop "racially divisive communications" Congress will regulate the service to address the issue.

Utah May Bring Back Porn Czar to Target 'Obscenity' Like Cosmo Magazine

Mon, 09 Oct 2017 16:15:00 -0400

(image) For the past 14 years, Utah has made do without a "porn czar." The position—officially known as the "Obscenity and Pornography Complaints Ombudsman"—has been vacant since 2003, though it was never officially eliminated. Now state Sen. Todd Weiler (R–Woods Cross) may revive it, even as the Utah attorney general suggests legislators strike it from the books.

Weiler has been on an anti-porn crusade for several years now. He's the architect of a 2016 declaration to declare porn a public health crisis (which passed the state legislature unanimously) and a proposal passed earlier this year to encourage "porn addicts" to sue porn platforms.

And Weiler's definition of porn is apparently broad enough to encompass mainstream women's magazines. Weiler "says he became convinced that the obscenity and pornography complaints office may be needed because of an ad campaign attacking Cosmopolitan magazine as illegal porn," The Salt Lake Tribune reports.

"I've received some complaints...that stores are selling Cosmo at eye level to a child," he told the Tribune. "There's no blinder rack on it, even though we have some blinder rack language in the state code."

Weiler suggests that an obscenity ombudsman could focus on things like providing guidance to retailers. But the position also has the power to monitor and punish business owners for daring to display magazines that mention sex.

Victoria Hearst, the public face of the Cosmo campaign that so inspired the Utah senator, thinks that Cosmopolitan should not only be kept out of the eyesight of children but also prohibited for anyone under age 21.

Opponents of Weiler's note that for all its seeming frivolousness, Cosmopolitan can be an important source of sex-positive information for girls. "Pornography isn't an issue in Utah, but shame definitely is," wrote Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro, an advocate with sexual-violence victims group Start By Believing, in a recent op-ed.

Weiler says that reviving the porn czar position isn't a priority for him, and he hesitates because of the cost of funding the office. But whether or not he brings back the position, Weiler—who also chairs the state's Senate Judiciary Committee—has pledged to keep up his anti-porn pursuits. He also continues to push insane ideas about porn's supposed harms, urging parents get "counseling or treatment or therapy for a child who has been exposed."

Bikini Barista Lawsuit Defends Freedom to Espresso Oneself

Sat, 16 Sep 2017 08:00:00 -0400

Earlier this week, a group of eight women who work in the coffee industry sued the city of Everett, Wash. in federal court. The plaintiffs allege a pair of new Everett laws are unconstitutionally vague and infringe on the plaintiffs' freedom of expression; right to privacy, personal autonomy, and liberty; and substantive due-process rights. The laws, adopted last month and implemented this month, are intended to crack down on the so-called "bikini barista" phenomenon that's popular in Western Washington State. The lawsuit defines the business model as centering on baristas who "wear bikinis while serving coffee to customers in their cars through a drive-through window." The Stranger, a free Seattle weekly, defines it similarly as "the Pacific Northwest custom of wearing a bikini while working at a commercial coffee business." The first law "prohibits women from exposing 'more than one-half of the part of the female breast located below the top of the areola'" or anyone from showing the "bottom one-half of the anal cleft.'" Under the law, women in particular could be subject to intrusive and demeaning bodily inspections. Those who are found to be in violation of the law face stiff fines and up to one year in jail. The second law specifically targets bikini barista stands. It requires drive-thru espresso baristas—all of Everett's bikini baristas are women—"to cover completely their upper and lower body, including the pectorals, stomach, back below the shoulder blades, and the 'top three inches of legs below the buttocks.'" These laws are patently dumb, moralistic, and theocratic in nature. As the lawsuit also alleges, they're also unconstitutional. In order to learn more, I drove up from my home in Seattle earlier this week and visited one of the city's bikini espresso joints (with my friend's 70-year-old mom, to boot). It would be my first trip to one of the establishments. My first stop, though, was at a fully clad espresso stand on the city's south side. The barista there, a woman, said she had no opinion on the lawsuit, but told me nevertheless that she thought baristas should be free to wear whatever they want at work. I then drove across the street to Hillbilly Hotties, one of the city's bikini espresso stands. The barista there, wearing a Santa Claus themed bikini—complete with matching Santa hat—told me she didn't want to comment on the suit. But she gave me the phone number of Jovanna Edge, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit and owner of Hillbilly Hotties and other bikini espresso stands. I spoke with Edge on Wednesday. Edge, who describes herself as "very conservative," tells me she and her co-plaintiffs filed suit because the city "enacted this dress code that was obviously against our First and Fourteen Amendment rights, and we shouldn't have to abide by their morals and values. They shouldn't be able to infringe upon everybody else's beliefs." She told me she was shocked by the city law. "I can't believe this actually passed," Edge said. "I never thought it would." Shocking, too, is some of the language in the law. For example, I'd never heard the term "anal cleft" until reading about the lawsuit. "I still don't know what that is" Edge tells me. "Our attorneys didn't know what that is. I think it's the part right above your butt crack. But I really don't know." In a somewhat surreal conversation—my columns tend to focus on food law and policy issues like farm subsidies and menu labeling, rather than butt cracks—I came to understand the term is largely synonymous with the colloquial "plumber's butt." I searched but could find no moralistic plans in Everett to crack down on the butt cracks of plumbers in the city. The same goes for Everett's own workers. A city-owned pool's website currently boasts several photos of women in bathing suits. The Facebook page fo[...]

Brickbat: Make School Great Again

Thu, 14 Sep 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) Officials with Georgia's Cherokee County school system have apologized after a teacher ordered two students out of her classroom because they were wearing "Make America Great Again" shirts. The teacher said they couldn't wear the shirts "just like you cannot wear a swastika to school."

Hey, Berkeley Mayor: Do Your Job and Protect Free Speech in Your City

Wed, 30 Aug 2017 12:05:00 -0400

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin has had enough of violence bursting from protests of right-wing speakers in his city and at University of California Berkeley. So in order to end it, he wants the speakers to shut up, go away, and go bother somebody else. Weekend violence from black-clad antifascist provocateurs disrupted a "Rally Against Hate" in Berkeley, and 13 people have been arrested. After the protest, Arreguin decided to buckle under the threat of the "thug's veto" and asked U.C. Berkeley to cancel an upcoming Free Speech Week at the college in September, where people like Milo Yiannopoulos are scheduled to speak. "I'm very concerned about Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter and some of these other right-wing speakers coming to the Berkeley campus, because it's just a target for black bloc to come out and commit mayhem on the Berkeley campus and have that potentially spill out on the street," Arreguin said. Yes, there is clearly some sort of trap being set here. There are an unknown number of people on each side in this ongoing public political battle especially invested in turning speech into violence. In this particular case, it seems most likely that violence is going to originate from the self-described "antifascist" side, as it has previously. But let's be clear here. It is the job of Arreguin, the city government of Berkeley, and its police to protect the right of people within its borders to speak without facing violent responses. This is not some sort of additional source of frustration and labor for the city. One of the primary expectations of a city government is to protect the civil liberties of the people within its borders, and the right to speak freely and demonstrate peacefully are among those liberties. Arreguin is hardly the only mayor to attempt to use violence as an excuse to abandon the responsibility to protect freedom. The mayor of Portland did the exact same thing in May when an apparently unstable man turned violent on a train and stabbed and killed two people. It was clearly a bizarre, isolated incident, yet Mayor Ted Wheeler made a huge performance out of trying to ban right wing protests in the city as a result. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe also just banned demonstrations temporarily at a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond while the state comes up with more regulations over the correct way they'll allow citizens to protest. U.C. Berkeley should resist Arreguin's request, and Americans should reject the idea that violent reactions can be used as a justification for giving up on free speech. Instead, citizens need to be demanding that cities do a better job of both protecting protesters and holding individuals who engage in acts of violence criminally responsible. It may be messy and it may not be easy (people intent on violence are masking their faces for a reason), but it's nevertheless the only real way of working through this current phase of public political resistance and coming out the other side with our rights intact. If Arreguin is not up for the job of protecting the people in his city from violence, he should consider whether he should be mayor. He did propose another solution, one that is also terrible. He wants to possibly classify "Antifa" violent activists as a "gang." Such a proposition shows either an unwillingness or inability to hold individuals responsible for their own behavior and attempts to establish collective guilt. It would use California law as a tool to suppress the freedom of association rights of people who are classified as being in a gang rather than to punish actual criminal conduct. And California's gang law enforcement is a mess as it is. A state audit in 2016 found very poor oversight and accountability within the system, resulting in people being added to the[...]

Germany Raids, Shuts Down Far Left Website. Will You Stop Praising European Censorship Now?

Fri, 25 Aug 2017 16:15:00 -0400

First they came for the Nazis, and everybody cheered, because to hell with Nazis! We hate Nazis! But today the German authorities came for a far-left website, shutting it down and raiding organizers' homes. German authorities say this site was used to help foment violent protests at the G20 summit in Hamburg in July, where thousands of leftists marched and some black-clad individuals clashed with police. Dozens were reportedly injured in the frays. Each side blamed the other for the violence, according to The New York Times. But only one side has the power of government authority at their disposal. Much as they've done recently with far right websites, German authorities have used the argument that this leftist site that they're shutting down is instigating violence. The Times reports: Linksunten.indymedia, founded in 2008, billed itself as "a weapon in the social struggle" and said it was a "decentrally organized global network of social movements." The ministry was able to move against the website because it viewed those running it as an "association," and under German law, those can be blocked for extremist activity. The platform was not accessible on Friday, and the ministry said that its goal was to shut the site permanently. Raids in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg were conducted in the early hours of Friday against several leading members and supporters of the website, the ministry said in a statement. There's nothing in the Times story that says the people they raided actually participated in any violence. But they say that the website referred to police as "pigs" and "murderers" and that activity on the site intended to "legitimize violence against police officers." Let this be a reminder that Europe's censorship laws are not what a lot of Americans think they are. Governments use these laws to preserve public order, not necessarily to protect "enlightened" folks from bigotry. And a lot of people here in America would cheer on the government if it tried to root out and shut down sites used by the more violent participants in the antifascist movement. Even some folks on the left would probably be relieved, given how this violence is used to dismiss their arguments and their protests entirely and to feed "both sides do it" arguments. But let's be clear: This crackdown in Germany is awfully similar to what the Department of Justice is already doing to try to get information about people who tried to disrupt President Donald Trump's inauguration in January. The Justice Department attempted to serve a remarkably broad warrant against website company DreamHost to get information about anyone connected to, including details on anybody who had even just visited the site. They pulled back to make the warrant a little less of a fishing expedition after DreamHost went public with the demand, bringing the Justice Department some negative publicity. If President Donald Trump and his administration had the kind of authority to declare that disruptj20 was an extremist site instigating violence in order to shut it down, don't you think they'd do so in a heartbeat? Let's stop pretending that laws against "extreme" speech in European countries are a sign of enlightenment. They're fundamentally a tool for the government to shut down anything they find potentially disruptive, and they have little incentive to discern a difference between civil disobedience and violence.[...]

Brickbat: Stay in the Closet

Thu, 24 Aug 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) When Joey Slivinski and Thomas Swartz, two openly gay seniors at Missouri's Kearney High School, got their yearbooks, they found only blank space beneath their names. School officials did not use the quotes they have provided—"Of course I dress well. I didn't spend all that time in the closet for nothing" and "If 'Harry Potter' taught us anything, it's that no one should have to live in the closet"—saying some might find them offensive.

Why Are Media Outlets Giving Commentary Space to Wannabe Censors?

Wed, 23 Aug 2017 12:45:00 -0400

This week, The Washington Post joins several other large media outlets in giving commentary space to an academic who thinks the First Amendment maybe shouldn't protect so much free speech. I'll give Jennifer Delton—Skidmore College's "Douglas Family Chair in American culture, history, and literary and interdisciplinary studies"—this much: She's not disguising her calls for censorship of conservative opinion by claiming this will achieve some sort of racial enlightenment or equality. She openly describes this censorship as a tool for stopping the spread of political arguments she sees as dangerous. Her example is the purge of Communist Party members from unions, the civil service, and academia in the middle of the 20th century because they were a threat to the established liberal control of the Democratic Party. The argument was that these Communists did not actually believe in free speech (probably true) and were using it as a shield to protect them while they attempt to undermine democracy. She sees similar tactics in the alt-right, which Delton says is using speech as a weapon to attack liberal values and colleges: It is true that higher education has brought much of this on itself through the extreme policing of speech and tolerance of student protesters who shut down speakers with whom they disagree. But that doesn't diminish the extent to which the alt-right and conservatives are using "free speech" to attack and destroy colleges and universities, which have long promoted different variations of the internationalist, secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural liberalism that marks the thinking of educated elites of both parties. Hilariously, she ends her commentary by saying the process of depriving these bad people of their First Amendment freedoms should not be used to censor "liberal critics" of college or government behavior. Only wrong people should be censored! The title of this op-ed, by the way, is "When 'free speech' becomes a political weapon." Writers aren't typically responsible for their headlines, but her op-ed does describe speech as a weapon; the title reflects the piece accurately. So it's worth wondering whether Delton even grasps that she wants censorship to be a political weapon. She wants to use the government to shut down speech that undermines the institutions she and many others value. It's almost as though she understands the actual underpinnings of Supreme Court case that brought us the tiresome "fire in a crowded theater" trope—a case that revolved around the prosecution of anti-war protest—and still supports the ruling. It's also fascinating in that Delton doesn't seem to want to engage in the idea that academia could actually win a debate on these issues. There is no hint in her story there could be a debate in which the values she holds dear change minds and influence people. Her commentary opens with a stark—but completely false—choice for college presidents: Either they let conservatives speak and "risk violent counterprotests" or they censor speakers and "confirm" the speech crisis. She sees those as the only two options, as though it's simply not possible to stop violence at protests. Many of us outside the academic bubble keep reminding folks that if the government has the authority to decide what sort of speech gets censored, it won't be people like Delton calling the shots, and that in all likelihood, it will be the weakest and least influential of our citizens who will be punished. Now that so many of these commentaries have found homes at major media sites, it's also worth asking: What the bloody hell are these massive news outlets thinking when they run these? Certainly news outlets should run[...]