• Google, the “Good Censor,” is Going to Think for You

    October 24, 2018 // 7 Comments »




    Google might soon add its Terms of Service to the First Amendment.

    A leaked document written by Google argues because of a variety of factors, including the election of Donald Trump, what they call the “American tradition” of free speech may no longer be viable. The document lays out how the company can act as the world’s “Good Censor,” protecting us from harmful content and, by extension, harmful acts like electing the wrong president again.

    The document, which Google has officially characterized as research, is infuriatingly vague about whether the company has made any decisions or taken any action. So think of all this as a guidepost, like the Ghost of Christmas Future showing us the worst case scenario.

    The company is talking about changing the rules so the freedom to speak will no longer exist independent of the content of speech. What you can say could depend on Google’s opinion of whether or not it will negatively affect others. To Google, the personal liberty of freedom of speech might need to be balanced against collective well-being. The company acknowledges for the first time it has the responsibility and power to unilaterally adjudicate this battle between “free-for-all and civil-for-most” versions of society.

    We probably should be paying more attention to how they plan to do this, but because the document leaked on Breitbart, and because the initial rounds of censorship have impacted right of center, it has received little critical attention. But the significance of Google’s plans extends beyond the left-right fight; which content is censored is easily changed. If this plan is implemented, everything you will ever read online will be judged before it reaches you. Or doesn’t reach you.

    The old ideas seem as archaic to Google (Facebook, Twitter, and their successors) as the powdered wigs the Founders wore when they wrote them. People should be free to say nearly anything they want. In the marketplace of ideas good will overpower bad. If we block one person’s speech, we can soon block others, right up to when it comes to us. The collective right to free speech is more important than an individual’s reaction to that speech. There is an uncomfortable duty to protect speech irrespective of its content.

    Jefferson had a good run. Then the election of Donald Trump scared the free speech ideal out of Google. Could they have been… responsible… for helping elect a threat to democracy, the last president, someone who would shape-shift into a dictator? Should they have tried to stop him? Wouldn’t you have killed baby Hitler if you could have?

    Under such circumstances, free speech is reimagined by many as a liability which bad actors will exploit judo-style, the tools of democracy used to destroy democracy. The Google document warns “online manipulation and disinformation influenced elections in more than 18 countries, including the U.S. [as] free speech becomes a social, economic and political weapon.”

    The irony is the Internet was supposed to be, and maybe briefly was, the highest expression of what is now the legacy definition of unfettered speech. Anyone could start a website to stand alongside the .govs. One voice was as loud as anyone else’s, and search engines were the democratizing connective tissue. Google was created to organize the world’s knowledge, not help control it. Free speech flourished online. Government censors had real restrictions; we know them as borders.

    Not so for global entities like Google. What doesn’t pass through their search engines or social media travels through their servers and cloud storage. There is no more pretending any but a minority of users can use another tool, or ignore the web, and still functionally live in the real world. Google sees itself at the nexus of this historic change, saying “Although people have long been racist, sexist, and hateful in many other ways, they weren’t empowered by the Internet to recklessly express their views with abandon.” We apparently can’t handle that, and Google is, for the first time in human history, in a position to do something about it. After all, they acknowledge they “now control the majority of our online conversations” so the Internet is mostly whatever they say it is.

    At that point, Google worries, the “we’re not responsible for what happens on our platforms” defense crumbles. How much the last election was influenced doesn’t matter as much as the realization the tools are in place to do it more effectively next time. Existing laws can limit foreigners buying political ads stuffed with controversial news, but if Americans want to do the same thing laws not only don’t limit them, the legacy version of the 1A demands they be allowed to blast out hate speech and gendered bigotry. Something has to be done. Google’s document says they as the apex predator can now create online “well-ordered spaces for safety and civility.”

    There is no one to stop them. It is very clear what private companies can do vis-a-vis speech; the argument is over what they should do. Thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Google is shielded from traditional publishers’ liability and responsibility. The 1A does not apply. No one at Google stands for election. Users matter only in the aggregate of millions of clicks. Google as the Good Censor would be accountable to pretty much no one (though the Supreme Court last week agreed to hear a long-shot case that could determine whether users can challenge social media companies on free speech grounds.)

    As proof-of-concept – what they are capable of doing – the Google document cites Charlottesville. Following racial violence, Google, GoDaddy, and Cloudflare quietly ganged up to end their relationships with The Daily Stormer, “effectively booting it off the Internet.” Google noted “While some free speech advocates were troubled by the idea that ‘a voice’ could be silenced at its source, others were encouraged by the united front the tech firms put up.” Same with Alex Jones, as corporations serially kicked him off their sites. Facebook and Twitter also actively censor, with Facebook removing over 800 political pages for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” an Orwellian term Facebook claims means they were not forums for “legitimate political debate.”

    Google and the others aren’t acting in a vacuum. Some 69% of American college students believe intentionally offensive language should be banned. The ACLU now applies a litmus test to cases it defends, weighing their impact on other rights (for example, the right to say the N-word versus the rights of POC not to hear it), declaring free speech can be secondary to other political goals. As Google suggests, censorship has a place, per the ACLU, if it serves a greater good.

    The document makes clear Google understands current censorship efforts have fallen short. Decisions have been imprecise, biased, and influenced by shares and likes. Yet while acknowledging they never will please everyone, Google is emphatic it can’t escape “its responsibility for how society functions and progresses.” So the document is rich in words like transparency and fairness as it wrestles with the complexity of the task, with Google envisioning itself as more an imperfect but benign curator than Big Brother. But like a bad horror movie, you can see the ending from miles away.

    Eliminating voices to “not influence” an election is influencing an election. Once one starts deleting hate speech, there is no bottom to the list of things offensive to someone. Once you set your goal as manipulating thought via controlling information, the temptation to use that tool will prove great. Why not manipulate stock prices to fund “good” nonprofits and harm bad ones? Who should be elected in Guatemala? What’s the Google solution for that land dispute in St. Louis? It is so easy. Just placing links for one candidate above another in a test search increased the number of undecided voters who chose that candidate by 12%.

    The cornerstone of free speech – the absolute right to speak remaining independent of the content of the speech – is now in the hands of corporate monopolies, waiting for them to decide whether or not to use the power. Where the Supreme Court refused to prohibit hate speech, Google can do so. Where the 1A kept the government from choosing what is and isn’t called true, Google may decide. Journalists can take a first pass at writing news, but Google is the one positioned to determine if anyone sees it. Like some TV murder mystery, Google is perched on the edge of a terrible decision, having tested opportunity, means, and method. All that’s left is the decision to pull the trigger.




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    The Offending Tweets That Got Me Banned for Life from Twitter

    August 27, 2018 // 24 Comments »




    A leaky little “bird” inside Twitter tells me these are the tweets that got me banned for life.

    I have no way of verifying this; official Twitter will not respond to my inquiries. I stand accused of dehumanizing several reporters (“targeted abuse”), using words to offend them into silence. It seems now you can judge for yourself, as it should be.

    This whole series of threads started when Trump accused the press of being “enemies of the people,” followed by Glenn Greenwald reminding us how the media enables America’s wars.

    The tweets about Sulome Anderson’s father, Terry Anderson, were cited as particularly offensive. If you don’t know his story, he was a journalist held hostage in Lebanon in the 1980s by Hezbollah. Sulome was in first grade when he was released.

    It’s hard to avoid editorializing here, but I do want to point out how quickly the offended journalists and their friends tried to shift my words into “picking on women” and similar inaccurate accusations of misogyny. I’ll also point out Twitter allowed the journalists to freely dehumanize and insult me. Note also how these journalists react to a whistleblower confronting them with the admission government officials lie, and that they accept the lies. One of the journalists who attacked me, below, once even used me as a truth-telling source during the Iraq War. Oh well.

    Click on each tweet to enlarge it.




































    NOTE: Blah blah, only part of the story, if those tweets are real, whatever. I’ll be happy to publish any official response from Twitter, any evidenced unofficial response, any evidence of altered tweets, and any additional tweets anyone can send me that enhance, enlarge, or refute the story. Your ball, push PLAY and go, or shut up.



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    Ban Trump, Twitter and Free Speech

    August 23, 2018 // 59 Comments »

    In the through-the-mirror world we now live in, people who once unambiguously supported free speech now are finding plenty of things they want censored.

    Chief among those opposing ideas they want silenced are Donald Trump’s. His remarks — from the silly, labeled unpresidential, to the more extreme labeled racist/sexist/misogynist/hateful — have attracted a surprising group of otherwise intelligent people demanding he be shut up.



    Salon to Les Barricades!

    An article on Salon made the case, specifically demanding Twitter ban Trump. Here’s one representative paragraph:

    Republicans may not be willing to hold him [Trump] accountable for his dreadful behavior, but the rest of us don’t have to fall in line. Trump has repeatedly signaled his enthusiasm for dictators, which gives us serious reason to fear he may be eyeballing such powers for himself. Banning his Twitter account would be an important act of resistance.

    (Of course American presidents have supported a long line dictators — pick your faves, from Stalin in WWII to Somoza to the Assads to Saddam –without themselves becoming dictators, but no matter, we’re beyond history here.)

     

    But Twitter Has Terms of Service!

    Twitter, Facebook, etc., are private businesses and thus not subject to the First Amendment (which only restricts the government from crushing speech) and can make any usage rules they like. But in reality social media outlets have in our age become the public squares of the day, and must be seen and treated as such. For example, when they actually had the guts, good newspapers would go out of their way to print opposing viewpoints, recognizing their status as a public forum.

    So yes, yes, Twitter can ban redheaded users (sorry, gingers!) if they want to, but it would be detrimental to our broader national commitment to hearing each other out, including hearing from people we don’t agree with. No, ESPECIALLY hearing from people we don’t agree with. Of course there are also the problems that come up once you start banning people, given how opinions of what should be “allowed” can change as quickly as overnight election evening.

    So the fact that an entity can ban speech doesn’t mean it should.

    In a broader context, it is also always helpful to remember there are no laws against “hate speech” that prevent people from making rough political statements, or even stupid ones. There are laws against inciting violence “Kill all the redheads” but not against saying they suck or are monkeys.



    “You Can’t Yell Fire in a Crowded Theater”

    That paraphrase of a paragraph from a 1919 U.S. Supreme Court case, Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919), written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, is often cited as justification for limiting free speech. Here’s what Holmes wrote:

    The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.

    The statement says the First Amendment doesn’t protect false speech that is likely to cause immediate harm to others, three conditions. The speech must be demonstrably false, and it must be likely to cause real harm (not just offense or hurt feelings, a “clear and present danger”), and do so immediately.

    The interpretation of the First Amendment has been understood and adjudicated to impose a pretty high barrier to restrictions on what can be blocked or banned, and over the years has allowed flags to be burned, the KKK and Nazis to march, artists to make sculptures from their own body waste, and all sorts of political statements, at least a handful of which you would strongly disagree with and be deeply offended by.

    And so expression whose ban has been upheld over the long run has been narrow, things the vast majority society agrees are truly dangerous, such as child pornography.

    That’s the whole point — with as few limitation as necessary, protect expression people may or may not want to hear. The First Amendment is not there to protect Dancing with the Stars (though it does) but to protect the hard stuff, the hard calls.


    Schenck is Actually Evil

    And yes, Schenck itself was a crappy case that sought to use the Espionage Act against a Socialist pamphleteer, to stop free speech, not protect it, and the case was overturned. In fact, Holmes’ statement was a dictum that the First Amendment is not absolute, that restriction is lawful, along with the developing idea that restriction on speech should be narrow and limited.

    It was the later case of Brandenburg v. Ohio that refined the modern standard for restricting speech to that “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” But we talk about Holmes’ “fire in a crowded theatre” line as a kind of shorthand for all that.



    Let Him Speak — Loudly

    Justice Holmes, perhaps as an act of contrition, later wrote in another landmark case:

    The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

    So following the broad values enshrined in the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, even though it can, Twitter should not ban Trump. Let him tweet, hell, give him 20 extra characters. And let us know, judge, agree, oppose, and argue about what he says.


    PERSONAL BONUS: Writing in a mainstream publication that the president shouldn’t be allowed on Twitter? Jesus Christ, pull your shit together and get a freaking grip on yourselves. If you can’t do that, go hide under your bed and hug your stuffed animal Bobo. You want to worry about authoritarianism? It always includes shutting up people you don’t want to listen to.




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    Five Bad Arguments to Restrict Speech

    August 20, 2018 // 31 Comments »


    Without free speech people stop thinking, losing out on all but a narrowing band of ideas. Open discussion, debate, and argument are the core of democracy. Bad ideas are defeated by good ideas. Fascism seeks to close off all ideas except its own.

    Yet all of these most basic concepts of free speech in our nation are under threat, and too many of them are under threat from the left. I never thought I would write that last phrase, just as I never thought I’d need to explain five bad arguments the Left is using to restrict speech from the Right.

     

    Despicable People

    Despicable people and their ideas have always existed, though it is essentially a quick summary of the whole point of free speech to remind that at different times in our history speaking out against slavery, against war, against one president or another, have all been seen as despicable. Restrictions on free speech have been used to ban great literature, books about women’s reproductive health, and photos once deemed “pornopgraphic” now displayed as art. Someone will always find an idea or word offensive. Allowing that person to judge for all of us has never proven to be on the right side of history.

    The arrival in 2017 of neo-nazis, alt-right, white supremacists, racists, and the many flavors of ‘phobes is sadly nothing new. The current poster children for hate, Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, and Charles Murray, are no one new either (Coulter’s first book came out in 1998; Murray published his loathed book on welfare in 1984 and both have spoken publicly ever since.) What does seem to be new is that their opposition — the antifa, the anti-fascists — is now aggressively embracing many of the same tools once used to try and stop the anti-war movement, feminists, and other progressive groups in the past. The justification is Everything Is Different since November’s election, and the old rules not only don’t apply, but that wishy-washy democratic ideals of free speech are now a threat to democracy.

     

    Punching Nazis

    And so an incident at the Trump inaugural set “Is it OK to punch a Nazi for what he said?” bouncing around the media, including in the New York Times and The Nation, two venerable outlets which have otherwise long fought for free speech, and whose writers have long risked jail time in the practice of it.

    What happened was that alongside the inauguration Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer was explaining live on camera the meaning of Pepe the Frog, a silly cartoon figure somehow adopted as a mascot by the anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-feminist movement Spencer promotes. An anonymous black-clad antifa protester ran into the scene and sucker punched Spencer. His free speech was ended by that act of violence.

    There followed tens of thousands of comments on the YouTube videos of the attack. The standard response was “I don’t condone violence BUT…” and then go on to condone violence. Another popular comment was to invoke Hitler, claiming violence is now justified as a leftist response to hateful speech by the right, and that if perhaps more people had punched Hitler in the early days the world would be a better place. More than a few people online also suggested punching someone in the head is in fact a form of protected free speech itself, and others seem to think whatever they label as “hate speech” is a crime. Others used phrases along the lines of “the end justifies the means” and “by any means necessary.”

    A popular meme was to put different songs, many calling for more violence, behind the punching video. Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, tweeted “I don’t care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”

    Following the Spencer attack, similar violence landed at Middlebury College, then at a rally where one protester who displayed a Confederate flag was attacked, and at the University of California Berkeley (the university was ironically home to the Vietnam War protest-era Free Speech Movement.) Institutions, including Berkeley and New York University, canceled, postponed, or scheduled into dead zones for attendance speeches by conservative speakers, citing public safety concerns.

    What grew out of the Spencer incident and those in Berkeley, Middlebury and elsewhere are a series of inaccurate and/or weak arguments from too many in favor of restricting speech. Let’s look at some, and why they do not hold up.

     

    1. The First Amendment Only Applies to Government?

    The first fallacious argument used to shut down free speech is that the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights in our Constitution only applies to government, and so universities or other entities are entitled to censor, restrict or shut down altogether speech willy-nilly.

    Short Answer: Not really. Public funding invokes the First Amendment for schools, and free speech runs deeper than the Bill of Rights. It’s as much a philosophical argument as a legal one, not a bad thing for a nation founded on a set of ideas (and ideals.)

     

    Free speech in America is an unalienable right, and goes as deep into the concept of a free society as any idea can. Though cited as far back as 1689 in England, the American version of this was laid out most clearly by Thomas Jefferson, in the mighty Declaration of Independence, where he wrote of rights that flowed from his notion of The Creator, not from government, and thus were fixed.

    Jefferson’s invocation of the Creator is understood now as less that free speech is heaven-sent and more that it is something that exists before and after our time. Government thus did not give us the right to free speech and therefore cannot take it away. The First Amendment simply codifies that latter part, laying out like much of the Bill of Rights what the government cannot do. So the argument that the First Amendment does not necessarily apply to all public speaking can be both true and irrelevant at the same time, and the latter is more important. Abetting free speech is an obligation in a democracy in general, and to an institution devoted to truth and education in the particular.

    And though the fundamental argument is the controlling one, there does also exist a legal one that extends the First Amendment restrictions to institutions that accept Federal funding (which means most of them); in the 1995 case Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the Supreme Court held that the University could not fund all student publications except those addressing religious views because such a policy violated the institution’s constitutional obligation not to discriminate against particular viewpoints.

    Bottom Line: Universities are not free to restrict speech simply because they are not the government. They should be ashamed of themselves for trying to find ways to circumvent free speech instead of promoting it.

     

    2. What’s Said May Provoke Violence in the Room (A Clear and Present Danger)

    Some claim that certain conservative speakers, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, who purposefully use anti-LGBTQ slurs to provoke their audiences, should be banned or shut down. Their speech is the equivalent of yelling Fire! in a crowded movie theatre when there is no actual danger, provoking a deadly stampede for the exits.

    Short Answer: The standards for shutting down speech are very restrictive, and well-codified. Milo comes nowhere close.

     

    The Fire! line from a Supreme Court decision Schenck v. United States by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is often cited as justification for limiting free speech. Here’s what Holmes wrote:

    The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.

    The full decision says the First Amendment doesn’t protect false speech that meets three conditions: 1) the speech must be demonstrably false; 2) it must be likely to cause real harm, not just offense or hurt feelings, and 3) must do so immediately. That’s the “clear and present danger.”

    This interpretation of the First Amendment has been adjudicated to impose a high barrier to restrictions on what can be blocked or banned, and over the years has allowed flags to be burned in front of veterans, Nazis to march among Holocaust survivors, artists to make religious sculptures from their own body waste.

    Schenck was what jurists call bad law, in that it sought to use the Espionage Act against a Socialist pamphleteer, to stop free speech, not protect it (in other words, the pamphleteer was determined to be a clear and present danger in wartime and rightfully arrested.) The case was eventually overturned, and in truth Holmes’ statement was originally intended to mean the First Amendment is not absolute, that restriction is lawful, along with the developing idea that restriction on speech should be narrow and limited.

    It was the later case of Brandenburg v. Ohio that refined the modern standard for restricting speech to that “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” But we talk about Holmes’ “fire in a crowded theatre” line as a kind of shorthand for all that.

    Justice Holmes, perhaps as an act of contrition, later wrote in another landmark case:

    The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

    Bottom Line: The Supreme Court has set a very high bar against restricting speech based on the idea that what is being said leading to violence. Concerns, offense or general threats alone are insufficient to justify silencing someone as a solution.

     

    3. What’s Said May Provoke Violence Outside (Public Safety)

    The idea that a university or other venue cannot assure a speaker’s safety, or that the speaker’s presence may provoke violent protests, or that the institution just doesn’t want to go to the trouble or expense of protecting a controversial speaker has become the go-to justification for canceling or restricting speech. Berkley cited this in canceling and then de-platforming (rescheduling her when most students would not be on campus) Ann Coulter, whose campus sponsors are now suing, and New York University cited the same justification for canceling an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos.

    Short Answer: Canceling a speaker to protect them or public safety is the absolute last resort, and some risk to safety is part of the cost to a free society for unfettered speech.

     

    The most glaring misuse of this argument is when such a justification is applied only toward one strain of speech, say unilaterally against conservative speakers and not against others. The conclusion can only be danger comes from unpopular ideas based solely on their being presented on a left-leaning campus. The argument of restricting a speaker “for their own safety” who is otherwise willing to take on certain risks to make their voice heard can thus be applied in a biased manner. Restricting speech for safety needs to be content neutral.

    Public safety has been long (mis)-used to silence otherwise protected speech. Recently the town of Urbana, Illinois arrested someone burning an American flag (an act long-held to be a form of protected speech) claiming he was in danger from bystanders. Such thinking has in the past been used to deny permits for civil rights marches, with law enforcement saying they could not protect the protestors. Both sides in the abortion debate have used this argument as well outside clinics.

    While institutions do have an obligation to public safety, that obligation must be balanced against the public’s greater right to engage with free speech. Though there exists opinion on the proper balance, the answer is rarely to ban speech outright simply to maintain order.

    One landmark case from 2015 provides some of the clearest guidance yet:

    When a peaceful speaker, whose message is constitutionally protected, is confronted by a hostile crowd, the state may not silence the speaker as an expedient alternative to containing or snuffing out the lawless behavior of the rioting individuals. Nor can an officer sit idly on the sidelines — watching as the crowd imposes, through violence, a tyrannical majoritarian rule — only later to claim that the speaker’s removal was necessary for his or her own protection. Uncontrolled official suppression of the privilege [of free speech] cannot be made a substitute for the duty to maintain order in connection with the exercise of that right.

    The case involved a group called the Bible Believers who used crude langauge (“Turn or Burn”) at an LGBTQ gathering. The judges continued in their opinion allowing the Bible Believers to speak:

    We do not presume to dictate to law enforcement precisely how it should maintain the public order. But in this case, there were a number of easily identifiable measures that could have been taken short of removing the speaker: e.g., increasing police presence in the immediate vicinity, as was requested; erecting a barricade for free speech, as was requested; arresting or threatening to arrest more of the law breakers, as was also requested; or allowing the Bible Believers to speak from the already constructed barricade to which they were eventually secluded prior to being ejected from the Festival.”

    “If none of these measures were feasible or had been deemed unlikely to prevail, the officers could have called for backup… prior to finding that it was necessary to infringe on the group’s First Amendment rights. We simply cannot accept Defendants’ position that they were compelled to abridge constitutional rights for the sake of public safety, when at the same time the lawless adolescents who caused the risk with their assaultive behavior were left unmolested.

    The understanding that law enforcement, or any institution, can turn first to shutting down speech that requires physical protection, has failed the courts’ tests in cases are diverse as Occupy and where a Christian group brought a pig’s head on a stick to a Muslim Arts festival.

    In sum, the court has long recognized that content-based regulation of speech in a public forum (the “health and safety” restrictions) is permissible only “to serve a compelling state interest” and only when the regulation “is narrowly drawn to achieve that end.”

    Bottom Line: An institution cannot cite avoiding public disruption as the initial or sole reason to restrict speech. The problems of having Ann Coulter speak on campus are outweighed by the obligation to protect free speech. Maintenance of the peace should not be achieved at the expense of the free speech. Getting rid of the speaker is expedient but unconstitutional. There are plenty of laws that legitimately protect against violence on their own.

     

    4. Speech Can or Should Be Restricted Based on Content (Hate Speech)

    There are no laws against “hate speech.” A speaker can call people names, and insult them by their race, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. What many people think and say is hateful. It is carefully thought out to inspire hate, to promote hate, to appeal to crude and base instincts. Indeed, that is their point. But there is no law or other prohibition against hate speech. Even restrictions on “hate speech” meant to prevent violence, often cited as the justification to restrict such speech, are by design extremely narrow.

    Short Answer: You cannot restrict hate speech. Free speech means just that, with any limited restrictions content-neutral.

     

    The Brandenburg case test precludes speech from being sanctioned as incitement to riot unless (1) the speech explicitly or implicitly encouraged the use of violence or lawless action; (2) the speaker intends that their speech will result in the use of violence or lawless action, and (3) the imminent use of violence or lawless action is the likely result of the speech. A hostile reaction of a crowd does not transform protected speech into incitement. Listeners’ reaction to speech is thus not a content-neutral basis for regulation, or for taking an enforcement action against a speaker.

    A second type of speech that is categorically excluded from First Amendment protection and often erroneously labeled hate speech are “fighting words.” This category of unprotected speech encompasses words that when spoken aloud instantly “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” No advocacy can constitute fighting words unless it is “likely to provoke the average person to retaliation.” Offensive statements made generally to a crowd are not excluded from First Amendment protection; the insult or offense must be directed specifically at an individual.

    The upshot is that apart from some very narrow definitions of violence-inducing words, the obligation exists to the concept of free speech independent of the content of that speech. This is also one of the most fundamental precepts of free speech in a democracy. There need be no protections for saying things that people agree with, things that are not challenging or debatable or offensive; free speech is not really needed for the weather and sports parts of the news. Instead, free speech is there to allow for the most rude, offensive, hateful, challenging stuff you (or your neighbor, your political party, your government) can imagine.

    This is why, in the midst of Berkeley seeking to ban Ann Coulter from campus, Elizabeth Warren said “Let her speak. If you don’t like it, don’t show up.” Same for Bernie Sanders, who said “What are you afraid of, her ideas? Ask her the hard questions. Confront her intellectually. Booing people down or intimidating people or shutting down events — I don’t think that that works in any way.”

    More? The ACLU also supports Coulter’s right to speak. And so the ACLU supports the rights of all groups, to include Nazis and the Klu Klux Klan, to speak.

    It should make a college age ACLU donor proud to know her $25 contribution helps both Black Lives Matter and the Klan to stand up and say what they think, but it apparently does not.

    The president of the Newseum goes as far as arguing some people have developed an “alternate understanding” of free speech, with students in particular believing “offensive” speech is or should not be protected, particularly when the offense is directed at groups defined by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

    Ulrich Baer, vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, and professor of comparative literature at New York University, wrote plainly “Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good. In such cases there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public.”

    Baer is worth quoting at length, because his views capture the view of many progressives toward the now-threatening concept of unfettered speech:

    The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.

    He ends without irony this way:

    Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute. When its proponents forget that it requires the vigilant and continuing examination of its parameters, and instead invoke a pure model of free speech that has never existed, the dangers to our democracy are clear and present.

    Baer could not be more wrong. There is no legal or other justification for banning speech based on who it may offend or threaten, in fact, quite the opposite. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared unpopular ideas should have their opportunity to compete in the “marketplace of ideas.” Free speech is not an ends, it is a means, in a democracy.

    Justice Louis Brandeis held that people must discuss and criticize ideas, that free speech is not only an abstract virtue but also a key element that lies at the heart of a democratic society. Even the fact that speech is likely to result in “violence or in destruction of property is not enough to justify its suppression.” Brandeis concluded “the deterrents ordinarily to be applied to prevent” violence and disruption “are education and punishment for violations of the law, not abridgment of free speech.”

    Bottom Line: There is no justification for restricting speech so that people are not offended. Speech may offend, indeed that may be its point, but bad ideas are then defeated by better ideas.

     

    5. Free Speech Should Not Be Subject to the Heckler’s Veto

    Another argument used by some progressives is that the so-called Heckler’s Veto is in itself protected speech. Someone may have a right to speak, but someone else has the same right to shout them down and prevent them from being heard.

    Short answer: Free speech is not intended to mean whomever can literally “speak” the loudest gets to control what is said. The natural end of such thinking is mob rule, where Speaker A gets a bigger gang together to shout down the gang Speaker B controls.

     

    While protestors have an obligation not to abuse their rights of free expression by harassing or intimidating speakers in ways that unduly interfere with communication between a speaker and an audience, there does exist a balancing process.

    Agreed upon is that numerous legitimate ways exist to challenge speakers, including engaging them or ignoring them entirely. In contrast, using a Heckler’s Veto to keep unpopular speakers from expressing their views not only stifles a particular idea, but threatens to chill public discourse generally by discouraging others with controversial ideas from sharing them. Who wants to stand up only to be shouted down by a mob?

    The most insidious use of the Heckler’s Veto is to have audience members create a situation that compels law enforcement to shut down a speaker for them, abusing their own freedom of speech to get the government to shut down someone else’s. The law allows for law enforcement to act this way, but also makes clear it is wrong for “regulations to allow a single, private actor to unilaterally silence a speaker.”

    It is also quite sad to note the same tactic used at Middlebury College to silence speaker Charles Murray was employed during the civil rights movement when whites threatened violence if civil rights marches were permitted to take place. The tactic is also used by abortion foes to try and shut down clinics. The Supreme Court concluded the government’s responsibility in these circumstances is to control those who threaten or act out disruption, rather than to sacrifice the speaker’s First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, that was not what happened in Middlebury College, as Murray was run out of town for his own safety and the mob won.

    Bottom Line: Balancing the rights of the speaker, those who wish to hear them, and those who wish to protest is complicated. But simply shutting down one party entirely, or allowing one party to block the rights of the others, is wrong.

     

    Flipping the Argument

    It is hard today to be seen as defending the nasty words of a guy like Richard Spencer when one is defending his right to speak independent of what he says. It is easy for some in Trump’s America to claim the struggle against fascism overrules the old norms, that freedom must be defended and that defense justifies violence. Flipping an argument makes it easier to see the fallacy. So:

    So this guy beat the air out of this Black Lives Matter woman; she was spewing out hate speech, really racist stuff, and the guy acted in what he perceived as self-defense. Then some people who opposed Trump’s travel ban started calmly laying out their views on a street corner, and the same guy, who believes deep into his soul that Muslims are a threat to democracy and allowing them into America is a step toward fascism, got a bunch of his buddies together and by sheer force of numbers shouted down the pro-Muslim people, forcing them to run away for fear for their safety.

    Justification? The dude was pretty clear he was just exercising his First Amendment rights, that it was wrong for those protesters to have a platform and hey, he isn’t the government and the First Amendment only applies to the government. Sure violence is bad in isolation, but in defense of freedom, well, by any means necessary. While he was beating on the activists, he shouted he “understands the moral and practical limitations of wholly free discourse.”

    You get it.

    Free speech protection covers all the things people want to say, from the furthest left to the furthest right. You can burn a flag, display a nude body, fill a fish tank with urine and call it art, put on a KKK uniform and march past a Black church, and say whatever Richard Spencer says. Free speech means a lot of things, including that I can write this article, and you can say what you want about it and me. It is messy as hell, and it is our essential defense against fascism and control, whether from the left or the right.

     

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    1A Victory: SCOTUS Again Confirms ‘Hate Speech’ is Protected

    August 19, 2018 // 20 Comments »



    In the world we awoke to on November 8, 2016, a myth took hold among many progressive people that so-called “hate speech” — speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability — is not protected by the First Amendment. Even Howard Dean contributed to the falsehood.

    The Supreme Court just made it very, very clear that is wrong. Offensive and hateful speech is as protected as any other. It is vital to protect all speech, for the road of prohibiting speech one disagrees with is a slippery one. There is a right to offend; deal with it, snowflakes.




    A recent case, Matal v. Tam, focused on an all-Asian band called The Slants, who wanted to trademark their group’s name. “Slant” of course is one of a dictionary full of racist terms used to offend Asians, and the group wanted to push the word into the world’s face to disarm it, as gay men have done with the slur queer.

    The United States Patent and Trademark Office said no, the group could not trademark the name The Slants because of the disparagement clause, which denies federal trademark protection to messages that may offend people, living or dead, along with “institutions, beliefs or national symbols.” This same reasoning denied the Washington Redskins’ trademark renewal of their team name in 2014, seen as disparaging toward Native Americans.


    No more. The Supreme Court just ruled the government cannot use trademark law to stop people from promoting an (potentially offensive) name. That constitutes the government prohibiting free expression, a clear violation of the First Amendment.

    The First Amendment protects offensive speech, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in this unanimous decision. “The proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate,’” he said, quoting the classic 1929 dissent from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

    (Trump-era snowflakes usually misapply Holmes’ famous line — not shouting fire in a crowded theatre — to justify banning offensive speech by claiming it incites violence. They’re wrong; it doesn’t work that way at all. The whole thing is laid out here.)

    “The danger of viewpoint discrimination,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in The Slants’ case, “is that the government is attempting to remove certain ideas or perspectives from a broader debate. That danger is all the greater if the ideas or perspectives are ones a particular audience might think offensive, at least at first hearing. To permit viewpoint discrimination in this context is to permit government censorship.”

    The ACLU called the decision a “major victory for the First Amendment.”



    And… mic drop.

    The marketplace of ideas needs to be broad and deep, and awful people must be free to spew terrible words, into it, so they can be exposed and bad ideas shoved aside by good ones. That’s how the Founders intended the system to work, that is how it has worked through over 200 years of controversy, and the Supreme Court made it clear this week Trump, Howard Dean, Milo Yiannopoulos or your favorite nazi have no place in trying to change things.



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    Corporate Censorship Brought Us the America I Always Feared

    August 13, 2018 // 4 Comments »

    When I was in Iran earlier this year, the government there blocked Twitter, deciding for a whole nation what they can not see. In America, Twitter purges users, deciding for a whole nation what they can not see. It matters little whose hand is on the switch, the end result is the same. This is the America I always feared I’d see.

    Speech in America is an unalienable right, and goes as deep into the concept of a free society as any idea can. Thomas Jefferson wrote of the right flowing from his notion of a Creator, not from government. Jefferson’s 18th century invocation is understood now as less that free speech is heaven-sent and more that it is something existing above government. And so the argument the First Amendment applies only to government and not to all public speaking (including private platforms like Twitter) is thus both true and irrelevant, and the latter is more important.

    The government remains a terrifying threat to free speech. An Espionage Act prosecution against Wikileaks’ Julian Assange will create precedent for use against any mainstream journalist. The war on whistleblowers which started under Obama continues under Trump. Media are forced to register as propaganda agents. Universities restrict controversial speakers. The Trump administration no doubt will break the record (77%) for redacting or denying access to government files under the Freedom of Information Act.

    But there is another threat to freedom of speech now, corporate censorship. It is often dressed up with NewSpeak terms like deplatforming, restricting hate speech, or simply applying Terms of Service. Corporations always did what they wanted with speech. Our protection against corporate overreach used to rely on an idea Americans once held dear, enshrined as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” The concept was core to a democracy: everyone supports the right of others to throw ideas into the marketplace independent. An informed people would sort through it all, and bad ideas would be pushed away by better ones. That system more or less worked for 240 years.

    For lack of a more precise starting point, the election of Donald Trump did away with near-universal agreement on defending the right to speak without defending the content, driven by a belief too much free speech helped Trump get elected. Large numbers of Americans began not just to tolerate, but to demand censorship. They wanted universities to deplatform speakers they did not agree with, giggling over the fact the old-timey 1A didn’t apply and there was nothing “conservatives” could do. They expressed themselves in violence, demanding censorship by “punching Nazis.” Such brownshirt-like violence was endorsed by The Nation, once America’s clearest voice for freedom. The most startling change came within the American Civil Liberties Union, who enshrined the “defend the right, not the speech” concept in the 1970s when it defended the free speech rights of Nazis, and went on to defend the speech rights of white supremacists in Charlottesville.

    Not so much anymore. The ACLU now applies a test to the free speech cases it will defend, weighing their impact on other rights (for example, the right to say the N-word versus the rights of POC.) The ACLU in 2018 is siding with those who believe speech can be secondary to other political goals. Censorship has a place, says the ACLU, when it serves what they believe is a greater good.

    A growing segment of public opinion isn’t just in favor of this, it demands it. So when years-old tweets clash with 2018 definitions of racism and sexism, companies fire employees. Under public pressure, Amazon removed “Nazi paraphernalia and other far-right junk” from its online store. It was actually just some nasty Halloween gear and Confederate flag merch, but the issue is not the value of the products — that’s part of any free speech debate — it’s corporate censorship being used to stifle debate by literally in this case pulling things out of the marketplace.

    Alex Jones’ InfoWars was deplatformed off download sites where it has been available for years, including Apple, YouTube (owned by Google), Spotify, and Amazon, for promoting “hate speech.” Huffington Post wondered why more platforms, such as Instagram, haven’t done away with Jones and his hate speech.

    That term, hate speech, clearly not prohibited by the Supreme Court, is an umbrella word now used by censorship advocates for, well, basically anything they don’t want others to be able to listen to or watch. It is very flexible and thus very dangerous. As during the McCarthy-era in the 1950s when one needed only to label something “Communist” to have it banned, so it is today with the new mark of “hate speech.” The parallels are chilling — it was in the McCarthy-era Hollywood created its infamous blacklists, actors and writers who could not work because of their political beliefs.

    Twitter is perhaps the most infamous platform to censor its content. The site bans advertising from Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik. Twitter suspends the accounts of those who promote (what it defines as) hate and violence, “shadow bans” others to limit their audience, and tweaks its trending topics to push certain political ideas and downplay others. It regularly purges users and bans “hateful symbols.” There are near-daily demands by increasingly organized groups calling on Twitter to censor specific users, with Trump at the top of that list. The point is always the same: to limit what ideas you can be exposed to and narrow debate.

    Part of the 2018 problem is the trust people place in “good companies” like Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. Anthropomorphizing them as Jeff, and Zuck, and @jack is popular, along with a focus on their “values.” It seems to make sense, especially now when many of the people making decisions on corporate censorship are the same age and hold the same political views as those demanding they do it.

    Of course people age, values shift, what seems good to block today might change. But the main problem is companies exist to make money and will do what they need to do to make money. You can’t count on them past that. Handing over free speech rights to an entity whose core purpose has nothing to do with free speech means they will quash ideas when they conflict with what they are really about. People who gleefully celebrate the fact that @jack who runs Twitter is not held back by the 1A and can censor at will seem to believe he will always yield his power in the way they want him to.

    Google has a slogan reading “do no evil.” Yet in China Google will soon deploy Dragonfly, a version of its search engine that will meet Beijing’s demands for censorship by blocking websites on command. Of course in China they don’t call it hate speech, they call it anti-societal speech, and the propaganda Google will block isn’t from Russian bots but from respected global media. In the U.S. Google blocks users from their own documents saved in Drive if the service feels the documents are “abusive.” Backin China Apple removes apps from its store on command of the government in return for market access. Amazon, who agreed to remove hateful merch from its store in the U.S., the same week confirmed it is “unwaveringly committed to the U.S. government and the governments we work with around the world” using its AI and facial recognition technology to spy on their own people. Faced with the loss of billions of dollars, as was the case for Google and Apple in China, what will corporations do in America?

    Once upon a time an easy solution to corporate censorship was to take one’s business elsewhere. The 2018 problem is with the scale of platforms like Amazon, near global monopolies all. Pretending Amazon, which owns the Washington Post, and with the reach to influence elections, is just another company that sells things is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Yeah, you can for now still go through hoops to download stuff outside the Apple store or Google Play, but those platforms more realistically control access to your device. Censored on Twitter? No problem big guy, go try Myspace, and maybe Bing will notice you. Technology and market dominance changed the nature of censorship so free speech is as much about finding an audience as it is about finding a place to speak. Corporate censorship is at the cutting edge of a reality targeting both speakers (Twitter suspends someone) and listeners (Apple won’t post that person’s videos made off-platform). Ideas need to be discoverable to enter the debate; in 1776 you went to the town square. In 2018 it’s Twitter.

    In the run up to the midterm elections, Senator Chris Murphy, ironically in a tweet, demanded social media censor more aggressively for the “survival of our democracy,” implying those companies can act as proxies for those still held back by the First Amendment. We already know the companies involved can censor. The debate is over what happens when they do.

    A PERSONAL NOTE: Some readers are aware I have been permanently suspended from Twitter as @wemeantwell. This followed exchanges with several mainstream journalists over their support for America’s wars and unwillingness to challenge government lies. Twitter sent an auto-response saying what I wrote “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice.” I don’t think I did any of that, and I wish you didn’t have to accept my word on it. I wish instead you could read what I wrote and decide for yourself. But Twitter won’t allow it. Twitter says you cannot read and make up your own mind. They have in fact eliminated all the things I have ever written there over seven years, disappeared me down the Memory Hole. That’s why all censorship is wrong; it takes the power to decide what is right and wrong away from you and gives it to someone else.

    I lost my career at the State Department because I spoke out as a whistleblower against the Iraq War. I’ve now been silenced, again, for speaking out, this time by a corporation. I am living in the America I always feared.

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    Twitter Suspends Me Forever

    August 7, 2018 // 26 Comments »



    Some readers are aware I have been permanently suspended from Twitter as @wemeantwell.

    This followed exchanges with several mainstream journalists over their support for America’s wars and unwillingness to challenge the lies of government. After two days of silence, Twitter sent me an auto-response saying what I wrote “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice.”

    I don’t think I did any of that, and I wish you didn’t have to accept my word on it. I wish instead you could read what I wrote and decide for yourself. But Twitter won’t allow that. Twitter says you cannot read and make up your own mind. They have in fact eliminated all the things I have ever written there over seven years, disappeared me down the Memory Hole. That’s what censorship does; it takes the power to decide what is right and wrong away from you and gives it to someone else.

    Hate what I write, hate me, block me, don’t buy my books, but please don’t celebrate handing over those choices to some company.

    I lost my career at the State Department because I spoke out as a whistleblower against the Iraq War. I’ve now been silenced, again, for speaking, this time by a corporation. I am living in the America I always feared.








    UPDATE: I’ve made a mistake. I was wrong to criticize the government, wrong to criticize journalists, wrong to oppose war. In fact, after much reflection, I have come to understand that I Love Big Brother.



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    Why I Support Julian Assange (And Why You Should Too)

    July 19, 2018 // 15 Comments »



    This weekend I joined a number of people in an online vigil in support of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange.

    People ask why I did it; Assange is at best imperfect in who he is and what he does. But supporting him transcends him, because the battle over the prosecution of Assange is where the future of free speech and a free press will be decided. Even if you think Assange doesn’t matter, those things do.


    Assange is challenging to even his staunchest supporters. In 2010 he was a hero to opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others called him an enemy of the state for working with whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Now most of Assange’s former supporters see him as a enemy of the state and Putin tool for releasing the Democratic National Committee emails. Even in the face of dismissed charges of sexual assault, Assange is a #MeToo villain. He a traitor who hides from justice inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, or a spy, or some web-made Frankenstein with elements of all of the above. And while I’ve never met Assange, I’ve spoken to multiple people who know him well, and the words generous, warm, or personable rarely are included in their descriptions. But none of that really matters.

    Support is due because Assange ends up being the guy standing at a crossroads in the history of our freedoms – specifically, at what point does the need for the people to know outweigh laws allowing the government to keep information from view? The question isn’t new, but becomes acute in the digital age, where physical documents no longer need to be copied one-by-one, can be acquired by hackers from the other side of the world, and where publishing is far removed from the traditions, obstacles, safeguards, and often-dangerous self-restraint of traditional journalism.


    A complex history precedes Assange. In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret U.S. government-written history of the Vietnam War, to the New York Times. No one had ever published such classified documents before, and reporters at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act. A federal court ordered the Times to cease publication after an initial flurry of excerpts were printed, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper. In the end the Supreme Court handed down a victory for the First Amendment in New York Times Company v. United States and the Times won the Pulitzer Prize.

    But looking at the Times case through the lens of Wikileaks, law professor Steve Vladeck points out “although the First Amendment separately protects the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, the Supreme Court has long refused to give any separate substantive content to the Press Clause above and apart from the Speech Clause… The Supreme Court has never suggested that the First Amendment might protect a right to disclose national security information. Yes, the Pentagon Papers case rejected a government effort to enjoin publication, but several of the Justices in their separate opinions specifically suggested that the government could prosecute the New York Times and the Washington Post after publication, under the Espionage Act.”

    The Supreme Court left the door open to prosecute journalists who publish classified documents by focusing narrowly on prohibiting the government from exercising prior restraint. Politics and public opinion, not law, has kept the government exercising discretion in not prosecuting journalists, a delicate dance around this 800 pound gorilla loose in the halls of democracy. The government meanwhile has aggressively used the Espionage Act to prosecute the whistleblowers who leaked to those same journalists.


    The closest things came to throwing a journalist in jail was in 2014, when the Obama administration subpoenaed New York Times reporter James Risen. The government accused former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling of passing classified information to Risen, information it said appeared in his book State of War. After a lower court ordered Risen under threat of jail to testify and disclose his source, the Supreme Court turned down Risen’s appeal, siding with the government in a confrontation between a national security prosecution and an infringement of press freedom. The Supreme Court refused to consider whether there existed a gentlemen’s agreement under the First Amendment for “reporter’s privilege,” an undocumented protection beneath the handful of words in the free press clause.

    In the end the government, fearful of setting the wrong precedent, punted on Risen. Waving the flag over a messy situation, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced “no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail.” Risen wasn’t called to testify and was not punished for publishing classified material, even as the alleged leaker, Jeffrey Sterling, disappeared into jail. To avoid the chance of a clear precedent that might have granted some form of reporter’s privilege under the Constitution, the government stepped away from the fight. The key issues now wait for Julian Assange.


    Should the government prosecute Julian Assange, there are complex legal questions to be answered about who is a journalist and what is publishing in the digital world. There is no debate over whether James Risen is a journalist, and over whether a book is publishing. Glenn Greenwald has written about and placed online classified documents given to him by Edward Snowden, and has never been challenged by the government as a journalist or publisher. Both men enjoy popular support, and work for established media. The elements of fact checking, confirming, curating, redacting, and in writing context around the classified information, were all present in the New York Times’ case with the Pentagon Papers, and are present with American citizens Risen and Greenwald. Definitions and precedent may be forming.

    Assange is an easier target. The government has the chance to mold the legal precedents with such certainty that they may seize this case where they have backed away from others in the long-running war of attrition against free speech and the press.

    Assange isn’t an American. He is unpopular. He has written nothing alongside the millions of documents on Wikileaks, has done no curating or culling, and has redacted little information. Publishing in his case consists of simply uploading what has been supplied to him. It would be easy for the government to frame a case against Assange that set precedent he is not entitled to any First Amendment protections simply by claiming clicking UPLOAD isn’t publishing and Assange isn’t a journalist. The simplest interpretation of the Espionage Act, that Assange willfully transmitted information relating to the national defense without authorization, would apply. Guilty, same as the other canaries in the deep mineshaft of Washington, DC before him, no messy balancing questions to be addressed. And with that, a unique form of online journalism would be squashed.


    And that really, really matters. Wikileaks sidesteps the restraints of traditional journalism. Remember in 2004 the New York Times held the story of George W. Bush’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program until after his reelection. In 2006 the Los Angeles Times suppressed a story on wiretaps of Americans when asked by the NSA. Glenn Greenwald said it plainly: too many journalists work in self-censoring mode, “obsequious journalism.” Meanwhile Assange has made mistakes while broadly showing courage, not restraint, under similar circumstances. The public is better informed because of it.

    Wikileaks’ version of journalism says here are the cables, the memos, and the emails. Others can write about them (and nearly every mainstream media outlet has used Wikileaks to do that, some even while calling Assange a traitor), or you as a citizen can simply read the stuff yourself and make up your own damn mind. That is the root of an informed public, through a set of tools never before available until Assange and Internet created them.

    If Assange becomes the first successful prosecution of a third party, as a journalist or not, under the Espionage Act, the government can turn that precedent into a weapon to attack the media’s role in any national security case. On the other hand, if Assange can leave London for asylum in Ecuador, that will empower new journalists to provide evidence when a government serves its people poorly and has no interest in being held accountable.

    Freedom is never static. It either advances under our pressure, or recedes under theirs. I support Julian Assange.




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    Julian Assange and the Future of a Free Press (Long Form)

    July 18, 2018 // 4 Comments »



    This weekend I joined a number of people including Dan Ellsberg, John Kiriakou, Scott Horton, and Caitlin Johnstone in a 38 hours online vigil in support of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange. People ask why I did it, because Julian Assange and his Wikileaks organization are at best imperfect in who they are and what they do. But those imperfections are both of interest and do not matter. Supporting him transcends him, because the battle over the prosecution of Assange is where the future of free speech and a free press in the digital age will be decided. Even if you think Assange doesn’t matter, those things do.

    Supporting Julian Assange and Wikileaks is complicated. In 2010 a hero to then-opponents of American imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan while being labeled by others as an enemy of the state for working with whistleblower Chelsea Manning, today most of Assange’s former supporters from the left see him as a enemy of the state for allegedly working with Vladimir Putin to leak the Democratic National Committee emails. Many who opposed Assange’s work from the right now support him for helping defeat Hillary Clinton. Assange is a traitor who runs from justice, or a journalist, or a hero, or a spy, or some Frankenstein with elements of all of the above. And while I’ve never met Assange, I’ve spoken to multiple people who know him well, and the words generous, warm, or personable rarely are included in their descriptions.

    Assange’s biography is challenging to even his staunchest supporters. After Wikileaks’ release of a half million highly classified documents in 2010, including evidence of war crimes and thousands of State Department internal cables, Assange was accused of sexual assault in Sweden under ambiguous circumstances. He was questioned there, but never charged or arrested, and left for the UK. The Swedes decided to continue their investigation, but instead of exercising options via Interpol to question Assange in the UK, instead insisted their inquiries could only be made on Swedish soil and requested the UK return Assange against his will. The British arrested Assange, though he was released on bail. Fearing the whole thing was a set-up to extradite him to the U.S. via Sweden, Assange jumped bail. Fearing the same faux process would see Britain send him to the U.S., Assange then obtained asylum, and later citizenship, from the Ecuadorian embassy in London. After claiming for years they could never interview him outside of Sweden, the Swedes reversed themselves and interviewed Assange in London in 2016. They soon dropped the charges. Britain meanwhile still plans to arrest Assange for failing to appear in court for an eight year old case that basically no longer exists, and will not assure him safe passage out of the UK. Assange has been living inside the Ecuadorian embassy for over five years.

    Contrary to popular belief, embassies are not the sovereign territory of their owners. However, the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations codified a custom that has been in place for centuries when it established the “rule of inviolability.” This prohibits local police from entering an embassy for any purpose without the permission of the ambassador. This is why Assange is safe from arrest as long as he stays within the walls of the Ecuadorian embassy, and of course in their good graces.

    The idea of a lengthy stay inside an embassy for asylum is not new. The longest such episode was that of Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who spent 15 years inside the American Embassy in Budapest, protected from the Soviet Union. In 1978 Russian Pentecostalists broke into the American Embassy in Moscow, demanding protection from religious persecution. They lived in the embassy basement for five years before a deal sent them to Israel. In 1989, Chinese dissident Fang Li-zhi resided in the American Embassy in Beijing for a year before being allowed to travel to the United States. More recently, in 2012, blind Chinese dissident Chen Guang-cheng spent six days in the American Embassy in Beijing, before then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton negotiated his safe passage to the U.S. The irony is in all those incidents, the United States was the protector. America today instead looks petty and mean standing alongside Soviet Russia and Communist China in pressing hard against one man aside the broader wave of history.

    Should some process deliver Assange into American custody, he would be charged under the Espionage Act, a 1917 law used aggressively by the Obama administration to prosecute whistleblowers, including Chelsea Manning, and by the Trump administration to prosecute whistleblower Reality Winner. Under the Act, Assange would be prohibited from offering a “public interest” defense; his unauthorized possession of classified materials alone would ensure a guilty verdict, in that the Act does not distinguish between possession for journalistic purposes to inform the public, and possession say with the intent to hand over secrets to Russian intelligence. Assange, as with the others prosecuted under the Espionage Act (Edward Snowden would face similar circumstances on trial in America), would be found guilty and simultaneously be denied the chance to defend himself based on a free speech/public interest defense. The Espionage Act was created long before anyone coined the phrase Catch-22, but it seemed to have that spirit in mind.

    But support for Assange, as for Snowden and other whistleblowers yet unnamed, is due because the stakes go far beyond one person’s rights and freedoms. What happens to Julian Assange will set precedent regarding free speech, freedom of the press, and the publication of classified and suppressed documents in pursuit of an informed public and representative accountability for many years to come.

    The Espionage Act has a sordid history, having once been used against the government’s political opponents. Targets included labor leaders and radicals like Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood, Philip Randolph, Victor Berger, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Emma Goldman. Debs, a union leader and socialist candidate for the presidency, was, in fact, sentenced to 10 years in jail for a speech attacking the Espionage Act itself. The Nixon administration infamously (and unsuccessfully) invoked the Act to bar the New York Times from continuing to publish the classified Pentagon Papers.

    Assange poses a dilemma for the United States in its ongoing push-pull in balancing the power of the government to protect classified information (rightly or wrongly), the clear guarantees to free speech and a free press in the First Amendment, and the broader concept of the need for an informed populace to challenge their government and make a peoples’ democracy work in practice.

    At what point does the need for the people to know outweigh any laws allowing the government to keep it from view, such that someone may expose information, despite its classification? If punishment appears necessary, should the thief be punished, should the journalist who publishes it be punished, or should neither, or should both? The questions become acute in the digital age, where physical documents no longer need to be copied one-by-one, and where publishing is far removed from the traditions, obstacles, safeguards, backdoor pressures, self-restraint, and occasional deep subject matter knowledge of traditional journalism.

    A complex and at times ambiguous history precedes Assange. In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the classified Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. The Papers were a 7,000 page classified history of the Vietnam War prepared under the order of then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. We know now McNamara, while publicly supporting the war, was privately consumed by doubt, and ordered the Papers written as his act of contrition.

    The risks for journalists were huge — no one had ever published such classified documents before, and the senior staff at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act. The Nixon administration found a court to order the Times to cease publication after an initial flurry of excerpts were printed in June 1971, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper. Things got so dicey the Times’ outside counsel actually quit the night before his first appearance in court, claiming the newspaper, his own client, had indeed broken the law.

    Despite such pessimism, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark victory for the First Amendment in New York Times Company v. United States. The Times won the Pulitzer Prize. Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act, though his case was dismissed for gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering without the underlying issues being addressed, most prominently Ellsberg’s defense he was morally compelled to leak the classified information to the Times, claiming “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public.”

    But looking at the Times case through the lens of Wikileaks, University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck is careful to point out “Although the First Amendment separately protects the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, the Supreme Court has long refused to give any separate substantive content to the Press Clause above and apart from the Speech Clause… The Supreme Court has never suggested that the First Amendment might protect a right to disclose national security information. Yes, the Pentagon Papers case rejected a government effort to enjoin publication, but several of the Justices in their separate opinions specifically suggested that the government could prosecute the New York Times and the Washington Post after publication, under the Espionage Act.”

    In its simplest form, the Supreme Court left the door open for the government to prosecute both the leaker who takes the documents (by dismissing the case without setting a precedent) and the journalists who publish them (by focusing narrowly on prohibiting the government from exercising prior restraint.)

    What has happened since has been little more than a very delicate dance around the 800 pound gorilla in the halls of democracy. The government has aggressively prosecuted whistleblowers under the Espionage Act (The Obama administration prosecuted eight whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, more than all previous presidential administrations combined) while choosing not to prosecute journalists for publishing what the whistleblowers hand over to them.

    In one of the first of a series of attempts to make journalists reveal their sources, former Fox News reporter Mike Levine stated the Justice Department persuaded a federal grand jury to subpoena him in January 2011. The demand was that he reveal his sources for a 2009 story about Somali-Americans who were secretly indicted in Minneapolis for joining an al-Qaeda-linked group in Somalia. Levine fought the order and the Department of Justice finally dropped it without comment in April 2012. Call it a failed test case.

    The closest things came to throwing a journalist in jail over classified information was in 2014, when Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder gave federal prosecutors permission to subpoena New York Times reporter James Risen regarding a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. The government accused former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling of passing classified information to Risen, information it said appeared in his 2006 book State of War. Holder issued the subpoena in line with his July 2013 Department of Justice guidelines on seeking information from the news media. That guidance sought to circumvent a court precedent being set by providing limited, discretionary protection for the media in some civil and criminal proceedings following scandals involving the DOJ seizing phone records and emails of reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News.

    Risen refused to comply with the subpoena, which would have required him to disclose his source. After a lower court ordered Risen under threat of jail time to testify, the Supreme Court in June 2014 turned down Risen’s appeal. That left him facing a choice to reveal his source or go to jail. The Court’s one-line order gave no reasons but effectively sided with the government in a confrontation between securing evidence in a national security prosecution and an intolerable infringement of press freedom. The Supreme Court refused to consider whether there existed a sort of gentlemen’s agreement under the First Amendment for “reporter’s privilege,” an undocumented protection beneath the handful of words in the free press clause. By not making a new decision, the Court effectively upheld the existing decision by a federal appeals court finding that the Constitution does not give journalists special protection from the law.

    That decision was more or less in line with the ambiguous way the Supreme Court has always looked at the unwritten special protections for journalists. The only real ruling on what special rights the media may hold under the free press clause came in 1972, in Branzburg v. Hayes. The Court decided reporters were not shielded from grand jury subpoenas, asserting judges must strike a “proper balance between freedom of the press and the obligation of all citizens to give relevant testimony.” From time to time lower courts have chosen to interpret that phrase as meaning there is indeed some sort of unwritten balancing test concerning the media, while other courts have read the same words to mean media should be compelled to testify.

    In the end of the Risen case, the government, fearful of setting the wrong precedent and confident it otherwise had the evidence to convict Jeffrey Sterling, punted. Waving the flag noblely over a messy situation, Attorney General Holder announced “As long as I am attorney general, no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail.” Federal prosecutors asked the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia to “exclude James Risen as an unavailable witness” and said the jury “should draw no inferences, favorable or unfavorable” based on his absence as a witness.

    Risen didn’t testify, and was not punished for publishing classified material by the government’s choice to back away from his case. The alleged leaker, Jeffrey Sterling, was thrown into jail for over two years. In 2015 Google turned over the Gmail account and metadata of a WikiLeaks employee in response to a federal warrant.

    No court precedent was set. The door was left open. To avoid a clear precedent that would grant journalists a reporter’s privilege under the Constitution, the government stepped away from the fight. While the balancing question of the “public interest” has been poked at in other contexts, no one has shown where the balancing point is between the government’s need to protect information, a citizen’s right to expose information, and the media’s right to publish it. That all waits for Julian Assange.

    Should the government bring Espionage Act charges against Julian Assange, there are complex legal questions to be answered about what if any First Amendment protections if any apply. Assange is not an American citizen and was not under U.S. jurisdiction when his actions regarding classified documents occurred. Is the fact that Wikileaks’ servers reside outside the United States and thus outside the protections of the First Amendment controlling, or does cyberspace lack such boundaries? By the way they chose to bring their case, government attorneys can influence how legal precedent is set on those matters. And if the United States can prosecute someone under those circumstances, any other government could demand foreign reporters anywhere on earth be extradited for violating their laws.

    The question also exists of who is a journalist and what is publishing in the digital world where thousands of files can be uploaded to a site instead of waiting for printing presses to run off copies. There is no debate over whether James Risen is a journalist, and over whether producing a book is publishing. Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and The Intercept, who have for years been writing about and placing online highly classified documents given to them by Edward Snowden, have never been challenged by the government as “journalists” or “publishers.” The elements of fact checking, confirming, curating, redacting, and in writing context around the classified information, were present in the New York Times’ case with the Pentagon Papers, and are present with Risen and Greenwald, et al. All involved are American citizens.

    Almost none of that applies to Assange. He has written nothing alongside the millions of documents on Wikileaks, has done no curating or culling, and has redacted information at times and not at others. Publishing in his case consists of simply uploading what has been supplied to him to a website. It would be easy for the government to frame a case against Assange that set precedent he is not entitled to any First Amendment or reporter’s privilege protections whatever they may be — clicking UPLOAD isn’t publishing and Assange isn’t a journalist. The simplest interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 793(e) in the Espionage Act, that Assange willfully transmitted information relating to the national defense without authorization would apply. Guilty, same almost all of the leakers, whistleblowers, data thieves, hackers, and other canaries in the deep mineshaft of Washington, DC before him.

    And that really, really matters. Wikileaks sidestepped the restraints of traditional journalism to bring the raw material of history to the people. Never mind whether or not a court determined disclosure of secret NSA programs which spied on Americans disclosure was truly in the public interest. Never mind the New York Times got a phone call from the President and decided not to publish something. Never mind how senior government officials are allowed to selectively leak information helpful to themselves. Never mind what parts of an anonymous technical disclosure a reporter understood well enough to write about, here are the cables, the memos, the emails, the archives themselves. Others can write summaries and interpretations if they wish (and nearly every mainstream media outlet has used Wikileaks to do that, some even while calling Assange and his sources traitors), or you as an individual can simply read the stuff yourself and make up your own damn mind about what the government is doing. Fact checks? There are the facts themselves in front of you. That is the root of an informed public, through a set of tools and freedoms never before available until the Wikileaks and Internet created them.

    Allowing these new tools to be broken over the meaning of the words journalist and publishing will stifle all of the press. If Assange becomes the first successful prosecution of a third party under the Espionage Act, the government can then turn that precedent into a weapon to aggressively attack the media’s role in say national security leaks. Is a reporter, for example, publishing a Signal number and asking for government employees to leak to her in fact soliciting people to commit national security felonies? Will media employees have to weigh for themselves the potential public interest, hoping to avoid prosecution if they differ from the government’s opinion? The government in the case of Assange may see the chance to mold the legal precedents with such certainty that they will seize this chance where they have backed away from others. The Assange case may prove to be the topper in a long-running war of attrition against free speech.

    In mid-2004, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau uncovered George W. Bush’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program, but the New York Times held the story for 15 months, until after Bush’s reelection. Executives at the Times were told by administration officials that if they ran the story, they’d be helping terrorists. They accepted that. In 2006 the Los Angeles Times similarly gave in to the NSA and suppressed a story on government wiretaps of Americans. Glenn Greenwald said it plainly: too many journalists have gone into a self-censoring mode, practicing “obsequious journalism.”

    Assange, and those who follow him in this new paradigm of journalism and publishing, have made mistakes while broadly showing courage, not restraint, under similar circumstances and the public is better informed because of it. In the words of one commentator, “WikiLeaks liberates the right to free speech from authorities that restrict access.” Along the way the 2007 release of the Kroll report on official corruption in Kenya affected a national election, while in 2009 Wikileaks exposed the moral bankruptcy of Iceland’s banks. A 2011 Amnesty International report pointed to the role of leaked documents in triggering revolutionary global uprisings. The BBC said Wikileaks revelations were a spark for the Arab spring.

    “This is the biggest free speech battle of our lifetimes,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This is the moment when we will see whether publishers can continue to freely distribute truthful political information online.”

    I support Assange because he is someone who fell into a place and time where crucial decisions will be made. Allowing Assange to speak now, and to travel unfettered to Ecuador and permanent asylum will allow others after him to continue to provide evidence when a government serves its people poorly and has no interest in being held accountable. Prosecution of Julian Assange can only come from a nation which fears the noise of democracy and prefers the silence of compliance.



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    Thomas Jefferson’s Ghost Visits the White House

    July 4, 2018 // 33 Comments »

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    (Replaying an old favorite blog post for this July 4th…)

    “Who the hell are you?” said a startled Barack Obama, clad only in his Kenyan flag boxers.

    “Easy Barack, chill. Wait, sleeping alone? Awkward. Anyway, I’m Thomas Jefferson, or at least his ghost. Every once in awhile I get bored haunting the attic at the White House and come down to visit, see how the wonderful democracy we created is doing. Add any new rights to our Bill of Rights recently?”

    “Um, it sort of hasn’t gone that way. Except maybe for the Second Amendment, lots of solid growth there,” said Obama.

    “Yes, yes, even upstairs we’ve heard the gunshots. You realize we intended that so Americans would be ready to serve as citizen-soldiers when called up to form militias, right? We never wanted a large standing army, and figured if every stout yeoman farmer retained a musket that would pretty much cover it. I’ll check my notes, but I am pretty sure we never intended the Second to end up arming unhindered homophobic maniacs, or angry white guys who hate abortion in the name of a Christian God, with bazookas.”

    “Sure, Tom, we may have made a misstep or two, but we had a couple of Democrats stage a sit in on the House floor to demand gun control,” said Obama.

    “Hmmm. Sitting down when they should be standing up for something? And why weren’t you with them, Barack?”

    “Um, I had Hamilton tickets, couldn’t make it.”

    “Oh, jeez, Hamilton, again. Where the hell’s my musical? Anyway, how are the rest of the Amendments doing?” Jefferson said.

    “Well, Tom, we had to make a few… adjustments. Time of war and all.”

    “Good God, did a foreign army invade Boston? Damned Canadian troops cross the border? British Men o’ War in New York harbor? What is this war?”

    “Well, 15 years ago some guys killed about half as many Americans who have died in the wars we started since then. That’s kinda it, really,” said Obama. “Been basically riffing off that ever since.”

    “And?”

    “And so we pretty much trashed the Fourth Amendment and now spy on all Americans 24/7. The First Amendment, especially the right to free speech part, that hasn’t held up well, either,” said Obama. “And you have to take your shoes off at the airport but none of us remember why that is anymore.”

    “But Barack, a well-informed citizenry, secure in their persons and papers, who can assemble to speak truth to their government is essential,” Jefferson said. “Actually, that’s kinda the whole thing.”

    “Sure, we have free speech zones at all the big events now, and CNN holds TV townhalls with pre-selected questions. Got that covered. But don’t ask me about due process. I kinda kill American citizens abroad with drones now. Yeah, so there’s that. You know what a mic drop is, Thomas?”

    “OK, OK, I glanced at a newspaper on my way down here, and at least there is some good news. I see that you finally corrected the biggest mistake we made with the Constitution, and got rid of slavery. Indeed, I see now that most Americans are even saying how much Black Lives Matter. That is a very nice sentiment,” Jefferson said.

    “Thomas, maybe you better sit down and I’ll explain…”

     

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    The First (Terms of Service) Amendment

    November 10, 2017 // 4 Comments »

    The First Amendment must catch up with the 21st century. What we say on Twitter and elsewhere online is too important to be governed by a Terms of Service agreement.

    I recently wrote about how the Ohio State University is preventing white supremacist Richard Spencer from speaking on campus. Despite falling under the First Amendment, Ohio State is looking for a legal loophole to block speech it doesn’t agree with.

    The semi-comforting news is that Ohio State’s face slap to the First Amendment is subject to legal challenge. Not so in the cyberspace-based public square of the 21st century. What should be the modern arena of diverse ideas is instead controlled by corporations and their self-written Terms of Service. Hiding behind the bushes of private ownership, the quasi-public forums on Twitter, Facebook, Google, and their predecessors and successors skirt the First Amendment to control what people say, read, and by extension, think. They are the censors the Founding Fathers feared. It is hard to imagine a more significant threat to the free exchange of ideas.

    It is time to expand the First Amendment to quasi-public institutions.

    The scope of the First Amendment has regularly expanded. In the earliest days of the Republic the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal, and not any state or local governments. It wasn’t until the post-Civil War incorporation doctrine, followed by court cases well into the 20th century, that those restraints on government applied equally to the states. In its own founding days Ohio State could have easily banned a speaker for his beliefs.

    Actually, Ohio State might have been able to ban a speaker it found offensive until even more recently. It wasn’t until a 1995 case that the Supreme Court held a university’s choices on funding student publications fell under the First Amendment’s obligation not to discriminate against particular viewpoints. Other expansions of the First Amendment took place in the 1950s, when the Supreme Court extended protection to non-traditional “political” speech, including nudity and advertising.

    The First Amendment grows with the times, and needs to do so again to take in what Justice Anthony Kennedy called the “vast democratic forums of the internet in general, and social media in particular.”

    The problem is that those forums today enjoy the freedom to suppress what once were inalienable rights.

    When you use various web sites, you agree to a dense set of conditions, Terms of Service, along with the understanding that Twitter (we’ll use them as shorthand for the range of sites and apps) can interpret things as they wish. So while the Supreme Court continues to hold the line against banning “hate speech,” Twitter is free to apply any standard wishes, along any political or ideological lines it wishes. Twitter may ban speech acting as an arm of the government, skirting the First Amendment because it can.

    That appears to have been what happened with Twitter’s decision to ban advertising from Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik. Both have been accused via a hazy intelligence community assessment of influencing the 2016 presidential election. While the federal government is stuck with that creaky old First Amendment preventing it from chasing RT and Sputnik back to Moscow, Twitter can — literally with a Tweet — silence them. Twitter quickly followed the Russian action with a decision to ban whatever it thinks are “violent groups and hateful imagery and hate symbols.” In the same week Twitter suspended the account of conservative Roger Stone. No explanation was given, though the suspension appears to be related to Stone’s angry Tweets directed at CNN.

    My own Twitter suspension occurred in the process of defending myself against several antifa people who conflated my defense of free speech in the broadest terms with what they believed was my personal support for nazi hatred. Their threats to “punch nazis” lead me to respond. My response was deemed by Twitter incitement to violence (though it would never meet the actual definition of that term the Supreme Court established) and I got the boot. When suspended, Twitter still allows you to read your timeline, so I could see attacks continue until the antifa people tired of it all. I could not block them or respond in any way. It felt a lot like five big guys holding me down while a bully whacked away.

    Google has quietly implemented censorship in the most well-intentioned way possible: to stop child predators. The internet giant tweaked its English-language search results to block sites it believes link to child pornography. “We will soon roll out these changes in more than 150 languages, so the impact will be truly global,” the company claims.

    While no one can argue against stopping child predators, those same tools can be used in other ways, known as the search engine manipulation effect. Generally, the higher an item appears on a list of search results, the more users will click on it. Research shows putting links for one candidate above another in a rigged search can increase the number of undecided voters who chose one candidate by 12% or more.

    Burying a link can have a similar effect. Google highlighting an OpEd that argues one way to the query “What is Trump’s Russia policy?” while leaving an opposing opinion out of the search results is a critical free speech issue of our time. A current Google search for “greatest president of the 20th century,” for example, highlights a brisk historical debate over Ronald Reagan versus Franklin Roosevelt, and brings up over 300,000 sites. What if it yielded only one? America would never accept government issuing a list of approved books for dead tree libraries few use anymore, but blithely accepts the same from the most-used research tool in human history.

    Technology has changed the nature of censorship so that free speech in 2017 is not as much about finding a place to speak, but about finding an audience. Censorship in the 21st century targets speakers (example: Twitter) and listeners (Google.) There will soon be no fear that anyone will lock up dissident thinkers in some old-timey prison to silence them; impose a new Terms of Service and they are effectively dead.

    The arguments that Twitter and Google are private companies, that no one forces you to use their services, and in fact you are free to switch to MySpace and Bing, are tired attempts to justify end runs around the First Amendment. Platforms like Twitter are the public squares of the 21st century (seven of 10 American adults used a social media site in 2016), and should be governed by the same principles, or the First Amendment will become largely irrelevant.

    Pretending a corporation with the global reach to influence elections is just another company is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Absent a court decision that places quasi-public forums under the First Amendment, we face a future that will splinter debate and discussion into a myriad of ideological-based platforms such that no one will be listening to anyone they do not already support. It will be a future where Twitter and Ohio State protect students from the words of Richard Spencer at the expense of teaching them how to challenge those words.

     

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    Safety or Liberty? The Constitution Says We Can Have Both

    October 31, 2017 // 3 Comments »



    Certain things used to be more, well, self-evident. A great many of us didn’t necessarily like, but understood, the First Amendment protected some speech we strongly disagreed with, or some speech that even made us afraid. We accepted there was an often uncomfortable duty to protect the right to speech irrespective of its content. We understood if we allowed government and institutions to block one person’s speech, even someone with terrible ideas, they could block others. Right up to when they came for us.

    Then a collective mental breakdown took place in November 2016, and an almost organic sense that overnight America set itself on the path to fascism became the justification for the weakening of the First Amendment. Free speech is now seen by many as a liability, an enabling tool for anyone one might label a “nazi.” Some 69% of American college students believe hate speech (“Using language on campus that is intentionally offensive to certain groups”) should be banned by the government. It is an increasingly common point of view that taking away someone’s right to speak, a tool of fascism, somehow protects against the encroach of fascism.

    And so welcome to The Ohio State University, which has refused to allow white supremacist Richard Spencer to speak on campus November 15.

    The attorney representing Ohio State said Spencer would pose a “substantial risk to public safety, as well as material and substantial disruption to the work and discipline of the University.” Ohio State was no doubt also thinking of the $600,000 the University of Florida claimed it cost to provide security for Spencer’s recent appearance there. The Florida response included hundreds of police officers from five jurisdictions, as well as SWAT teams and snipers.

    Both Ohio State and Penn State (also denying Spencer the chance to speak) are being sued for violating the First Amendment. Without explanation, nearby University of Cincinnati will allow Spencer to speak.

    The law does not appear to be on Ohio State’s side. Blocking a speaker to protect public safety is an absolute last resort, and some risk to safety is part of the cost of the unfettered speech a democracy needs to thrive. Freedom, it seems, really is not free. The security costs are in fact to protect the First Amendment in broad practice, not simply one man in the specific.

    The security problems Ohio State cites are not created by the speaker; they are created by the mob expected to oppose the speaker and on the assumption Spencer’s supporters will fight back. A historian lecturing across campus from Spencer on Babylonian art needs no police presence. Allowing the mob to have the final word on who speaks can in fact help create mobs where none otherwise exist. Placing a dollar test on free speech means it is only available to those who can afford it.

    These questions are not new. Public safety has been long (mis)-used to silence. The town of Urbana, Illinois arrested someone burning an American flag (an act long-held to be a form of protected speech) claiming he was in danger from bystanders. Similar thinking has been used to deny permits for civil rights marches, with law enforcement saying they could not protect the protestors. Both sides in the abortion debate have used this argument as well outside clinics.

    While institutions do have an obligation to public safety, that obligation must be balanced against the public’s greater right to engage with free speech. The answer is rarely to ban speech outright simply to maintain order. One landmark case from 2015 provides some of the clearest guidance yet:

    “When a peaceful speaker, whose message is constitutionally protected, is confronted by a hostile crowd, the state may not silence the speaker as an expedient alternative to containing or snuffing out the lawless behavior of the rioting individuals. Nor can an officer sit idly on the sidelines — watching as the crowd imposes, through violence, a tyrannical majoritarian rule — only later to claim that the speaker’s removal was necessary for his or her own protection. Uncontrolled official suppression of the privilege [of free speech] cannot be made a substitute for the duty to maintain order in connection with the exercise of that right.”

    The case involved a group called the Bible Believers who used crude langauge (“Turn or Burn”) at an LGBTQ gathering. The judges continued in their opinion allowing the Bible Believers to speak:

    “We do not presume to dictate to law enforcement precisely how it should maintain the public order. But in this case, there were a number of easily identifiable measures that could have been taken short of removing the speaker: e.g., increasing police presence in the immediate vicinity, as was requested; erecting a barricade for free speech, as was requested; arresting or threatening to arrest more of the law breakers, as was also requested. We simply cannot accept Defendants’ position that they were compelled to abridge constitutional rights for the sake of public safety, when at the same time the lawless adolescents who caused the risk with their assaultive behavior were left unmolested.”

    The belief law enforcement, or any institution, can turn first to shutting down speech that requires physical protection, has failed other courts’ tests in cases are diverse as Occupy and where a Christian group brought a pig’s head to a Muslim Arts festival.

    I spent four years as an undergrad at Ohio State, and saw first-hand how the university can protect the free speech rights of a diverse group of speakers. A former member of the Black Panther party spoke in favor of racial violence. My time on campus was an era of fights for LGBTQ and other rights, and I saw massive police turnouts to protect gays marching across campus, and for a women’s “Take Back the Night” march through rough neighborhoods. Iranian students massed for anti-American demonstrations at a time when U.S. diplomats were being held hostage in Tehran. Meanwhile, Ohio State every other Saturday in the fall deploys a massive security presence for home football games, where the crowd rises above 100,000, multiples past who might show up to protest Spencer. Events likely to cause hardship to passersby are well-advertised, and students know to avoid them if they wish. Such events, past and current, clearly created the same “material and substantial disruption to the work and discipline of the University” that Ohio State fears Spencer will bring but were allowed anyway.

    And Ohio State knows things worked out smoothly last fall, in fact just days before the election, when the school welcomed white supremacist Milo Yiannopoulos to campus.

    Ohio State can do it, they just want to be able to pick and choose when they do it. And that is wrong.

    An institution cannot cite avoiding public disruption as the initial or sole reason to restrict speech. The problems of having Richard Spencer, or anyone, speak on campus are outweighed by the obligation to protect free speech. Getting rid of the speaker is expedient but unconstitutional. Maintenance of the peace should not be achieved at the expense of the free speech. It’s pretty much self-evident.




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    Facebook and the Public Square

    June 22, 2017 // 13 Comments »




    In what is likely to be a more controversial decision, the same Supreme Court session that confirmed hate speech is protected speech also struck down a law that made it a crime for registered sex offenders to use Facebook and other social media.

    Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority in Packingham v. North Carolina , said the web is now part of “the modern public square.” Denying access to it, he wrote, violates the First Amendment.

    “By prohibiting sex offenders from using those websites, North Carolina with one broad stroke bars access to what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge,” Kennedy wrote.

    The case touches on another snowflake battlecry, that private concerns like Facebook are not the government, and thus not subject to the First Amendment. Such thinking is being double-plus used as a work-around to prohibit speech that offends certain groups. So, while say a public university funded by the government must under the First Amendment allow a nazi to speak, a private company like Facebook can set it own rules and prohibit any speech it wishes.

    The importance of the ruling is in its forward-looking perspective. The ruling does not address the question of whether or not Facebook can ban certain speech directly, but does confirm the idea that entities like Facebook, by their size and prominence, take on a larger role in our society (i.e., the “modern public square”) that cannot be ignored. One can easily imagine Justice Kennedy’s opinion used in a future case challenging Facebook or some other private entity’s restrictions on speech.


    And despite the willingness of many to try and dilute the ideas of free speech by citing the public-private divide, the Supreme Court is really doing little more here than enforcing the very old concept that free speech runs deeper than the Bill of Rights. It’s as much a philosophical argument as a legal one, not a bad thing for a nation founded on a set of ideas (and ideals.)

    Free speech in America is an unalienable right, and goes as deep into the concept of a free society as any idea can. Though cited as far back as 1689 in England, the American version of all this was laid out most clearly by Thomas Jefferson, in the mighty Declaration of Independence, where he wrote of rights that flowed from his notion of The Creator, not from government, and thus were fixed. Abetting free speech is an obligation in a democracy in general.

    Jefferson’s invocation of the Creator is understood now as less that free speech is heaven-sent and more that it is something that exists before and after our time. Government thus did not give us the right to free speech and therefore cannot take it away. The First Amendment simply codifies that latter part, laying out like much of the Bill of Rights what the government cannot do.

    So the argument that the First Amendment does not necessarily apply to all speech (such as that which takes place on private property) can be both true and irrelevant at the same time, and the latter is more important.



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    The War on the First Amendment Didn’t Start Last Week

    May 11, 2017 // 49 Comments »

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    For those who woke a week ago to discover the First Amendment is under attack, I lost my job at the Obama/Clinton State Department in 2012 for writing We Meant Well, a book the government did not like, and needed the help of lawyer Jesselyn Radack and the ACLU to push back the threat of jail.


    My book was critical of actions in Iraq under both the Obama and Bush administrations. One helped protect the other.

    Braver people than me, like Thomas Drake, Morris Davis, and Robert MacLean, risked imprisonment and lost their government jobs for talking to the press about government crimes and malfeasance. John Kiriakou, Chelsea Manning, and Jeff Sterling went to jail for speaking to/informing the press. The Obama administration tried to prosecute reporters from Fox and the New York Times for stories on government wrongdoing.

    Ray Maxwell at the State Department went public with information about Clinton’s email malfeasance before you had even heard of her private server. The media called him a liar, an opportunist, and a political hack and he was pressed into retirement.


    Indeed, Obama prosecuted more federal whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous United States presidents combined, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

    The Obama administration also set a record (77%) for redacting government files or denying access to them in fiscal year 2014 under the Freedom of Information Act.

    More than any previous administration, Obama took longer to turn over files, said more often it could not locate documents, and refused a record number of times to turn over time-sensitive files quickly, requiring years-long legal actions to be brought to force the government’s hand. In the case of Hillary Clinton, files considered “unclassified” in one context were redacted in whole in another.

    Though the backlog of unanswered requests grew by 55%, the administration cut the number of full-time Freedom of Information Act employees by 7.5%. Despite the critical nature of the documents to the election, the State Department was allowed to do its Freedom of Information Act screening of the Clinton emails largely with an ad hoc crew of retirees. The impact on journalists, and the right of the people to know, was immeasurable.


    So spare me. The war on our freedoms was well under way before last week. Where the hell were you and your safety pins then?




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    ProPublica Attacks First Amendment, Cloudflare Edition

    May 8, 2017 // 12 Comments »



    You’re almost certainly interacting with Cloudflare right now. Feel OK?

    Cloudflare is a web services company that, among other things, protects sites against various malicious attacks and hacks. They don’t “host” data in most cases, but work as a kind of middleman between you and the server out there somewhere on the web that has the actual data. Cloudflare processes more web traffic than Twitter, Amazon, Apple, Instagram, and Wikipedia combined, because it handles data for most of those places at the same time. On average, you have interacted with a Cloudflare service 500 times today. This blog uses Cloudflare, as does the FBI, OKCupid and The Daily Stormer.

    You may not be as familiar with The Daily Stormer, but it is a nasty white supremacist site. They feature all sorts of hate, with a particular focus on anti-Semitism. Real garbage. But garbage fully protected under America’s long tradition of free speech (and yes, I understand the legal side of the First Amendment applies to government and not private businesses, but the broader concept of free speech underlies every democracy and has been the cornerstone of our inalienable rights in America. America at its best has always sought ways to broaden speech and access to ideas, not game ways to block them.)


    Yet in another example of assault on free speech from the left, investigative journalists ProPublica are now “outing” Cloudflare for providing business services to The Daily Stormer.

    ProPublica writes:

    The operations of such extreme sites [The Daily Stormer] are made possible, in part, by an otherwise very mainstream internet company — Cloudflare. The widespread use of Cloudflare’s services by racist groups is not an accident. Cloudflare has said it is not in the business of censoring websites and will not deny its services to even the most offensive purveyors of hate.

    The wording, implying Cloudflare has some special affinity for racist groups, is noted.


    Though it only cites three specific cases, ProPublica also makes much out of claims that Cloudflare, in accordance with its policies, forwarded content-related complaints about The Daily Stormer it received to the site itself. Apparently persons offended by Stormer’s speech wrote to Cloudflare demanding censorship. The complaintants felt their voluntary, public demand, to include their real names and contact information, demanding censorship, should itself be kept top secret from those they wished to censor.

    The idea is that (three) people offended by The Daily Stormer sought to shut the site down by threatening the “printer,” Cloudflare, who conveys information in a content neutral fashion. ProPublica is in favor of this.

    Of course shutting down printing presses to prevent the spread of ideas is old-school fascism. Sad to see a group like ProPublica, which thrives under the broader ideals of unfettered speech, trying to do away with such protections for others.

    I also guess as journalists ProPublica are unfamiliar with the trial of Peter Zenger, where, in pre-revolutionary America the government tried to punish a printer Peter Zenger for printing something offensive someone else wrote. Defended by Alexander Hamilton, Zenger was found not guilty. The trial is seen as the beginnings of what became our mighty First Amendment, and a significant victory for free speech. It established the precedent that you can’t shut down a means of conveyance of speech as a backdoor way to censor speech.



    Now, c’mon, I get it.

    Actually, ProPublica is familiar with the Zenger trial, citing its precedents on libel in a November 2016 article regarding fears that then President-Elect Trump might threaten parts of the First Amendment.

    ProPublica are smart people, and they understand the Zenger case and they understand the root value of free speech in America. But they are trying to be clever, talking fast to the rubes on the left who suddenly “woke” to allow their prejudices to be manipulated. It’s fundraising time, and groups like ProPublica know the money right now is to be made not in content-free defense of free speech, but in being seen as part of The Resistance.

    They know in the Age of Trump no progressive is going to stand up for the rights of unpopular speakers on the right, even though real progressives know that’s the pure thing to do in our democracy and always has been. Nope, the good guys are going to look down at their shoes and mumble mumble when these tough issues arise, say something about “means to an end” and the “greater good” and allow once stalwart defenders of liberty like ProPublica to get away with peddling hate in the guise of opposing it.

    Just know not everyone is fooled, and some of us are making notes. And that every call for censorship risks someone returning the favor.



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    How Berkeley and NYU’s Anti-Free Speech Actions are as Unconstitutional as Hell

    May 6, 2017 // 6 Comments »



    Ann Coulter will not speak at Berkeley this week because the threat of mob violence lead campus authorities to claim they could not protect her. The same threats led New York University (NYU) to cancel Milo Yiannopoulos’ appearance in February. These are shameful actions by two universities, and they are unconstitutional as hell.


    Previous violence at Berkeley directed against Yiannopoulos, as well as the current threats, originated with a coalition of so-called antifa’s, anti-fascists, persons who believe in Trump’s America violence to silence speech they do not agree with is justified. They probably are unaware their tactics were once used to silence civil rights marchers, anti-war protesters, abortion rights advocates and the women’s movement. Because the law that now shames Berkeley and NYU comes from earlier efforts to protect those groups’ right to speak.

    The idea that a university cannot assure a speaker’s safety, or that the speaker’s presence may provoke violent protests, or that the institution just doesn’t have to go to the trouble of protecting a controversial speaker, has become the go-to justification for persons on the left restricting speech from the right. Coulter and Yiannopoulos were singled out specifically for the content of their speech, which is indeed offensive to students and faculty who see danger in unpopular ideas. The universities’ actions are not content-neutral, the base requirement to restrict speech.

    But what those offended people think is irrelevant, because the Constitution is clear even when their minds are muddied. While institutions do have an obligation to public safety, that obligation must be balanced against the public’s greater right to engage with free speech. The answer is not to ban speech outright simply to maintain order. But don’t believe me; it’s the law.


    landmark case from 2015 involving a group called the Bible Believers, who used crude language (“Turn or Burn”) at an LGBT event, provides the clearest guidance:

    When a peaceful speaker, whose message is constitutionally protected, is confronted by a hostile crowd, the state may not silence the speaker as an expedient alternative to containing or snuffing out the lawless behavior of the rioting individuals. Nor can an officer sit idly on the sidelines – watching as the crowd imposes, through violence, a tyrannical majoritarian rule – only later to claim that the speaker’s removal was necessary for his or her own protection. Uncontrolled official suppression of the privilege [of free speech] cannot be made a substitute for the duty to maintain order in connection with the exercise of that right.”

    That an institution can shut down speech requiring physical protection has failed court tests in cases are diverse as Occupy protests and a Christian group which brought a pig’s head to an Islamic arts festival. Both sides in the abortion debate have slapped down the need to maintain public order argument outside clinics in defense of their right to speak. Any of those situations is at least as volatile as whatever Ann Coulter has been saying publicly since her first book came out in 1998, or Milo Yiannopoulos’ junior high school level homophobic slurs.

    The court have also long held mobs should not be allowed to exercise the so-called Heckler’s Veto, where whomever can literally “speak” the loudest gets to choose what is said. The natural end of such thinking is mob rule, where Speaker A gets a bigger gang together to shout down the gang Speaker B controls. Or, in Coulter and Yiannopoulos cases, simply threatens to do so.

    Allowing a de facto Heckler’s Veto to keep unpopular speakers from expressing their views, as Berkeley and NYU have basically done, also does damage long past two conservative speakers in April 2017. Allowing the Veto not only stifles a specific idea, but threatens to chill public discourse generally by discouraging others with controversial ideas from sharing them. Who wants to stand up only to be shouted down by a mob while the administration and law enforcement stand aside?


    The most insidious use of the Heckler’s Veto, however, is what has happened at Berkeley and NYU, where the administration allowed people to create a situation that compels law enforcement to shut down a speaker in advance for them, abusing their own freedom to assemble to get the government to stymie someone else’s. The Supreme Court concluded the government’s responsibility in such circumstances is to control those who threaten or act out disruption, rather than sacrifice the speaker’s free speech rights. Berkeley and NYU chose not to comply, even though as recipients of public funds they were required to do so.

    The problems of having Ann Coulter speak on a campus are outweighed by the larger obligation to protect free speech. Getting rid of the speaker may be expedient but it is also unconstitutional. The ACLU knows that, because it took Coulter’s side, as did Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. There are plenty of lawyers working for Berkeley and New York University who know it too, but figure on a liberal campus in front of a sympathetic media they can get away with ignoring it.


    History, and jurisprudence, are not on the universities’ side.

    Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis held people must discuss and criticize unpopular ideas, that free speech is not an abstract virtue but a key element at the heart of a democratic society. Even the fact that speech is likely to result in “violence or in destruction of property is not enough to justify its suppression.” Brandeis concluded “the deterrents to be applied to prevent violence and disruption are education and punishment for violations of the law, not abridgment of free speech.”

    Free speech is not an ends, it is a means, in a democracy. Shame on two of America’s prominent universities for treading on that mighty concept. Free speech is messy, and it is our essential defense against fascism, whether from the left or the right.



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    Am I… Conservative Alt-Right?

    May 3, 2017 // 12 Comments »



    The New York Times took a piece I wrote strongly defending the right to free speech, the raw concept of unfettered speech from a content-neutral position, and called it Right Partisan Writing You Shouldn’t Miss, intended as a compliment.


    What I wrote was directly in line with the absolutist view of free speech and the First Amendment I have always taken: let them speak. Except for the very narrow and specific restrictions on speech defined over the years by the Supreme Court, let them speak. Let good ideas whoop bad ideas. Look for ways to allow more speech, not loopholes that might let an institution get away with silencing a speaker. It is as much of a philosophical argument as a legal one.

    My ideas are not particularly new. They are the same positions taken by the American Civil Liberties Union, and for that matter, most of the modern Supreme Court. I really didn’t invent anything here, though hopefully my version of the idea was neatly typed and well-presented.

    So how did I end up becoming a conservative for defending free speech?

    Though free speech should be an American position, for the most part it has been traditionally associated with progressive politics. Free speech enabled the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, got extreme acts of protest such as flag burning recognized as protected speech, ended silly and law enforcement resource-wasting campaigns against nude photos and naughty song lyrics, and grew alongside egalitarian tools like the Internet to bring all sorts of voices into the public marketplace of ideas.


    Yet in a few short months since Trump’s election, everything seemed to change.

    Some Progressives morphed into “anti-fascists” who believe it is OK to punch someone they deem a “nazi” in the head to silence their speech. Universities which made their political bones via the Free Speech Movement are trying tricks like de-platforming speakers (“You have a right to free speech but we don’t have an obligation to let you speak here.”) Those same people were only last summer raising their voices against so-called Free Speech Zones that fenced protesters off miles from the Republican and Democratic Party Conventions so they could protest to their heart’s delight without anyone hearing them.

    Students at liberal colleges are proud of themselves for shouting down invited speakers who say “offensive things,” and have even convinced themselves such a Heckler’s Vote is a form of free speech itself, instead of old-fashioned brownshirt mob rule. A key debate now is how much wiggle room private and semi-private schools have to get away with denying someone’s First Amendment rights. Some student groups are pleased when they think they’ve figured out a way around the 1A and can block a speaker, forgetting such tricks were used to silence the civil rights movement and women’s groups.

    My article defending the right of all to speak was pushed into “conservative” categories because the example I built the piece around was Ann Coulter at Berkeley. I have never heard Coulter speak. I’ve never read any of her books and to be honest, could care less what she has to say. From some quick Googling, it seems like my politics and Ann’s generally do not agree. And that’s the whole point of course –support her right to speak while not necessarily supporting what she says.

    That now, apparently, has become a right wing position to take. It is indeed a strange world.



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    Crushing Free Speech (Oh, Let’s Save Democracy That Way!)

    March 15, 2017 // 45 Comments »



    I’m not advocating violence. I’m hoping to stop it.

    So this guy beat the crap out of this Black Lives Matter woman; she was spewing out hate speech, really racist stuff, and the guy acted in self-defense. Then some people who opposed Trump’s travel ban started calmly laying out their views on a street corner, and the same guy, who believes deep into his soul that Muslims are a threat to democracy and allowing them into America is a step toward fascism, got a bunch of his buddies together and by sheer force of numbers shouted down the pro-Muslim people, forcing them to run away for fear for their safety.

    Justification? The dude was pretty clear he was just exercising his First Amendment rights, that it was wrong for those protesters to have a platform and hey, he isn’t the government and the 1A only applies to the government, not private acts like his. Sure violence is bad in isolation, but in defense of freedom, well, by any means necessary. While he was beating on the activists, he shouted he “understands the moral and practical limitations of wholly free discourse.”

    After wiping hippie blood of his knuckles, this patriot took to a mainstream media outlet and wrote this:

    But this moment in American politics and American life proves that the victory of reason cannot always be assured. The purveyors of logic, of facts dutifully checked and delivered to the public, lost big league in November. The cost has been an erosion of our national character that we will be powerless to stop unless we fight prejudice wherever it lies. The critics of political correctness have argued that shutting down certain conversations may bear political costs and alienate potential allies. This is a certainty. Morality is alienating. But the costs of being moral have been borne successfully by innumerable movements for social change. This is, to borrow a phrase, a time for choosing.



    You get it yet?


    The actions above, and the quote above, were written by an author for Slate, in justification for the students of Middlebury College, and “activists” elsewhere, using acts like violence and shouting down speakers to stop speech they personally judged as hate and/or offensive or dangerous.

    The latest specific case involved some guy named Charles Murray. I have no idea who he is, but a lot of people say he is a racist so let’s go with that. But I don’t care.

    I simply cannot believe that it is the left, or progressives, or whatever name is best, that are attacking people’s speech. I’ve written extensively about what I call “Post-Constitution America,” an era that started on 9/11 where the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights no longer applied. I never imagined it would play out this way.

    And I know that the 1A does not apply to non-government actions, no need to educate me. But I also cannot believe I have to tell people like the author of the article above that stopping people from saying things that offend them is exactly the tool real live fascists and anti-democratic people use. They send brownshirts to break up rallies, accuse activists of inciting riots, take away access to platforms like newspapers and media, by violence or any other means necessary.

    When you advocate for closing off speech, the bad guys have already won. If you’re too stupid to see that, please ask for a refund from wherever you got your reducation, because you learned nothing. In a free and open society you get some good and some bad and you are not allowed to define those words for others. You let the ideas exist so that each person can define them.


    And I sincerely hope when someone punches you, or shouts you down, or takes away your platform by hacking your website, you are equally tolerant of their goals and tactics. Idiots.




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    Free Speech Fascists Like Me

    February 27, 2017 // 52 Comments »



    For espousing the same beliefs about the First Amendment I did on November 8 (everyone speaks always, unfettered), I am no longer a patriot.


    Many of the groups and people who supported me then, and once supported the First Amendment absolutely, now call me a nazi, fascist, enabler, racist and normalizer.

    Because we live in odd times, and because too many people only read a sentence or two before losing their sh*t, I feel the need for a disclaimer. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a nazi, fascist, enabler, racist or a normalizer. I do not like people who are those things. I didn’t vote for Trump and I think he’s a lousy human. ‘Kay?

    But I very much am concerned about people in a nation whose core value should be free speech, people who claim they are resisting nazis, fascists, enablers, racists and normalizers, acting like them. Because anyone who uses violence to stop someone else’s speech is a fascist. Also, a bully. Have a look:




    So there’s the video. A guy is exercising his First Amendment right. He happens to be doing that by flying a Confederate flag, a symbol of hate. But what anyone is saying is irrelevant to how the concept of speech works. Indeed, the concept exists not to chat about the weather, but for the hard stuff, the offensive stuff. Including Confederate flags.

    If you take away the flag guy’s rights by violence you accomplish nothing but setting up the next retaliatory round where someone takes away your rights by violence. And if you can’t see where that leads, then you are far too stupid to be allowed outside on your own. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re on the barricades, or fighting Hitler, or #resisting something. You want your First Amendment rights, you accept others have them, too, and you are not the one to judge instead who is allowed to talk.

    Yet multiple media sources said things like “It is as good and as just to tear down Confederate flags as it is to punch Nazis.” The idea is if someone on the “right side” determines someone else’s speech is wrong, then it is “OK” to silence them with violence.

    You want to worry about authoritarianism? It always includes shutting up people you don’t want to listen to.

    I never, ever, in my life thought the right to free speech would be challenged so harshly from the Left. It makes me very sad, and very worried.


    BONUS: Inevitably some idiot who recently read something online will bring up “hate speech” as not being allowed under the First Amendment. Explained here. That link also covers the idea of speech that might incite a riot, another standard excuse for busting someone’s right to speech.

    Inevitably some idiot who recently read something online will argue the “OK to punch nazis” line. Explained here.

    And speaking of free speech and flag burning, here’s that explained, kids.

    For that guy who will inevitably write in, yes, of course I know the First Amendment applies to government, not officially/legally to some guy in the street who jumps yellow tape. But for America to stay away from fascism, we cannot dismiss the broader concept of unfettered speech and the exchange of ideas. We all know you would not be making the same back-of-the-classroom legal argument if the Confederate flag guy beat up a POC to silence him, admit it.

    The newest catch-phrase to use as an excuse to deny someone the chance to speak is “platform,” as in “The First Amendment doesn’t require us to give him a platform to speak at our school.” Well, sure, but of course if you only allow one line of thought to be spoken out loud, you are indeed denying speech. You just make it seem nicer to yourselves by using the word platform.

    Let them speak, all of them.



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    Punch Early, Punch Often – Smashing the Far Right

    January 25, 2017 // 30 Comments »

    NOTE: The following is a rebuttal to my own article explaining how stopping speech you disagree with via violence is wrong. I am reprinting the rebuttal in its entirety and with permission. I received a lot of comments on what I wrote, and this one below is pretty typical, albeit without as much profanity and personal threats/insults as the others.

    Jesus H. Jones,this infernal debate continues. Peter Van Buren, possessor of such a nice Aryan name and a defence so strident of Nazis right to free speech that he will probably not be in danger of imprisonment, execution or genocide if they win, has written a piece in The Nation as a riposte to Natasha Lennard’s article in the same publication.

    Van Buren’s argument comes from the standpoint of the first amendment to the constitution of the USA, the one that protects, on paper anyway, the right to free speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press.

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    Let’s stop here for a second and consider the words of that amendment. They look very nice, don’t they? But there’s a reason I said “on paper anyway”; Look closely and read between the lines. You’ve noticed haven’t you? First amendment rights have routinely been cast aside when they clash with the interests of the US American ruling class. People who agitated against the first world war were imprisoned for as little as printing pamphlets and newspapers or speaking in public, during the nineteen forties and fifties, people suspected of being communists were brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and now Trump wants Muslims to have to sign a register. So much for rights.

    Poor people too have ‘first amendment rights’ but rarely get to use them in the way the Van Buren is advocating for Neo-Nazi mouthpieces. When was the last time you saw someone from the slums of Detroit being interviewed about their political views on national television or publishing pamphlets or writing newspaper opinion pieces? I am reminded of the words of Anatole France in Le Lys Rouge, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” The first amendment to the US constitution protects the right to free speech for rich and poor alike, but that means nothing to someone living in poverty, or someone being burned out of their home for being the wrong colour or for practicing the wrong religion.

    In the article, Van Buren says that if you condone the act of punching a Nazi then you must condone the act of ripping a hijab off a woman’s head. That he considers these two things equivalent speaks volumes of the ‘moderate’ tendency to empty acts, and indeed words, of their meaning. Ripping a hijab off a woman’s head is an act of oppression. It says that this woman, who has said or done nothing to threaten anyone is a legitimate target for hatred and violence. Punching a Nazi on the other hand, is an act of self defence. Nazi’s are not just using words to get their point across, they are organising physical violence against people of colour, Muslims, LGBT folk and left wing radicals; They are actively threatening the lives of people who are different or who disagree with their world view. Their world view is to eradicate freedom in it’s entirety for the vast majority of human beings. That’s why they should be physically confronted, that’s why their movement must be smashed before it can wreak too much havoc.

    He also reduces the fight against the Nazis in WW2 to a “70 year old struggle between nation states.” No doubt, the entry of various states into war against the Nazis was prompted by threats to their Imperialist hegemony – in particular the USA entered the war because of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour, but people fought in their millions against fascism, from well before the war in Europe broke out, specifically because of what Nazism and Fascism represent – midnight for the human race, the victory of unreason over reason, racial nationalism, anti-communism, or as Orwell put it “a boot stamping on a human face forever.” (Orwell meant authoritarianism in general – both right and nominally left).

    If we don’t want to relive the horrors of Nazism, the racial laws, the genocide, the stamping out of all political freedoms, not to mention the war, that ravaged Europe in the mid 20th century, it is necessary to stamp it out in it’s infancy. It is a threat across the globe, here in Ireland the far right is small, but there is larger minority among us who will flock to them if they feel it is safe to do so. Until now they have feared to raise their heads above the parapet, and this is a good thing. When white nationalist movements have tried to go public, they have been physically beaten back. These actions protect the freedom of the vast majority of humanity. But now, in the wake of Brexit and Trump’s victory, the racists, the authoritarians everywhere are raising their voices. The comment threads in online publications are a cesspool of embryonic fascist thought. It only takes a small breakthrough for a far right organisation to rally these people behind its banner, and the likes of Peter Van Buren, and our own Irish liberal establishment, who enjoy debating fascists to prove their intellectual superiority, make those breakthroughs more likely.

    In Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Greece and the USA, the far right is a tangible threat to the freedom of the vast majority of humanity. Constitutional rights won’t stop them, only an organised anti-fascist movement that is well organised, prepared to take the fight to the fascists, to snuff out their ideas in their infancy and keep fighting until their movement is back in the dustbin of history where it belongs. We will be harshly judged by the future generations if we let them rise again.




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    Should We Punch Nazis in the Head?

    January 23, 2017 // 76 Comments »



    No, we should not.


    Condoning, applauding or giggling over the idea of punching people in the head whose political positions, however abhorrent, we don’t agree with is so wrong I am not even sure why it is necessary to talk about it. However, given the events of this weekend, it seems we have to talk about it.

    “Is it OK to punch a Nazi for what he said?” is a question bouncing around the media and the Internet after an attack on Richard Spencer following the Trump inauguration. Spencer created the term alt-right. On video, he was explaining the meaning of Pepe the Frog, a silly cartoon figure somehow adopted as a mascot by the racist, far-right fringe movement Spencer promotes as anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-feminist.


    The punch was captured on video:



    There are over 4,500 comments on YouTube alone, and most condone the punch. The most popular format is to say “I don’t condone violence BUT…” and then go on to condone violence. Another popular comment is to mention Hitler, WWII and the defeat of the Nazis, and somehow see the video as a part of that 70-year-old global struggle fought between nation states.

    The main thrust of commentary is that violence is now justified as a response to speech by the right some do not care for. More than a few people have suggested punching someone in the head is in fact a form of protected free speech itself, and others seem to think whatever they label as “hate speech” is a crime. Others mouth stuff along the lines of “the end justifies the means.”

    A popular meme is to put different songs, many calling for violence themselves, behind the punching video. Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, tweeted “I don’t care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”


    Where to begin?

    — If violence against those exercising their First Amendment rights (speech, religion, etc.) can ever be condoned, why wouldn’t that also condone tearing off a woman’s hijab, or lynching someone? See how the “violence is justified” argument can work?

    — There are no laws against hate speech. Details here.

    — Punching people is not a form of protected speech. Expressed legally in a number of ways, Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes stated “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

    — Free speech protection covers all the things people want to say, from the furthest left to the furthest right. You can burn a flag, display a nude body, fill a fish tank with urine and call it art, put on a KKK uniform and march past a Black church, and say whatever Richard Spencer was saying. It means I can write this article.

    — The First Amendment and the broader traditions of free speech are there to protect the most challenging awful mean terrible hateful racist sexist anti-American garbage people can spew out. The protections are not there to cover the easy stuff most people agree with (though they do.) That is the whole point.

    — The ACLU has defended the right of both Nazis and the KKK to speak.


    It saddens me greatly to see even one person suggest violence as a proper response to the exercise of our precious right to free speech.

    It saddens me even more when everyone of us cannot see thinking you are opposing fascism by beating up those who ideas you disagree with.

    John Lewis, Barack Obama, hell, any Democratic politician, waiting on you to denounce this. Also, everyone on Twitter and elsewhere saying I personally support genocide, is it possible for you to understand I support the concept of free speech in its purest form, and none of that implies support for any specific position, from naked art photos to Holocaust deniers to the films of Jerry Lewis. I am simply astounded how many people are unable to distinguish between support for speech itself from support for what someone says. I expected this from the right someday, am gobsmacked that it hit me from the left. Sigh.






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    Requiem for the Obama Administration, Trump Edition

    December 7, 2016 // 78 Comments »

    obama_burns_constitution

    The problems many are now predicting under the Trump administration did not start on November 8. The near-unrestrained executive power claimed by the Obama administration will be transferred to the president-elect. Here’s what that means.


    Torture

    Obama did not prosecute, fire or discipline anyone for torturing people on behalf of the people of the United States. He did not hold any truth commissions, and ensured almost all of the government documents on the torture program remain classified. He did not prosecute the CIA official who willfully destroyed video tapes of the torture scenes. He has not specifically disavowed secret prisons and renditions, just suspended their use.

    As with the continued hunting down of Nazis some 70 years after their evil acts, the message that individual responsibility exists must stalk those who would do evil on behalf of a government. “I was only following orders” is not a defense against inhuman acts. The purpose of tracking down the guilty is less to punish and more to discourage the next person from doing evil; the purpose is to morally immunize a nation-state.

    Because of these failures President Trump can, as he has proposed, restart the torture program at any time. Some claim the CIA won’t participate. Some always will of course, and if not at CIA, then a contractor will be found. And if another terror attack or two take place, then people at CIA and elsewhere in government will be lining up to conduct the torture as they did last time. They know they will never be held accountable. Indeed, Trump is apparently considering the CIA official who destroyed the torture tapes, Jose Rodriguez, to head up the agency.


    Assassinations

    Obama legalized, formalized, and normalized drone assassinations on a global scale, including the killing of American citizens without due process in direct violation of the Fifth Amendment, on the president’s order alone. The only real restraint he codified is self-restraint. When you leave a door open, you never know who will walk in.

    Because of this President Trump can do the same thing. Trump is unlikely to blow up the entire world with the nuclear codes, but please do not act surprised when his choice of American citizen targets may not match up with yours.


    Guantanamo

    Obama never closed Guantanamo as he promised. He could have, simply by depopulating it regardless of what Congress might have said. In 2014 when Obama needed to trade five Taliban from Gitmo for U.S. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan, Obama simply ordered those Taliban freed. He could do the same with anyone else there. He could have applied the full pressure of the U.S. on various countries to accept freed prisoners. He could have ordered the show trials to be conclude.

    Obama did not do these things. He instead normalized indefinite detention as a policy of the United States, and alongside that, as with torture and drone assassinations, the use of secret, convoluted legal opinions to justify such executive powers.

    So if President Trump choses to start refilling the cells at Guantanamo, and reminding the world of the lengths a frightened America is willing to go to imprison a single man, it should not be a surprise. And with the “legal” opinions, including ones still secret, behind such policies, stopping Trump will require years of counter-litigation never even begun under the Obama administration.


    Espionage Act

    Obama prosecuted more federal whistleblowers as spies under the Espionage Act than all previous U.S. presidents combined. He sent to jail people who exposed torture, and people who allegedly leaked information to journalists showing American complicity in dangerous acts abroad. He had Chelsea Manning prosecuted for exposing war crimes in Iraq. He used the Espionage Act to destroy the lives of others who under any definition except his own would be considered political heroes.

    Obama and his Justice Department created the playbook for how to use the hereto obscure Espionage Act to do these things.

    So if President Trump, perhaps with an attorney general Rudy Giuliani, uses that playbook to lock up whistleblowers, journalists, and people you might call dissidents and political prisoners, remember to again look the other way.


    Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

    The Obama administration set a record for redacting government files or outright denying access to them in fiscal year 2014 – some 77% of FOIA requests were redacted or denied outright. More than any previous administration, Obama took longer to turn over files, said more often it couldn’t find documents and refused a record number of times to turn over newsworthy files quickly absent lawsuits brought to force the government’s hand. In the case of Hillary Clinton, files considered “unclassified” in one context were redacted in whole in another.

    Though the backlog of unanswered requests grew by 55%, the administration cut the number of full-time FOIA employees by nine percent. Despite the critical nature of the documents, the State Department was allowed to do its FOIA screening of the Clinton emails largely with an ad hoc crew of retirees. The impact on journalists, and the right of the people to know, was immeasurable.

    So don’t be surprised if the Trump administration does not end up as the most transparent one ever.


    NSA

    Obama never realistically reigned in the NSA after the Bush-era Patriot Act allowed the agency to turn its surveillance tools on the Homeland. Absent a few cosmetic changes, NSA continues to gather the full spectrum of Americans’ communications in violation of the Fourth Amendment, abetted by the secret FISA court and vaguely Constitutional tools such as National Security Letters and parallel reconstruction. Information lives forever, and the NSA is building bigger data warehouses to keep storing it.

    President Trump will have that information about you at his disposal. And so all who bleated “they had nothing to hide and thus have nothing to fear” during the Obama (and Bush) administration, out of trust for a president or fear of terror, well, now you can join the rest of us who have been terrified for a very long time.



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    A Media Blacklist, Courtesy of WaPo: Now I’m Afraid for Our Democracy

    November 26, 2016 // 51 Comments »

    firstamendment_0


    In most third world societies, when people don’t like the results of an election, they take to the streets. In America, we take to the Internet.


    But the end result is the same. The system is undermined because we do not like the results it yielded. Accusations of something unfair having happened are slung around, usually either unsupported by facts, based on faux “statistical anomalies,” or via a small data set that is blown up into something general to prove “the system is unfair/corrupt/wrong/inaccurate” to people who already believe that to be true but need talking points for their Facebook pages.

    This is the thought process that is driving the wishful thinking behind the recount efforts, and campaigns to push the Electoral College into voting Hillary Clinton into the White House.

    Of course a nice tag-along is if this can all be blamed on an outside third party. Dissatisfied people have little interest in blaming themselves, their flawed candidate, or acknowledging the strengths of the opponent among a large segment of voters. Nope, easier to blame someone else. For that, a person who has been molded into a one-word symbol of, well, everything and anything Americans fear, Putin.


    And so a recent article in the Washington Post terrifies me. It is at a level of journalism that previously was reserved for conspiracy theories on Geocities’ style web sites. Here’s a selection from the article:

    The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy.

    Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human “trolls,” and networks of websites and social-media accounts — echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers.

    So: Clinton lost because Russia wanted Trump to win because Trump will favor Russia so Russia created fake news which influenced over 62 million Americans to overlook Trump’s flaws and vote for him. Got it.


    Proof? Stuff on Facebook. Main source of that proof? A group of unknown origin, financing, and makeup (“an independent team of concerned American citizens”) called PropOrNot, i.e., propaganda or not. The group also “strongly suspects that some of the individuals involved have violated the Espionage Act, the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and other related laws.”

    A second source quoted by the Washington Post is Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (which has been around in one form or another since the 1950s, dedicated to the Cold War), who says of the Russians “They want to essentially erode faith in the U.S. government or U.S. government interests.” Watts’s report on his work appeared on a blog this month as Trolling for Trump: How Russia Is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy. That piece claims without any real evidence at all that “Russia is actively trying to put Donald Trump in the White House… And the evidence is compelling.”

    I encourage everyone to read some of the linked articles. This is seriously scary Cold War paranoia stuff.


    And guess what? The ProporNot group has created a (black)list of websites that it claims are controlled/influenced by the Russians. While — dammit — this website in not included, I take some solace in noting that I have written for or been reprinted by 11 of them.

    “They use our technologies and values against us to sow doubt,” said Robert Orttung, a George Washington University professor who studies Russia, quoted in the article.

    And that sounds dangerously close to saying our First Amendment’s freedom of speech provisions seem to be the root of this threat to American democracy.



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    Florida Forces Students Without Parent Note To Stand During Pledge, National Anthem

    September 21, 2016 // 14 Comments »

    pledge-resized



    Florida’s Orange County Public Schools announced this week students must have parental permission if they want to kneel during the national anthem at football games or otherwise silently protest, such as refusing the say the pledge of allegiance.

    The move comes after students in a single school district knelt in solidarity with 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest against social injustice in America.

    Exercising First Amendment rights in Florida now requires parental permission.



    As Unconstitutional as They Come

    The school announcement is so wholly unconstitutional as to be laughable, except that it is Florida, the state immune from reality.

    Previous decisions in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals already found the portion of Florida law requiring students to “stand at attention” during the anthem violates the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has long upheld not participating in the pledge, or remaining seating during the anthem, is protected speech under the First Amendment.

    West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), was the courageous wartime decision by the Supreme Court holding that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment protected students from being forced to salute the American flag and say the pledge of allegiance in school. The Court stated constitutional rights are to be “beyond the reach of majorities and officials.” It held that the state did not have the power to compel speech for anyone.

    Barnette overruled a 1940 decision on the same issue, Minersville School District v. Gobitis, which said dissent was to try to change a school policy democratically — i.e., through the same system that imposed the restraints being challenged.

    The Court has also upheld that the Bill of Rights applies to students in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969).


    Florida, 2016

    Officials claim they are following a state law regarding the pledge of allegiance that requires participation in patriotic gestures (they are of course following the exact law the 11th Circuit has ruled unconstitutional, which makes it not really a law anymore, but whatever, Florida uber alles.)

    And so in sweaty Collier County one principal is telling students that they’ll be sent home if they don’t stand during the anthem at sporting events.

    “You will stand and you will stay quiet,” Lely High School Principal Ryan Nemeth announced. “If you don’t, you are going to be sent home and you’re not going to have a refund of your ticket price.”

    Ouch! No refund of the ticket price for you, commie ISIS terrorist students, unless you have a note from home.


    I want to read about the first student, who, when asked for his note giving him permission to remain seated during the pledge, hands over a copy of the Bill of Rights and says f*ck you, Florida.



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    Apple Patents Remote ‘Kill Switch’ for iPhone Cameras

    August 10, 2016 // 16 Comments »

    apple


    What to do about all those darn videos showing cops murdering people?


    They make it much harder for law enforcement to lie about their own actions, and just get everyone all fired up. Why not ask Apple (for starters) to build in a “feature” on a future generation of iPhones that will allow cameras to be disabled remotely?


    A patent granted to Apple this month details technology that remotely disables iPhone cameras using infrared sensors. Someone you do not know and cannot see will be able, without your permission, to disable the camera on a phone you own and are legally using, perhaps to take video of your son’s Little League game, perhaps to take video of a police officer choking to death an innocent man.

    Apple’s patent application used the example of a rock band wanting to prevent audience members from recording a concert. Nasty bootleggers and their darn YouTubing!

    While the First Amendment, backed up by much case law, guarantees the right of citizens to record the actions of government employees, including the police, conducting their duties in public places, the Amendment does not guarantee corporate America has to sell you the technology to do so. It is Constitutionally unclear if a police force using such technology to block video would violate the First Amendment (hey, you could switch over to your Dad’s camcorder that’s in the basement), but knowing the way things work, the cops would try it first, worry about court cases later.


    And indeed you can hear the arguments terrorism, national security event, blahblahblah. Perhaps the police could designate First Amendment Video Zones outside any large event where citizens could shoot video of each other to their heart’s content?

    Another interesting legal question would be the effect of citizens using some other technology to disable the technology used by police to disable camera phones. Would that become illegal, the way some states have made the use of radar detectors in your car illegal?

    So as the cops like to say, “Hey, nothing to see here folks, move along.”



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    The Secret Rules That Allow the FBI to Spy on Journalists

    July 28, 2016 // 31 Comments »

    spy


    The bones of our democracy — the core elements that separate that way of life from others — lie in the First Amendment to the Constitution, specifically the rights to free speech and a free press.


    Without the ability to speak freely, and to have things about our government reported equally freely to us, most of the rest of the concept of what was laid out on July 4, 1776 and later falls away. Thomas Jefferson himself stated that an “informed citizenry” was the key to everything.

    So it is with more than a little anxiety that we learned secret rules allow the FBI to spy on journalists with such ease that the restraints are really nothing more than a bit of paperwork. As always, the ostensible justifications for another deep step into Post Constitutional America are terrorism, security, protecting the homeland. And, as always, the outcome seems to be much more about stomping out whistleblowers than anything else.


    As revealed by an anonymous whistleblower to The Intercept (the government refused to release the information), secret rules allow FBI agents to obtain journalists’ phone records with approval from only two internal officials. No warrant needed. No outside oversight. No courts, no judges, no hearings, no public records.

    The rules govern the FBI’s use of national security letters (NSL), which allow the bureau to obtain information about journalists’ calls without going to a judge or informing the news organization being targeted. National security letters are themselves an anti-Constitutional outgrowth of the Patriot Act and its successors. The letters allow the FBI and other law enforcement agencies conducting a national security investigation to demand access to information without a warrant, and, in most cases, prohibit the organization required to supply the information (for example, a library asked what books you read) from even acknowledging the request was made.

    The FBI issued nearly 13,000 NSLs in 2015 alone. No one outside of government knows why they were issued, who was affected, and what information was gathered.


    The FBI’s secret rules in the specific cases of whistleblowers and leaks only require an additional couple of internal signatures. In addition, the rules specify any extra oversight layers do not apply at all if the journalist is believed to be a spy or is part of a news organization “associated with a foreign intelligence service” or “otherwise acting on behalf of a foreign power.” That will easily rope in any national media service, and most likely is broad enough to pull in quasi-national media outlets like the BBC or Japan’s NHK. And once again, it is the FBI itself defining who is and who isn’t whatever it wants them to be.

    In an era when our government conducts more and more of the “people’s business” in secret, the need for brave men and women to step and an provide information, and the need for brave journalists to report that information, is ever more urgent. Without men like Edward Snowden working with journalists, we would never have known the depths of the NSA’s spying, for example. And without the heroic efforts of the person who leaked these once secret FBI rules, we would never have known what new tools the government had granted itself to weaken the press freedoms that otherwise helped sustain this nation for centuries.




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    Cleveland Police to RNC Protesters: Don’t Hide Your Faces (Facial Recognition)

    July 21, 2016 // 27 Comments »

    Anonymous


    Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams issued a warning to an undisclosed number of masked protesters outside the Republican National Convention: “If you are a member of a group that causes you to have to hide your face, then you probably need a different cause.”


    Police claim they have received at least a dozen calls related to concerns about the small groups of black-clad “anarchists” with masks.

    So why is Chief Williams so concerned about the face masks? Too early for Halloween?

    Nope, facial recognition.


    Law enforcement aggressively employs facial recognition technology at events such as the Republican National Convention to identify “persons of interest” and to catalog new persons of interest. Masked faces don’t play as well with the technology (though newer tech can get around some limitations, and iris scan tech needs only to see your, well, eyes. More below.)

    With facial recognition, a computer digitizes an image of someone’s face in a way that makes fooling the system difficult, stuff like measuring the distance between eyes, the angle of one’s nose, ear lobe shape and other tough to alter things.

    Like this:




    Reports suggest in addition to public gatherings where people are enjoying their First Amendment rights to assemble and speak, airports scan passengers, hotels scan lobbies, stores scan aisles, casinos scan their gambling floors and many police street cameras are tied into the systems.

    A publicly-known example occurred after the Boston Marathon bombing of April 2013. The subsequent Boston Calling music fest was subject to heavy use facial recognition surveillance, one guesses in case there were more Tsarnaev brothers out there. Law enforcement in the UK used facial recognition technology to scan the faces of thousands of attendees at the Download music festival without their knowledge.


    And, oh, yeah, those iris scanners.

    Iris scanners have quickly moved from the realm of science fiction into everyday public use by governments and private businesses.

    Iris recognition is rarely impeded by contact lenses or eyeglasses, and can work with blind individuals as well. The scanners can catalog up to 50 people a minute without requiring the individuals to stop and stand in front of the scanners.

    Information gathered from iris scanners or facial recognition in multiple locations can be sent to a central database that can be used to track an individual’s movement throughout the city, or to determine which individuals in the database associate together.

    So hippie protesters, have a great time in Cleveland! Actually, the cops will know if you are having a good time, because they are watching.




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    Summer Convention Fun: Keep an Eye (Ear) Out for the LRAD

    July 20, 2016 // 8 Comments »

    lrad

    With the Democratic and Republican conventions entering normal earth atmosphere, it’s time to get ready to rumble!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


    Both conventions promise excellent violence in the streets, especially in Cleveland, where a toxic slosh of Trump Brownshirts, anti-Trump protestors and the always blood-thirsty Cleveland PD will meet head-to-head-to-head in “free speech zones,” public parks and perhaps the streets themselves.

    Now even the cops in Ferguson and Baltimore knew they couldn’t just outright fire live rounds (yet) into the crowds while the cameras were there, and maybe the Clevo cops know it too. So what’s a law enforcement officer interested in violently dispersing a crowd to do? Of course there are your standard tear gas rounds, night stick charges, and rubber bullets but that’s all so… 2015.

    So why not use a real 21st century weapon, the LRAD. Watch for it in Cleveland, or at a protest near you.



    Weapons of War

    The LRAD was first deployed for use in Iraq, and quickly found its way onto Navy and commercial ships sailing amongst Somali pirates. The bad boy is a sound cannon.

    The LRAD company prefers to label its product a tool to broadcast messages and pain-inducing “deterrent” tones over long distances. The device produces a sound that can be directed in a beam up to 30 degrees wide, and the military-grade LRAD 2000X can transmit at up to 162dB up to 5.5 miles away.

    Fun fact: A jet engine at 100 feet is 140dB. Sound at 180db will cause tissue damage.

    But of course the LRAD is non-lethal, so its maker says that anyone within a 100 meters of the device’s sound path will experience extreme pain. The version generally utilized by police departments (the LRAD 500X) is designed for short bursts of directed sound that cause severe headaches in anyone within a 300 meter range. Anyone within 15 meters of the device’s audio path can experience permanent hearing loss.

    Permanent hearing loss begins at 130dB, and if the device is turned up to 140dB, anyone within its path would not only suffer hearing loss, they could potentially lose their balance and be unable to move out of the path of the audio.



    First Amendment… Never Heard of It

    So basically, put one of these on a truck and you can clear out a street pretty effectively. And the great thing about such a handy First Amendment-denying tool is that it is indiscriminate. It blasts the breath out of unruly hippies, legitimate journalists, peaceful protesters, happy tourists on the sidewalk, just everybody equally. Sorry about those who were exercising their Constitutional right to protest, because NOW HEAR THIS MOTHERF*CKERS!

    The LRAD device has been used on several occasions against activists in the U.S. The first documented was in Pittsburgh during the G-20 summit in 2009. The Pittsburgh police used it again following the Super Bowl in 2011. The LRAD was used against Occupy protesters in Oakland and New York. New York brought their LRADs out again for the Black Lives Matter marches.

    One Pittsburgh protester sued, saying the LRAD used against her made fluid leak out of her ear, and produced dizziness, nausea, and headaches. The city ultimately settled the suit for $72,000.

    Make no mistake here: this is a weapon of war, developed for the battlefield, that is now being used on American streets against Americans.


    BONUS: The LRAD Corporation announced earlier this month that the LRAD RXL model has been recognized as “Best Acoustic Hailing Service” by the Government Security News 2016 Airport, Seaport, Border Security Awards Program. The LRAD DS-60 was named as a finalist in the “Best Mass Notification System” category.





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    FBI, Police ‘Visited’ Activists’ Homes Ahead of the Republican National Convention

    July 19, 2016 // 10 Comments »

    knock


    In another step towards the fascist state Donald Trump has warm dreams envisioning, FBI agents and Cleveland police officers “visited” the homes of local activists in an attempt to gather intelligence on possible planned demonstrations surrounding the Republican National Convention. Such actions step over the line of information gathering into the realm of seeking to chill free speech.


    Activists said they viewed the visits as intimidating. A spokeswoman for the local branch of the FBI acknowledged only that “community outreach” took place as law enforcement officials try to ensure the GOP convention is a “safe and secure” event. During their visits, officials asked activists about past addresses, political and social affiliations, and plans for the RNC. The questions appear on their face of dubious constitutionality.

    A spokesperson for the National Lawyer’s Guild, a group prepared to defend those arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights outside the convention, first reported the visits by teams of federal and local law enforcement officials.

    Some of the activists are involved with groups planning RNC demonstrations, while some aren’t, the spokesperson said. She also said that some of the people who were visited were among the 71 people who were arrested in May 2015 in the aftermath of protests that broke out following the acquittal of Michael Brelo, a then-Cleveland police officer who had been charged with voluntary manslaughter in connection with the 2013 shooting deaths of two Cleveland motorists following a police chase.


    The FBI and police made no attempts to hide what they were doing; in fact, quite the opposite.

    For example, in a June 8 public hearing, Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba told members of City Council’s public safety committee that Cleveland police have “a real, real good idea of who we think is coming here and what their objectives are. And if we can deter those objectives, that’s what we’re going to do.”

    Cleveland purchased a $10 million “protest insurance” policy to protect against civil rights lawsuits resulting from the convention.



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