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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Free Speech Under Fire

In a comment to a post below Joseph Marshall wrote the following:

As to Bible reading on public transportation, I can tell you as a Buddhist that I do the Buddhist equivalent quite openly. I occasionally notice some hostility to this, but I know perfectly well that this is not my problem. Nor do I think it "persecution".

No, it definitely isn't Joseph's problem. It will amount to persecution if someone tries to stop him from doing this, and there are people who believe that he should be stopped. We don't need the outright approval of others to exercise our fundamental freedoms, but we do require them to leave us alone while we are exercising those freedoms. Joseph also wrote this:

Nor are you likely to convince me that the Democratic Underground is anything but a "fringe organization", though it is one that my good friends tend to fixate on a lot, to the detriment of perceiving the far greater variety of opinion among their political opponents that actually exists.

DU is not a fringe organization. There are people with various views on it (some of them quite fringey) and hot debates often ensue. The religious/anti-religious battle comes up often, and so does the argument about free speech. The debates on DU are naturally more from the left of the political spectrum, but they cover the same topics that our whole society argues about.

The DU-ish consensus about some speech being inappropriate is quite mainstream. Anyone who thinks it is should read
FIRE's website for a month. Their blog The Torch is very good also. Freedom of speech and association is absolutely under fire in this country.

Take, for example, the
professor who was forced to take down an exhibit of the Danish cartoons. At the University of Southern Florida, calling someone in student government a "jerk and a fool" can get you hauled up on harassment charges. The University of Wisconsin EC was finally forced to back down on its prohibition of an RA from holding a Bible study group in his own room or anywhere in his own dorm. Private political beliefs shouldn't be used to debar someone from a state-supported education program - but this has become more the rule than the exception in education schools. Debra Saunders nailed it in this column (PDF - A MUST READ) from 2000 about a requirement for every new course on a campus.

Here's my point in a nutshell, from
a column in the Michigan Daily by Donn A. Fresard:

This is the sort of well-intentioned, but deeply illiberal thinking that brought us campus speech codes in the late 1980s, when a student on this campus faced a disciplinary hearing for saying he considered homosexuality a curable disease. It's the same attitude that led Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences to depose Lawrence Summers after he hypothesized - at an academic conference, of all places - that genetic differences could account for gender inequality in certain fields. The mentality that an important truth can be unquestionable, and that those who think otherwise should be punished.

It's also strikingly similar to the reasoning that has recently led Muslim extremists to riot, burn and kill in response to an act of blasphemy.

One of the pillars of liberal society is that people are free to openly believe in or criticize any religion without fear of reprisal.

A tyranny is a tyranny, and whether instituted based on good intentions from the right or the left will end the same way. More about the ACLU later, which has its own debates going on.

Comments:
Well, since you've started another post, I'll continue it over here.

The first thing to note is that extra-legal attempts to restrict freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, which is mostly what you describe have always been with us. As has pushing people to the back of the bus, or even off the bus.

Merely because the law is committed to respect it, doesn't mean that your fellow citizens are likely to respect it.

In the original post you spoke of me as "overconfident" about the durability of the Constitution and its guarantees. I think if you had asked me about the fourth amendment, warrentless, searches and probable cause, you would not think this.

Everybody has a little bit of the Constitution they'd like to cut some corners on, whether the justification is "hate speech" or "war powers".

The trick is to keep them out of places like the Presidency or the Supreme Court. This is not easy. As matters now stand, I think the current occupants of both institutions are far more likely to protect the "free exercise" clause than the "probable cause" standard.

But the only cure for it is to exercise a little of that freedom of speech.
 
YES - I agree about the continuous attempts to subvert the constitution. No politician ever enjoys free speech when it's directed agains that politician. We all have our blind spots and our things that we hate to hear.

What bothers me is that I believe that it is becoming more and more acceptable to do away with the roadblocks, legal and cultural, that have prevented this.

The US Constitution is an extremely sane document, in that it places the dilemma squarely in front of us. If we don't insist that the Bill of Rights protects the rights of those we think are completely wrong and indeed hurtful, then we will lose the ability to speak about what we think is necessary.

Unfortunately the trend to allow more and more encroachments on personal liberties, etc, has been a long term one. If we lose the free speech battle we'll even lose the right to debate that point.

We have to return to the recognition that our rights are dependent upon the rights of others.

As for the current administration, while I don't like many of their steps, I don't like a lot of the suggested alternatives either. Maybe this will swing. After all, we haven't seen anything quite as bad as during WWII.

But I don't see the mechanism for the swing, and it is because far, far too many people have lost sight of the fundamental issue. SF is only safe for gays who agitate for same-sex marriage if the evangelicals can gather, and if the evangelical teens want the right to gather and speak they'd better defend the rights of the gays to advocate for same-sex marriage.

That's the way it works. I don't know many people below the age of 30 who have been taught much about the constitution or about American history and how that has been played out.
 
SF is only safe for gays who agitate for same-sex marriage,

Well, I hardly think that evangelicals are in danger of much more than a cold shoulder, a potently raised eyebrow, and, as we have seen, some blather on the part of City Fathers making damn fools of themselves.

I think you have to always factor in a little hyperbole and humbug in all such instances of "confrontational politics". I certainly do.

I particularly factor in a generous dose of hyperbole and humbug when the institution inolved is an academic one.

I speak from direct experience having been an academic myself over a decade ago. It is simply foolish to take the political blather of professors seriously.

If the law is flouted by "university policy", which it occasionally is, it is exactly the same situation as when the law is flouted anywhere else. You have recourse to either the courts or the newspapers to settle the matter.

Of course, twenty year olds, individually, are fairly defenseless against such things.

But they are not defenseless collectively, and one of the great freedoms of a university is the opportunity to club and congregate for political and social ends, whether it is the Ayn Rand Society, the ACLU, Ammnesty International, or the Young Republicans Club.

In fact, a young man or woman with real political interests and conservative or libertarian political leanings, would do well to cut their political teeth and learn their political tactics by organizing in a University with an obvious anti-conservative bias.

And the conservative and libertarian citizens of any University town would find a ready-made field for asserting their values in an arena where they can make a difference, by helping and supporting such conservative and libertarian students.

At the very least, getting a look at liberal academics up close and personal would disabuse the Town of any lingering reverance for the Gown.
 
Joseph, you had me spluttering with laughter over "getting a look at liberal academics up close and personal would disabuse the Town of any lingering reverance for the Gown." Yes, campus politics can be petty.

But as to your points about libertarians and conservatives having to organize on campus, let me put it this way. Most people of whatever political leanings don't go to institutes of higher education for a course in political activism. It ought to be possible for someone to attend one of these places without taking the risk of getting dismissed for uttering a political opinion, AND THAT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME. Even tenure decisions are often made based on whether the professor is considered to be a "right thinker" at some of our best institutions.

The sickness in US higher education runs deep. Take the example of Doran at Princeton University. In that case professors from another department were trying to force Doran's department not to grant him tenure.

The speech codes and hypocritical cries of "academic freedom" for someone like Ward Churchill while someone like Doran is considered a danger to society are bleeding over to law and law enforcement off the campus.

PA's hate-speech law is a case in point. There are continuous attempts to institute similar laws at the federal level.

And in PA last year some anti-gay protesters at a pro-gay march were arrested, thrown in jail and charged with felonies. This is the "persecution" that the Christians are talking about. The charges were dismissed upon appeal, but perhaps this was partly done because someone had video of the incident, which showed peaceful and unthreatening behavior on the part of the accused felons.

If you sincerely believe that the current political climate is not dangerous I think you should read more. There is a concerted and consistent attempt to disallow any speech that people consider religious in public schools by students. There is a concerted attempt to disallow any speech of which people disapprove, period. We are in a period in which individual rights are under attack.

The attempt to silence others with whom a particular group does not agree is certainly not new, but it has gained a new respectability and a new legal basis since I was in college.

Unlike many, I was insisting that Ward Churchill should not lose his job because of his writings. Many of them were calls to violence, but they are so diffused that they do not amount to crimes. The principle of academic freedom is far too important to be sacrificed for the sake of silencing such a person.

But Joseph, what does it say about our culture that a "vegetarian" journal like Satya publishes a picture of Ward Churchill dressed in camo and holding a rifle? We have a culture in which environmental groups advocate for violence, animal rights groups advocate for violence, native rights groups advocate for violence, gay-rights groups advocate for violence, women's rights groups advocate for violence etc, etc. Violence and suppression of those who disagree with you has become not just respectable in intellectual circles but deeply admired.

This is not something that can be safely ignored. When our culture is so politicized that a mural in a Florida school of a sky and a stairway leading up to it has to be painted over because it is too offensive, we must confront the reality that we are in danger of going the way of the cartoon rioters.
 
This is a very, very, good post.
 
At which point, the only way to protect yourself and your group's rights is to sieze power and start stamping your boots on their faces *before* they can sieze power and do the same to you.

And it all comes down to three words:
US OR THEM.
 
Anon- Yes, if we have to pick between "us" and "them" most people are going to pick up whatever weapon is handy and start fighting for the "us".

Sane societies attempt to avoid that extreme and dangerous result by ensuring that it doesn't get to that point. What we are losing touch with in US culture is the consciousness of the need to protect the reasonable rights of the other camp in order to protect our own.

Now I grant you that every once in a while some group or leader will arise who is absolutely not sane and who will not respond to reconciliation and fairness. I am absolutely against appeasing any such persons or groups. I do not think they deserve respectful treatment, and at the first signs of violence an intervention is necessary.

You can't negotiate with the Charles Mansons of this world.

But almost all of our debates in US society don't rise to that level. Why the hysterical rhetoric?
 
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