Alex Jones

Alex Jones and his Infowars website have been removed and banned from YouTube, Facebook, Apple, and Spotify among the most popular social media platforms.  As of this moment, Twitter claims to be reviewing CNN claims that Jones and Infowars violate Twitter’s standards.  What should we think about this?

Jones has made many ridiculously false claims, such as the belief that Sept. 11 was an inside job, that the Sandy Hook massacre never happened and that Michelle Obama is a transgendered person with male genitalia.  “An InfoWars video posted in July 2018 falsely declared that the ‘CIA admits transgenderism is a plot to depopulate humanity.’” Twitter-Infowars-Alex Jones But accuracy and honesty haven’t been criteria for banning posts or President Trump’s tweeter account would have been closed long ago. Who is to decide whose lies can be tweeted and whose can’t?

Hate speech, which violates Twitter’s rules, is another matter, as is the promotion of violence.  Twitter’s rules state that it does “not tolerate” content “that degrades someone.”  President Trump violates this rule as well on a regular bases.

What should we do about the lies and hate that are regularly posted on the Internet?  I agree with Kimberly Ross who said that: “It is imperative that we don’t view those like Alex Jones, who peddle in fear-mongering and lies, as harmless. In fact, we should actively call out such appalling behavior….  We should never wait around for the Left to come in and clean up our side.  We should do that ourselves.  Individuals like Jones who manufacture outrage and spread falsehoods should find that the market on the Right for their wares is minuscule.”  Dont-defend-Alex-Jones-but-dont-let-the-government-get-into-censorship-either

Several important policy issues arise from this.  We should challenge what we believe to be lies and hatred ourselves.  Our First Amendment protection of free speech rightly prevents the government from deciding what is true and what is hateful and banning it.  Few of us would be happy letting Stephen Miller, a nasty minded White House Adviser, determine what could be posted on Facebook about American experience with immigrants.  Jonathan Rauch has updated his wonderful book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought,in which he argues that the best defense against fake news and hateful speech is to exercise our free speech to challenge it.  Kindly-Inquisitors-Attacks-Free-Thought. See also his short essay on this subject:  “Who-will-regulate-hate-speech”.

Facebook and Twitter are private companies and should be free to set whatever policies for access that they want.  On the other hand they come close to being public utilities like telephone companies and Internet access providers who should not be allow to block access to the Alex Joneses of the world because they lie and spread hate.  This deserves further thought.

Turning to government to protect us from every unpleasantry we might encounter weakens us and takes us in the wrong direction.  Those who defend protecting us from hate speech with “safe zones” and “trigger warnings” reflect a paternalistic attitude toward the responsibilities of our government and of ourselves as citizens of a free society.  Like the well-meaning, but ultimately harmful, helicopter moms, we risk creating a society of wimps dependent on government for far more than is healthy for a free society.  Part of our training as we grow up and encounter a sometimes nasty world should be to stand up and challenge falsehood and hate when we encounter it.  Safe zones deprive us of such training.  It’s our job to counter lies and hate, not the government’s.

The Wedding Cake

Americans harbor many conflicting views on many subjects. Our right to freely express them is guaranteed in the American Constitution’s First Amendment. It is precisely this right that has enabled the LGBT community to convince an ever-growing number of our fellow citizens that they should be entitled to the same protections under the law as anyone else.

Public discussion of conflicting opinions in a spirit of civility and mutual respect is an important aspect of developing consensus as well as tolerance for other beliefs and ways of living. While we are required by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to set aside our personal opinions and tastes when we open for business to serve the public (the non discriminatory public accommodations requirement), our personal views are much more likely to be meaningfully changed by persuasion than by legal requirements. “There-will-be-no-winners-in-the-supreme-courts-wedding-cake-case/2017/12/04/”

In 2012, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a same-sex couple, walked into Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood Colorado to order a cake for a celebration of their wedding. Jack C. Phillips, the owner and cake designer of the shop, refused to bake it on the grounds that he opposed same-sex marriage. In the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, now before the Supreme Court, Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission maintains that Mr. Phillips has violated the state’s public-accommodations law, which forbids discrimination against LGBT customers. The case pits the Constitution’s First Amendment protection of the right to free speech against the right of everyone, including gay and lesbian Americans, to the equal protection of the law on non discriminatory public accommodation. The Supreme Court must now decide how to balance these two rights.

Phillips argued that making him create a cake that celebrates a same-sex wedding would violate his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion, by forcing him to express a message, and celebrate an event, that runs against his beliefs.  Messrs. Craig and Mullins argued that the cake shop had discriminated against them.  How can the rights and needs of each best be satisfied in our society of diverse beliefs?

There were many other cake shops happy to bake the desired cake. Why would Messrs. Craig and Mullins want to give their business to an unwilling baker? What goal was served by challenging the baker’s refusal in court? Did they think that a judge could force the baker to change his views about same sex marriage? Really? Public attitudes toward LGBTs have improved dramatically in recent years including attitudes toward same-sex marriage because of persuasion, not because of legal coercion. In fact, in 1996 legal coercion was used to prevent same-sex marriage with passage of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Supreme Court fortunately overturned it in June 2015 in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. What ever the Supreme Court decides, the LGBT community looses from this case. George Will: “A-cake-is-food-not-speech-but-why-bully-the-baker”/2017/12/01/

Everyone should worry about the threat of state-compelled speech, says gay marriage supporter Andrew Sullivan:  “It always worries me when gays advocate taking freedom away from other people. It worries me as a matter of principle. But it also unsettles me because some gay activists do not seem to realize that the position they’re taking is particularly dangerous for a tiny and historically despised minority. The blithe unconcern for the First Amendment in the war on ‘hate speech,’ for example, ignores the fact that, for centuries, the First Amendment was the only defense the gay minority ever had — and now, with the first taste of power, we are restricting the rights of others in this respect? Ugh. Endorse the state’s right to coerce speech or conscience and you have ceded a principle that can so easily come back to haunt you.” New York Magazine December 8, 2017.

The LGBT community should look first to improved understanding and then to tolerance of diversity. The courts are the last place to search for a workable balance between free speech and conscience and equal treatment of everyone under the law.

Our Free Press

A free press is an important pillar of a free society. In addition to reporting what is going on—who said and did what—the hard hitting investigative reporting of The Washington Post and other news outlet has exposed corruption and abuse of power from the Watergate scandal of Richard Nixon to the sexual misconduct of Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, Al Franken, and Representative John Conyers to name a few (more on this later). Such scrutiny of the behavior of those in positions of power is a critical service that is vital to the preservation of the integrity of our government.

One way to undermine the role of our free press is to challenge its integrity—to create doubts about the honesty of news reports—to label news as “fake news.” I am not suggesting for a second that news reports are never wrong or that we should not scrutinize them with some care and skepticism, but if the public comes to believe only those news sources that repeat what they already believe, one of the most important institutions protecting our freedoms (the fourth estate) would be seriously weakened.

We know that Mr. Putin’s Russia has been actively undermining faith in Western institutions by their citizens. In the U.S. and Europe Russia has used social media to plant fake news with both the right and the left in order to fan social divisions. One element of this campaign has been to undermine confidence in news reporting in general.

According to Hedrick Smith, former New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief and author of the global best-seller, The Russians: “Putin has turned to cyber warfare, using his intelligence services and computer hackers rather than military force to disrupt the West – and we can expect more of that in the 2018 elections and beyond…. It’s kind of Putin’s revenge for the fact that we pushed the Russian bear back in the cave by moving the frontiers of NATO into the Baltic states—Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. And (Putin) sees us as being behind the overthrow of the pro-Russian president in the Ukraine. So he’s hitting back.” (Putin wants new cold war) Putin also needs external enemies—external distractions—to divert the attention of Russians from deficiencies at home.

As part of this attack on American institutions they have called the news media “the enemy of the American people,” and planted statements such as: “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.” New York Times /2017/10/12/ And in a direct attack on the First Amendment, this: “Why Isn’t the Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up-FAKE!” Money CNN/2017/10/05/

If you didn’t catch it already, I played a little trick on you in the previous paragraph. Those of you who have been paying attention will have spotted that the above quotes attacking the American press and fake news were not Russian propaganda but from President Trump. He also said in a February White House press conference:

“I’m making this presentation directly to the American people with the media present … because many of our nation’s reporters and folks will not tell you the truth and will not treat the wonderful people of our country with the respect they deserve.

“Unfortunately, much of the media in Washington, D.C., along with New York, Los Angeles, in particular, speaks not for the people, but for the special interests and for those profiting off a very, very obviously broken system.

“The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people, a tremendous disservice. We have to talk about it. We have to find out what’s going on because the press, honestly, is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.”  (Trump: media out of control)

Why does Trump do this? Some think that Trump’s attempt to undermine confidence in the news media is part of a well thought out strategy to raise doubts about the veracity of news reports critical of him. It is all “fake news.” I am more inclined to think that he is simply unable to control his anger whenever his ever present and huge ego is bruised. He and his ego are more important than the health and well being of our country, as when he complained about a lack of gratitude for his helping get the release of three UCLA basketball players caught shoplifting in China. On November 15, Trump tweeted:

“Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!”

A few hours later at a press conference the three did just that, but the father of one of them, LaVar Ball, downplayed Trump’s role in his son’s release precipitating the following Presidential tweet:

“Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!”

Are you shocked or have you acclimated to the new normal? I leave it to you to decide whether Trump is reflecting his concern for the well being of our country or his ego. (Trump-college-basketball-players-helped-free-china-left-jail)

Undermining our faith in our institutions and in particular our news media is a serious matter. It is dangerous whether promoted by Russia or Trump. (Trump’s dangerous attacks on the press.) The press and its supporters, to their credit, are fighting back. (US-press-freedom-tracker-documenting-press-freedom-violations)

As David Ignatius put it: “Amid the slithering mess of problems that emerged in 2017, the one that bothers me most is that people don’t seem to know what’s true anymore. “Facts” this year got put in quotation marks.

“All the other political difficulties of the Donald Trump era are subsumed in this one. If we aren’t sure what’s true, how can we act to make things better? If we don’t know where we are on the map, how do we know which way to move? Democracy assumes a well-informed citizenry that argues about solutions — not about facts.” He suggests the reestablishment of newspaper ombudsmen and would “like to see [Google, Facebook, etc.] using machine learning to interrogate supposed facts to establish where they’ve been — how they first surfaced, and how they were passed from user to user.” (“Getting-back-to-facts/2017/11/23/”)

At the same time, the American press deserves some of the criticism it has received. The following article by Chris Wallace puts the case very well: Trump-is-assaulting-our-free-press-but-he-also-has-a-point The distinction between news and opinion is sometimes blurred.

Here are two quick examples: The-FCC-has-unveiled-its-plan-to-rollback-its-net-neutrality-rules. The Post article linked here provides a reasonably balanced report on those favoring and those opposing the FCC’s proposed return to more or less the legal situation prior to 2015. The problem, as is often the case, is that the article’s headline is not written by the article’s authors and the headline gives a totally misleading impression of what is proposed: “FCC plan would give Internet providers power to choose the sites customers see and use” However, the headline writer probably reflects the better disguised biases of the reporters (to their credit). My own blog on the subject from last May is far more balanced if I may say so myself: https://wcoats.blog/2017/05/17/net-neutrality/

The discussion now underway on Republican tax reform legislation provides another example of press bias. Every morning I read the Wall Street Journal followed by the Washington Post, which should provide a bit of balance. But I have found press reporting (editorials and opinion pieces are free to say whatever they want) on this subject sufficiently biased to provoke me to blog twice on it: https://wcoats.blog/2017/11/12/tax-reform-and-the-press/    https://wcoats.blog/2017/11/18/salt-more-press-nonsense-on-tax-reform/

And finally from my highly selective short list was the recent Post headline: Trump boosts Moore in Ala. Senate race despite sexual misconduct allegations (Trump-boosts-Moore-in-ala-senate-race-despite-sexual-misconduct-allegations)  This is very interesting (and amazing) on several levels.

Trump does not indorse Moore in this article but speaks out against his opponent: “’We don’t need a liberal person in there, a Democrat,’ Trump said about Moore’s opponent, former federal prosecutor Doug Jones, who has led in some recent polls in the state.”

The WSJ version of the same story was titled: “Trump Signals Support for Roy Moore Over Democratic Opponent.” WSJ 11/22/2017 With regard to the multiple sexual misconduct claims against Mr. Moore, “Mr. Trump pointed to the can­di­date’s state­ments: ‘Look, he de­nies it… He to­tally de­nies it. He says it didn’t hap­pen. And, you know, you have to lis­ten to him also.’”

A few hours later this article was updated as follows: “Trump said, ‘He totally denies it.’ Previously, the White House said that Mr. Trump believed Mr. Moore should leave the race if the allegations proved to be true.”

From CNN news: “President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended embattled Alabama Republican Roy Moore, all but endorsing the Senate candidate who has been accused of sexual assault and child sex abuse. “He denies it. Look, he denies it,” Trump said of Moore. “If you look at all the things that have happened over the last 48 hours. He totally denies hit. He says it didn’t happen. And look, you have to look at him also.” But to repeat, Trump did not endorse Moore.

Trump’s tolerance of “questionable” behavior by Republican’s is not extended to Democrats. When he returned from Asia he tweeted on Nov 16 about a picture in which Al Franken is holding his hands above Leeann Tweeden’s breasts, while they were on a 2006 USO tour to entertain U.S. troops.

“The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?”

He continued in a second tweet, “And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women.”

Trump seems to suggest that we should believe the denials of Republicans and investigate the denials of Democrats. He had wisely kept silent to that point about Moore’s pedophile charges, presumably not to remind the public of his own admitted sexual misdeeds (plus the large number of claims he has denied). Here is the full list: President Trump-and-accusations-of-sexual-misconduct-the-complete-list . The mystery is why when he consulted his advisor on such things (himself, of course) he decided to break silence on the subject—condemning Sen. Franken while giving Moore a pass. I suggest that he change advisors.

We have sadly and dangerously grown used to the routine lying of Trump and others. We live in a world of fake news. There have always been limits on our generally wide-ranging freedom of speech, however. Famously, we may not shout fire in a theater when we know there is none. The balance between the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and protection against willful defamation, for example, can be tricky. The following article provides a useful discussion of this balance in the context of the defamation case against Trump by one of his claimed sexual abuse victims, Summer Zervos, a contestant on Trump’s reality television show, “The Apprentice.” “She accused then-presidential candidate Trump of sexual harassment that purportedly occurred in 2007. Trump denied the allegations, and, in his characteristically understated style, tweeted that those allegations, and similar allegations made by other women, were “nonsense,” lies,” “phony” and “100 percent fabricated.” Zervos then claimed that Trump’s comments amounted to defamation.” (Trump’s attack on Summer Zervos blows hole first amendment) This might prove more damaging to Trump than the Russia investigation.

Balancing Religious Freedom and Civil Rights

The adoption last week of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has set off a loud public debate about religious freedom and civil rights. The debate is over the best balance between our cherished beliefs in both religious freedom and civil rights, which includes tolerance of those with religious beliefs different than ours. A standard formulation of the scope of individual freedom is that it is our right to live and do as we like as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others to do the same. How we should put meat on those bones is the essence of ongoing, serious public debate.

I have blogged on this challenging topic a number of times starting with the following in November 2008: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2008/11/11/church-and-state-in-america/ and followed in April 2010 by: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/when-values-clash/

and in August 2013: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/liberty-and-the-overly-prescriptive-state/

and in December 2013: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/more-on-the-balance-between-the-public-and-private-sectors/

and most recently in February 2014: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/arizona-and-religious-and-person-liberty/

Indiana’s RFRA is similar but not identical to the law of the same name signed into law by President Clinton in 1993 with overwhelming bipartisan support. These laws and other efforts to balance religious and other individual freedoms against the expectation of tolerance are based on the First Amendment to the US Constitution reproduced below (the first item in the Bill of Rights) and the guarantee of equal protection under the law contained in the Fourteenth Amendment adopted after the Civil War, in part to remove discrimination against African Americans. Success in establishing a good balance is critical to a healthy, vibrant and free civil society and depends more on social attitudes than on laws. David Brooks provides an insightful and balanced discussion of this issue: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/31/opinion/david-brooks-religious-liberty-and-equality.html?_r=4

_________________________________________________

First Amendment

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.

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It is quite beyond my limited legal knowledge to tease out exactly what the Indiana law provided (it has already been amended to address the fears that it was an excuse for discrimination). Much has been written on the subject, some of it uninformative and/or inflammatory, others wise and insightful. I would like instead to outline the spirit and attitude of a proper balance between religious freedom and civil rights that makes sense to me.

Most of us assume that our freedom to believe what we choose and to express those beliefs publicly includes what some others might disagree with or consider “wrong” or obnoxious, such as racial prejudice. Freedom of speech means nothing if not the right to state what most of us consider wrong. The right to say stupid or repugnant things should never be confused with accepting or encouraging such views. Particular condemnation should be directed to those who use their freedom of speech purposely to offend rather than to defend their beliefs. The best defense against bigotry, whether racist or homophobic, is to use our freedom of speech to counter such views and to promote the virtues of respect, diversity, and tolerance of alternative beliefs (as long as they do not limit our own). In short, building broadly shared attitudes of respect toward the rights of our fellow men (and women) are necessary for the maintenance of a decent, free society.

What might this mean in practice? In my private life I should never have to associate with people I don’t like. I should not have to invite them into my home or my club. It was absolutely right that the Boy Scouts of America were allowed to exclude gays and that we were allowed verbally to attack them for such misguided behavior. They are gradually coming around to a more enlightened policy with better long run results than if forced by law to open up to members they did not want. Churches are quite rightly not forced to accept members that do not embrace their beliefs or otherwise satisfy whatever their membership requirements are.

The above examples are obvious. The difficulties begin to arise when we move outside our homes and private groups. Aside from the obvious question of why two lesbians in Texas insisted on the services of a photographer for their wedding who refused to accept their request (were they looking for a fight or the best photographer), I think any service provider should be free to choose their customers just as customers are free to choose where to shop. While mafia dons and other murderers and bad people have a right to legal representation, why should a particular objecting lawyer be required to provide it?

Should a Christian bookstore be required to sell the bible or whatever to atheists or Jews? For starters it would be quite contrary to their goals and evangelical nature to refuse to do so, but should they have the choice? Should Muslims be required to touch and serve pork or should Mormons be required to tend the cocktail and coffee bars of their employers? Once again it is hard to see why this is raised to the level of public policy. If a Mormon doesn’t want to serve alcohol (though it wasn’t a problem for the Mormon owned Marriot Hotel to do so), she doesn’t have to and shouldn’t work for a bar. For larger operations, such as restaurants with a bar, it is not that difficult for the manager to assign employees to tasks that respect their religious or ethical beliefs. The free market, profit motive would lead employers to do just that.

For many, the pace of progress against discrimination in the more public sphere of commerce and certainly in government bodies was not fast enough leading to the adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce; but exempted private clubs and the renting of the bed room in my basement. If you are open for business to the general public you are not allowed to discriminate on the above bases. The LGBT community has been working to add sexual orientation to the above list, something that was missing in the original Indiana RFRA law.

The recent Hobby Lobby decision of the Supreme Court (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby) concerned the mandate in Obama Care for employers to provide government specified contraceptives as part of the employee health plans. The Christian family owners objected to the mandatory inclusion in the list of what is often called the morning after pill. Raising wages sufficient to compensate employees for the cost of buying their own insurance would sacrifice the tax exception (i.e., subsidy) of employee provided health insurance. The Court ruled to allow closely held for-profit corporations to be exempt from a law its owners religiously object to if there is a less restrictive means of furthering the law’s interest. Such exemptions are allowed for churches and directly religious organizations but this was the first time that the Court has recognized a for-profit corporation’s claim of religious belief.

This whole situation has more objectionable parts than I can count. First, it is bad policy to give a tax break for employer offered health insurance. For one thing, tying heath insurance to ones employer makes it more difficult for employees to change jobs and increases the cost to them of losing a job. Second, it is outrageous that the federal government is dictating the list of contraceptives that an insurance policy must provide and that everyone must have such policies. This is before we get to the issue of which, if any, private companies should be exempt from such requirements and for what reasons. Such micro management of our lives by the government has gone way too far and makes the balancing of rights I have been discussing much more complicated and difficult. A tradition of polite accommodation of differences generally trumps efforts to spell it all out in law.

Marriage equality, i.e., extending the same right to marry enjoyed by heterosexual couples, takes away no rights from traditional couples other than perhaps to be spared the anger/horror/sadness over something someone else is doing. Get over it. Having to serve LGBT couples commercially does not imply agreeing or disagreeing with their status. Fortunately society is moving rapidly to accept the virtue of extending the institution of marriage to LGBT couples. If marriage is a good thing for loving committed couples, it should be available to all such couples. Those people and religious groups that continue to disapprove are free to as long as they do not deprive others of their freedoms and rights.

Freedom of Speech – Final Thoughts (for a while at least)

Our right of free speech is not a partisan issue in America. Democrats and Republicans, both President Obama and Presidential aspirant Romney, vigorously support its value and its constitutional guarantee. The extent of that right, which is not without limits, is greater in the U.S. than in any other country. The right to speak in some countries is simply at the whim of the existing government. The residents in some counties, such as Egypt, have more limited but legally defined (in principle at least) rights. Even the UK limits its press more than it is in the U.S. (think of the invasion of the privacy of the Queen and her family, though British standards are evolving too).

On this as with so many other issues, the world would benefit from a civil but vigorous discussion of the value of free speech to a healthy society and as a check on the powers of government and of where it is most appropriate to define its boundaries with the right to privacy and other values. We also need to understand and respect (but not necessarily agree with) the boundaries established by other countries and cultures.

President Obama reflected the American view well in his UN speech September 25.

“As president of our country, and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day. And I will defend their right to do so…. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities. We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech — the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect…. There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.”

The next day, to the same UN audience, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi defined a different position: “The obscenities that I have referred to that were recently released as part of an organized campaign against Islamic sanctities are unacceptable. We reject this. We cannot accept it. We will not allow anyone to do this by word or deed…. Egypt respects freedom of expression, [but] not a freedom of expression that targets a specific religion or a specific culture.”[1]

Any real dialog over this issue requires a deeper understanding of just President Morsi means when he says “we will not allow anyone to do this.” He clarified this in the same speech: “Egypt respects freedom of expression,… [but] not a freedom of expression that targets a specific religion or a specific culture.”[2]

The arrest in Cairo of Alber Saber, a 27-year-old Coptic Christian Egyptian illustrates an application of what President Morsi means. Saber was accused of providing a link on his Facebook page to the inflammatory video “Innocence of Muslims”, which he denies.  He “was arrested two weeks ago on charges of disdaining religion and ridiculing religious beliefs and rituals….  Showing contempt toward what Egyptian statutes call the “heavenly” religions — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — is punishable by up to five years in prison.

“The same day, [as Obama’s UN address] Egyptian authorities announced that charges would be filed against a prominent Islamist activist and TV personality, Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah, who tore up a copy of the Bible during a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo…. But liberal activists here say the blasphemy laws are so vague, and applied almost exclusively when people allegedly defame Islam, that they are nothing more than a political tool.”[3]

Clearly Egypt has a very different standard of free of speech than we do. We have very good reasons for believing that our more liberal standards are better and we should defend that view. But obviously views differ and those differences must be respected.

The freedom of speech is not absolute anywhere. All Americans know that we are not free to shout fire in a theater unless we think there is one. We are not allowed to deliberately tell lies about others in public. But that already puts us in some difficult waters, as the distinction between deliberate and unknowing lies is not easy to establish. In seeking the best balance between free speech and the right to privacy, American libel laws have set different standards for public (politicians, movie stars, etc.) and private individuals on the grounds that by choosing to become “public” officials or celebrities, such people have chosen to forgo some of their privacy.

For most of our country’s existence, free speech was thought to apply primarily to political speech and religious expression. America’s legal system evolved from English Common Law, which set a rather low standard for the prosecution of publishers of libelous material, who could be jailed for material that damaged the reputation of a member of the community. In 1734 New York publisher John Peter Zenger was imprisoned for printing political attacks against the colonial governor of New York.  However, his lawyer established a new legal precedent by arguing successfully that truth was a proper defense in libel cases. Prior to that, truth of allegedly libelous statements was not relevant to whether libel had been committed. Since the Zenger case, however, someone can sue successfully for libel only if the defamatory information is proven to be false.

Since the 1964 Supreme Court ruling in the case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, “public officials no longer could sue successfully for libel unless reporters or editors were guilty of ‘actual malice’ when publishing false statements about them…. Retired Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., who wrote the Sullivan decision, defined it as ‘knowledge that the [published information] was false’ or that it was published ‘with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.’ In other words, public officials no longer could sue for libel simply by proving that something that had been broadcast or printed about them was false. Now they would have to prove that a journalist had knowingly printed false information while making little, if any, attempt to distinguish truth from lies.”[4] Egypt obviously has a different balance between conflicting rights in mind.

Even in the United States, freedom of speech is under constant attack from within. Columnist George Will, with his usual flare for sarcasm reports on bone chilling attempts by North Carolina’s Board of Dietetics/Nutrition to stop Steve Cooksey from offering nutritional advice on his internet blog based on his personal experience with losing 75 pounds. They argue that he does not have a license to offer such advice (hopefully the self interested protection of the right of only their members to offer such advice doesn’t need to be explained).[5]

Finding the best balance between free and acceptable speech is an ongoing quest and different societies, even the same society at different points in its history, define it differently. I, like most of my countrymen and our constitution, believe that we have very good and compelling reasons to tightly limit exceptions to and limits on free speech to the minimum. In defending this view to others, we must respect that they may prefer a different balance, while at the same time explaining the reasons for our view.

That said, the quality of any society also depends on what actually gets said. A society in which most residents adhere to the values of mutual respect and make public pronouncements that are thoughtful and well meaning is clearly a more desirable one that where many are rude and thoughtless and speak hatefully. But the freedom of all members of society to speak freely is, in my view, is the best way to develop a thoughtful and civil society.


[1]Anne Gearan, “Egypt’s president Morsi tells UN insults to Muhammad unacceptable” The Washington Post, September 27 Page A2.

[2] Ibid

[3] William Booth, “Egyptian blogger Alber Saber’s arrest shows differences over freedom of speech” The Washington Post, September 27, 2012, page A9

[5] George Will, “Bureaucrats declare war on free advice”, The Washington Post, September 27, 2012.

Further thoughts on Free Speech

Why are Americans (in particular) so attached to free speech, even repugnant free speech? Why is the first item in our Bill of Rights (i.e. the First Amendment to our Constitution) devoted to its protection? Our strong defense of free speech rests largely, in my view, on three beliefs held by most Americans.

The first is that it is our right and our responsibility to decide for ourselves what to read, view or listen to. We turn to ourselves and our families first and to our communities and our government second and third for most things. No one is absolutely self-reliant (even Robinson Crusoe had his man Friday), but Americans have historically been more self-reliant than most any other people. We trust our own judgment more than that of a public morality police. Though we often turn to trusted advisors in our churches or communities for guidance, we choose whose guidance we respect. No one has a stronger interest in our getting it right than we do ourselves. I don’t buy the paternalistic argument of some “do gooders” that the poor or uneducated just don’t care.

The second belief, born of centuries of experience and accumulated evidence, is that government power is always in danger of being corrupted to the service of those in power if not carefully checked and balanced. If government had the power to control what we heard, it would, sooner or later, be abused. If government is able to filter what we see and hear, it will not be able to resist filtering out information inconvenient to or critical of itself.

The third belief is that competition in ideas and information as well as in the provision of goods and services will reward the truth and drive out falsehood. This issue of discovering the truth is complicated. These days anyone can say anything and post it on the Internet. However, it doesn’t generally take long for the truth to crowed out lies (the claims that Ambassador Stevens body had been sodomized or that American Embassy Marine guards did not have live ammunition come to mind). To the extent that we trust the statements of our government it is only because we know that we (and the press) are free to contradict it if we have contrary evidence.

Our strong defense of free speech does not obligate us to defend the content of that speech. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “’both the mentality and the organization behind this movie and those perpetrating terrorist actions exploiting Islamic symbols and discourse’ were equally to be condemned.” (The Washington Post “Anti US fury widens in Muslim world” 15/9/2012). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the offending video “disgusting and reprehensible.” She was right to say so, though I found the film merely pathetic.  We defend the right of the cretins who made this film to make it and to show it where ever they can convince some company or person to do so while also defending our right to denounce it.

This brings us to the “Muslim” reaction to the film. Many Muslims around the world have complained loudly about pictures or films that denigrate Mohammed, as do many Christians when pictures or films denigrate Jesus. That is simply an exercise of free speech. But what about demonstrations at American Embassies? “The right of the people peaceably to assemble,” is merely one of the means of exercising free speech and is also protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution.

Attacking our Embassies and their officials and employees is quite another matter. Muslims are wrong to do this and their governments should not allow it. I hope that you stumbled at my broad brushed attribution of this violence to “Muslims”.  If you didn’t you should have. Muslims did not kill four Americans in Benghazi or set various American properties on fire in several countries. “It is no more accurate to condemn the Muslim world for the atrocities of a relative few than it is to indict America because one lowbrow decides to upload a lousy flick that nobody otherwise would watch or even know about.” (Kathleen Parker, “In Libya and America-imbeciles affecting foreign policy” 14/9/2012.) Individuals did these things, each with their own motives. What drew people to these demonstrations? Who are they and what are their goals? In Benghazi, the murderers may have been al-Qaeda linked. The attacks in Egypt were primarily lead by hard line Islamists groups against the somewhat more tolerant and moderate new government of the Muslim Brotherhood. (David Ignatius, “Cairo and Libya attacks point to radicals jockeying for power” The Washington Post 12/9/2012)

Not everyone in the world understands or accepts our strong commitment to free speech. Our self-interest calls for us to carefully explain to the rest of the world its value and importance for the kind of societies that respect individuals that we want to live in.