Speech Action

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Crowded Out

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The first 48 hours of the Trump Administration were nothing if not illuminating. Following a dour, dire inaugural address in which the new president affirmed his commitment to faux-macho militarism and the destruction of free trade, Trump and VP Pence set off on the traditional post-inaugural parade. But much of the parade route was lined, not with adoring supporters, but with empty bleachers. Measured against Trump’s promise of an “unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout,” the entire day fell flat — especially when compared to Obama’s numbers in 2008 (or even in 2012, the much less “hopeful” time around). Aerial photos confirmed that Trump’s crowds did not stack up: there were huge gaps on the Mall, some of them even visible on the live TV feeds when Wolf Blitzer or someone equally dim tried to talk about a “teeming mass of humanity” that was not in evidence.

Measured against Trump’s promise of an “unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout,” the entire day fell flat.

The Trump team had many options available to explain this disappointment. First, the weather: dreary, overcast, continually promising rain that arrived right in time for Trump’s address. Second, the demographics: of course Obama would pull more people from DC and its suburbs, the center of the swamp that Trump has appointed himself (and half of Goldman Sachs) to drain. Third, the economics: heartland Republicans might wish to be there for the historic moment, but the depredations of Obama have left them unable to travel outside their own red states. Fourth: the priorities — and this would be a stretch for any politician, but bear with me: they could have said that the inauguration itself wasn’t what was important; rather, what mattered was individual taxpayers working to better their lives in their own communities, not traveling to pay homage to a new would-be god-king.

Faced with these and other possibilities, the Trump team chose the expediency of bald-faced lies.

When press secretary Sean Spicer took the podium on Saturday for a press briefing, he refused to accept any question, delivering instead a diatribe against the media for misrepresenting the crowds, which he estimated at “a million to a million and a half people” — a transparent falsehood. Asked about these remarks the next day, advisor Kellyanne Conway referred to Spicer’s lies as “alternative facts.” Alternative facts!

Of course, Trump never lies without also personally attacking the people he’s lying about. During a rambling, borderline unhinged speech to the CIA, of all people, he referred to the media as “the most dishonest human beings” — something which might be accurate, apart from the grotesquely dishonest context in which he was giving utterance. Other admin statements took a threatening tone: Reince Preibus spoke of “not allowing” the media’s obsessive quest to “delegitimize the president”; Spicer himself warned menacingly that the administration would hold the press “accountable” for, one assumes, telling the obvious truth.

They could have had a crowd of one geezer and a flatulent dog and it wouldn’t have made any difference to the fat stack of executive orders Trump is about to sign.

And here’s the thing: the DC press corps is packed full of liars, courtesans, and ass-kissers. Any other president would let these natural sycophants do their work for them: just promise them access and appear even vaguely “presidential,” and they’ll swallow anything — just look at the Bush buildup to the Iraq War, or any major Obama initiative. Trump & Co. have instead made clear that they will fight to the death anyone who doubts the anointed — a policy which would leave us soon with Breitbart and (maybe) Fox News as our new Pravdas. If he had wanted to float supreme above the press, that would be one thing — that would at least promise the pleasure of toppling an icon. Instead, he seems to desire endless flattery and coos of reassurance. For someone who claims to value masculine independence, he’s proving himself such a whiny, fragile little snowflake.

All of this, meanwhile, over just the most pointless thing, something not even worth lying about. The crowd size doesn’t matter, any more than the popular vote does, or anything else that isn’t direct, concrete governance. They could have had a crowd of one geezer and a flatulent dog and it wouldn’t have made any difference to the fat stack of executive orders Trump is about to sign. This, in fact, is the main danger facing the press corps, as well as the historically huge crowds that turned out to protest Trump the day after his inauguration: they’ll once again think they’ve vanquished him, when they won’t have delayed for even a second anything those working through him have planned.

In the meantime, though, the lesson remains: either Trump’s ego is such that he can’t bear coming off second best on any comparison to Obama, or he really is so beholden to audience numbers and ratings that he literally can’t see things anyway, or (more sinisterly) the administration wanted an early test case to see who would echo their lies, even when hard data and common sense both dictate clearly otherwise. Either way, it’s indication and confirmation of exactly how far we should trust anyone connected to the White House: the distance between a fact and its alternative.



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Free Speech — A Losing Candidate?

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Consider these two arrangements of the same story:

  1. May 11 — Violence caused the cancellation of a Donald Trump rally in Chicago after Trump denounced people opposed to his candidacy. People who came to protest against Trump were fought by Trump supporters.
  2. May 11 — Violence caused the cancellation of a Donald Trump rally in Chicago after protesters entered the hall and fought with Trump supporters. Trump had previously denounced protesters who appeared inside his rallies.

Both versions are true. But the first of them is a piece of propaganda, designed to get people to vote against Trump.

It’s easy to write such things. Try your own hand at it — maybe you can get a job with one of those big media outlets that are spending a lot of time blaming Trump for the violence of their own allies, the ’60s refugees and college clones who want to make sure that only one Great Thought gets heard in America.

But before I share any more of my own great thoughts, please take this brief version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test. Have you already concluded that I who am writing this am a supporter or a detractor of Donald Trump?

Others spoke of their campaign for “compassion and understanding,” thus making theirs the first riot ever staged for compassionate purposes.

If your answer is Yes, you have jumped to a conclusion, and you will interpret all subsequent sentences as further proof of your opinion. You will also conclude — or you have already concluded — that I am either a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe, or an American patriot who just wants to see something done about the mess in Washington. I’m sure your ability to divine these things will be gratifying to your self-esteem.

But if your answer is No, then you are qualified to read what follows. Reading involves, among other things, the ability to identify what a piece of writing is about. This piece of writing is not about Donald Trump or my opinion of Donald Trump. It’s about a massive default from the principle of free speech.

Trump’s rally on March 11 was shut down by a mob of leftists, many of them carrying Bernie Sanders signs. Sanders was not behind the action, but his political faction was massively involved. In the for-once-apt words of a police union spokesman, “it was a planned event with professional protestors.” A week or weeks in advance they had planned what they were going to do and how they were going to do it. Once in occupation of the hall where Trump was supposed to speak, they alternately shrieked in well-rehearsed apoplexy and danced and giggled with delight. When attempts were made to interview them about what they were trying to do, most refused to admit knowing any motive. Others spoke of their campaign for “compassion and understanding,” thus making theirs the first riot ever staged for compassionate purposes.

In short, this was the gross and obvious use of a mob to deny free speech and assembly to one’s political opponents.

That being, as I said, obvious, I confidently awaited the outrage that must surely follow, even from the American political establishment. But I was disappointed. Every online headline I saw made it sound as if Trump had attacked his own rally; every article arranged the story so as to picture “violence” being spontaneously ignited by the presence of people who support Donald Trump, or actually and solely begun by them. The worst headline I saw — but there were probably even worse — was this from the Washington Post:

‘Get ’em out!’ Racial tensions explode at Donald Trump’s rallies

In truth, the only connection with “race” was the presence of Black Lives Matter activists and other people screaming about Trump being a “white supremacist,” which of course he is not. Trump is a jackass who happens to be white. Other people are jackasses who happen to be black. In neither case does race matter. But if you want to claim that someone is a white supremacist, just go to the Washington Post, and they’ll give you a headline. That headline is your license to destroy the right of free speech that allows the Post to enjoy its own ridiculous life.

Similar events continue. When protesters disrupteda Trump rally in Arizona on March 19, after trying to prevent Trump from even reaching the venue, the CBS News headline was “Violence Erupts at Donald Trump Rally in Tucson.” Clever, very clever. Omit the human agents — the people who want to shut Trump up — and make it appear as if Trump were some dangerous natural phenomenon that may “erupt” at any time. The message? Get away from Trump.

if you want to claim that someone is a white supremacist, just go to the Washington Post, and they’ll give you a headline.

This is shameful dishonesty. But silly me, I was half expecting leading Democrats to be embarrassed by the mob behavior of some of their supporters. Had it been a Republican mob that attacked a rival political campaign, we would never have heard the end of the Democrats’ outraged demands that all Republicans immediately repudiate such fascist tactics. For the Democrat establishment, however, Trump was the fascist. Sanders showed not a hint of shame about his followers, and no questioner tried to get him to. Mrs. Clinton lost no time in denouncing “the ugly, divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump, and the encouragement he has given to violence. . . .” “If you play with matches,” she said, after exhaustive research in America’s vast storehouse of domestic clichés, “you can start a fire you cannot control.” Well, that much was to be expected from such an implacable proponent of objective law as Hillary Clinton.

But let us return to the problem of fouling the well you drink from, which is the giddy enterprise of the Washington Post and other journals that value free speech mainly because it’s good for people who agree with them. Consider Trump’s Republican rivals. Long victims of media slanders about their party’s supposed alliance with the supposed racists and violence-mongers of the Tea Party, Republicans might be expected to insist on free speech and fair play for everyone, but especially for themselves. Well, don’t expect anything like that. When push came to shove at the Trump rallies, they preferred to blame the victim, a fellow Republican, and try for a cheap political advantage.

Ted Cruz asserted that if you talk as Trump does, “you’re creating an environment that only encourages” violence. This from the man who has been mightily, and unfairly, blamed for inciting the wrath of other Republican senators — by refusing to give up his right to free speech.

John Kasich repeated, like a mantra, “Donald Trump has created a toxic environment . . . Donald is creating a very toxic environment, and it’s dividing people.” Note to Kasich: what is a “toxic environment”? Another note to Kasich: Aren’t you “dividing people” whenever you disagree with somebody? A third note to Kasich: why are your clichés of a higher intellectual quality than Donald Trump’s?

Republicans might be expected to insist on free speech and fair play for everyone, but especially for themselves. Well, don’t expect anything like that.

But it was left to Marco Rubio — who as I maintained last month is not a bad talker, so long as he’s talking one-on-one and about something specific, instead of standing on the balcony to deliver the papal blessing — it was left to Rubio to deliver the most inane remark of this supremely inane political season:

Presidents and presidential candidates cannot just say whatever they want.

I guess not. And I guess that’s what makes their sayings so profound, so probing, so candid, and so trustworthy.

Republican operatives were singing from the same page as the candidates, or vice versa. To cite one of many examples, Guy Benson, political editor of Town Hall, an outlet for conservative and sometimes radical conservative ideas, and attempts at ideas, used an interview with Fox on March 17 to accuse Trump of “fomenting violence.” To cite another, Doug Heye, a “Republican strategist and advisor,” lamented to Fox’s eager ears that attention had been stolen from Rubio’s campaign by the riot in Chicago, while his interviewer, Shep Smith, noted that some people thought the riot was actually contrived by Trump. To be fair, Heye then said that although Trump used “bigoted” language, he was “not a bigot,” and he himself would vote for Trump if he were nominated.

Let’s pause for a moment, and meditate upon these samples of the Republican mind at work.

If you’ve ever suspected that the political leaders of our nation are just not that bright, here is new evidence. Trump’s political appeal is known to result very largely from his warfare against the politically correct Left, an ideological formation that is feared and despised by almost everyone in the country who doesn’t have a Ph.D., work for a Human Resources department, or hold office in a safe Democrat district. In fact, it’s hated and despised by many people who do fit those descriptions; they’re just afraid to admit it. And as Trump’s Republican opponents have good reason to understand, this aspect of his political appeal is very strong. They also know that Americans traditionally resent blatant attempts to shut people up. They may try to shut people up themselves — specific people on specific occasions — but in the abstract, at least, they dislike the process. They have a feeling that it’s unfair, undemocratic, counterproductive. That feeling also is very strong.

In these circumstances, what would any Republican politician with brains more powerful than a bowl of jello have to say about the politically correct attacks on Trump’s rallies? He would say, “As you know, I am opposed to Donald Trump’s nomination on the Republican ticket. Nevertheless, I believe that all Americans should condemn the dastardly attempt of political radicals and supporters of the Democratic Party to do something that has never been done in American politics — prevent a candidate from running for the high office of president of the United States,” etc., etc., etc. Anyone could write that speech, which would appeal to virtually everyone in the country and position the speaker as morally superior not just to the Democrat mob but also to Donald Trump, whose own protests might be written off as merely self-interested.

Even a child might pity the obvious phoniness and insensate self-interest of Clinton's attempt to escape from being criticized.

But that’s not what happened. It was one of those moments when the fortunes of the Grand Old Party were magically aligned with those of high principle and popular sentiment, and the GOP not only missed the moment but disgraced it. Its candidates and spokesmen actually thought that their own self-interest was involved, not with the assertion of ideas that almost everyone holds, but with the petty advantage to be sought by suggesting that their chief opponent deserved whatever bad things happened to him. In the process, they gratified the politically correct people who can barely force themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton, let alone some low-life Republican, and they morally outraged the legions of Trump supporters whose assistance they themselves require for victory.

It seems very childish to point this out. But our politics (not without the help of Donald Trump) have become so childish that anyone who knows that C-A-T spells “cat” is operating with an enormous intellectual advantage over the other kids.

I should have reached this conclusion about the prevalence of baby talk and infantile tantrums when Hillary Clinton went before the Benghazi committee and screamed, with well-rehearsed outrage, “What difference does it make?” Even a child might pity the obvious phoniness and insensate self-interest of her attempt to escape from being criticized. Yet the august organs of public opinion hailed it as an unanswerable defense of her actions. Only later did they sense that there might have been some slippage in the public relations department: everybody but them considered Clinton’s tantrum the worst performance ever presented on TV. So why should I be surprised by the need to suggest that America’s deep political thinkers may have missed a few other things — things that even some non-pundits understand?

Among those things are the following reflections:

  1. It’s wrong to blame the victim, whether the victim is sensible or not, likable or not, or any other not. A woman who is robbed while walking down a dark street is not responsible for being robbed, even though “she should have known better” than to walk that way. A man who ventures into “a bad neighborhood” with an expensive watch — ditto. A person who makes rude remarks from a public stage is not to blame if someone organizes a mob to kick him off the stage. Even a blowhard who goes around saying, “If anybody tries to kick me off this stage, I’ll hit him in the face” is not to blame if, yes, somebody tries to kick him off the stage. We are not living in the old Soviet Union, which had such tender feelings that any rude remark became a provocation. Weighing rights on the scale with provocations is an excellent means of getting rid of rights, and that’s why it is the consistent practice of dictatorships.
  2. Whether Donald Trump was being jocular or not when he suggested to his listeners that if somebody caused trouble, people in the audience would be justified in taking physical action against that person, those remarks had nothing to do with the invasions of his rallies. If talking offhandedly about violence actually incited violence, then half the stand-up comics and three-quarters of the leftwing demonstrations in this country would be guilty of inciting violence. If Trump had said absolutely nothing about any kind of violence, the people who turned out to “protest” his alleged racism and sexism would still have turned out to “protest” his alleged racism and sexism. That’s what their signs said they were doing. Logically, anyone sincerely moved to protest Trump’s rude bellowings would want to do so by exhibiting the opposite behavior. But that’s not what makes a mob. For that you need bullhorns, filthy slogans, and, yes, actual violence. When other Republicans maintained that Trump was getting what was coming to him, they were siding with people who would cheerfully raise the same kind of mobs against them.
  3. When it comes to free speech and free assembly, it makes no difference whether someone is pleasant or unpleasant, or even whether he is a “racist” or some other offensive something. Free speech isn’t about allowing your sweet old grandmother to discuss how much she’s always admired Mother Teresa. Neither she nor her admiration requires protection. It’s unpopular views and unpopular people that require protection, and they are guaranteed protection by our national charter.

So much for my review of ideas that should have occurred to everyone, but obviously have not, although there is nothing more important in the realm of words than everybody’s right to use them freely.

Washington Post,




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The Tyranny of the Sensitive

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It has been a tough month for free speech on campus. A Yale professor was ostracized for her reasoned response to the campus’ censorship of Hallowe’en costumes. A University of Missouri professor called for “muscle” to oust a student journalist trying to cover a campus protest. And over a hundred Dartmouth students swarmed the campus library to curse and bully other students who chose not to wear black clothing and join their protest. Several professors and administrators have been forced to apologize or resign, while others express nervousness over how to continue challenging their students to think critically and learn well in an environment of increasing intimidation.

This unrest roiling on campuses provided an appropriate backdrop for the documentary Can We Take a Joke? when it premiered at the prestigious DOC NY film festival in mid-November. Apparently, no — we can’t. Not any more. The right not to be offended seems to have trumped the right to say what we think. And young people seem to be leading the way toward censorship and controlled speech. According to Greg Lukianoff, executive director of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), fully 47% of 18–34 year olds said they think the First Amendment goes too far. “That’s terrifying to me,” Lukianoff says.

It should be terrifying to all of us. Penn Jillette observes, “Outrage has become a powerful political tool for shutting down dissenting voices.” Comedian Jim Norton adds, “There is a strange sense of empowerment in being offended.” Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution warns, “One of the first ways you know a society is turning authoritarian is the comedians start to worry. When they start going for the comedians, everyone else needs to sweat.”

The right not to be offended seems to have trumped the right to say what we think.

Well, start sweating, because comedians have indeed become the target. Ted Balaker, director of Can We Take a Joke?, interviews more than a dozen comedians about their experiences not only on college campuses but in comedy clubs and on television. Many tell chilling stories about being shouted down and even threatened with physical violence and arrest for saying things that the shouters consider offensive.

Yet other people go to a comedy show for the very purpose of being outraged and offended. They delight in it. Lisa Lampannelli, known as the “Queen of Mean,” is about as outrageous and offensive as they come. Her act makes fun of every ethnic group and social minority. Nothing is “off the table” for her, including rape, HIV, and cancer. She says she uses humor to help people confront fears and stand up to them. She reports that people will call her ahead of time to say, “My friends and I will be in the fourth row on the right. Please make fun of us!” Others are not so fortunate.

But if you think you’re immune from the Outrage Police because you aren’t a comedian or public figure, think again. Social media has turned us all into public figures. Can We Take a Joke? also tells the story of Justine Sacco, a young woman who tweeted an ill-conceived joke just before boarding a plane from Heathrow to South Africa. By the time she landed, her tweet had spread around the world; her employer had fired her; and angry cybermobs were issuing death threats against her and her extended family. Two years later she still cannot work, date, or go out in public because her unfortunate history is just a Google search away. Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, warns, “We are all just one dumb joke away from sharing Justine Sacco’s fate.”

If you think you’re immune from the Outrage Police because you aren’t a comedian or public figure, think again.

Lukianoff laments, “I interned with the ACLU and studied censorship back to the 16th century, but nothing prepared me for how easy it is to get in trouble on the modern college campus.” Comedian Karith Foster adds, “College is supposed to be a place where you grow and explore, where you find out who you are and find your own voice.” Sadly, college campuses are turning into a place where voices are silenced, and it’s coming from the students, not from the administrators. Like many of his peers, comedian George Carlin stopped performing on college campuses. “I hate to say it, but all the censorship is coming from the left. That caught me by surprise,” he said.

Can We Take a Joke? is an important film that asks us to open our eyes to the progress that is lost when voices are silenced by force rather than changed by persuasion. “Words can be offensive and hurtful, but they are not the same as violence and they can be countered by other words,” Rauch reminds viewers. Watch for the film in theaters over the coming months. We also hope to screen it at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in July.


Editor's Note: Review of "Can We Take a Joke?," directed by Ted Balaker. The DKT Liberty Project, 2015. 75 minutes.



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Confused on the Concept

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is one of those “liberals” who cannot resist the temptation to invent new rights (for government) and destroy old ones (for people). In response to the latest round of terror conspiracy charges, she has issued a public statement, which reads as follows:

I am particularly struck that the alleged bombers made use of online bombmaking guides like the Anarchist Cookbook and Inspire Magazine. These documents are not, in my view, protected by the First Amendment and should be removed from the Internet.

I am particularly struck by the senator’s inability to distinguish reading about something from doing it. Perhaps she believes that no one should know the chemical composition of dynamite, because such knowledge might be used to destroy a public building. Perhaps she believes that Hitchcock’s movies should be banned, because they show how to kill people with knives, scissors, and birds. Perhaps she is accustomed to rushing on stage to keep Macbeth from killing the king.

Or perhaps she is merely a typical American politician, busy about her work of ruining concepts she is incapable of understanding.




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You Are Perfectly Free to Say Nice Things

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Continuing in its fifth year, the Broadsides series published by Encounter Books consists of paperback pamphlets modeled on 18th-century political pamphlets such as The Federalist Papers and Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Short and accessible, polemical and jargon-free, speedily produced and mass-marketed, these pamphlets examine any number of policy issues from immigration and climate change to gun control and Obamacare.

Published this year, the 39th book in the series is Greg Lukianoff's Freedom From Speech, a vigorous and cogent refutation of the increasingly popular notion that people have a right not to be offended. Lukianoff is an attorney and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving civil liberties in academia. His first book, Unlearning Liberty, earned high acclaim from pundits and reviewers with diverse political leanings.

Who gets to decide what is offensive and what isn't? How do we determine who is worthy of such power?

"It seems as if every day brings a new controversy regarding the purportedly offensive remarks of a celebrity, an official, or an ordinary citizen," Lukianoff observes, "followed by irate calls for the speaker to suffer some sort of retribution." He points to Donald Sterling, Phil Robertson, Paula Deen, Gary Oldman, Don Imus, Mel Gibson, Jerry Seinfeld, Isaiah Washington, and Alec Baldwin as examples of public figures whose insensitive statements provoked the ire of the commentariat and set into motion institutional disciplinary procedures that used humiliation as a form of rehabilitation. Having a mean thought and then expressing it, or failing to choose your words prudently, can result not just in your silencing, but in your punishment. And the parameters of approved opinion keep getting narrower. What Lukianoff calls "the thought pattern of the modern American censor" is reducible to this decree: "there must be zero tolerance for anything that anyone might consider offensive, regardless of the context."

This impossible standard raises countless questions. Who gets to decide what is offensive and what isn't? How do we determine who is worthy of such power? By what criteria should allegedly offensive statements be evaluated for acceptability? What's a manageable method for regulating speech if people of every background and belief are prone to offense at some phrase, characterization, or tone? One wonders where all this is heading when the CEO of a major corporation, Mozilla, is forced to resign after it’s revealed that he made (legally permissible) donations to a campaign supporting California's Proposition 8 (a proposition opposing gay marriage). Regardless of one's view of that issue, it shouldn't escape notice that no respectable figure was calling for the president to resign because of his own documented opposition to gay marriage while Proposition 8 was on the ballot in 2008. By what measure does Obama get a pass while Brendan Eich, the Mozilla CEO, gets the boot?

There are no reasonable answers to these questions, only more questions. Lukianoff acknowledges that "what happened to Eich was not an actual First Amendment violation" because Mozilla is a private company, not a government entity, "but that does not mean," Luikianoff avers, "it had nothing to do with free speech."On the contrary, "freedom of speech is a far broader idea that includes additional cultural values" that warrant debate and study, not silencing and condemnation. Only through the rigorous filtering mechanisms of longstanding deliberation and civil confrontation can good ideas be sorted from the bad. Only by maintaining disagreement at a rhetorical and discursive level can we facilitate tolerance and understanding and prevent the imposition of ideas by brute force.

Lukianoff's primary target is American higher education and such strange phenomena as the now-frequent "disinvitations" of speakers and the "trigger warnings" for course materials deemed upsetting. The problem is not limited to American colleges and universities — other countries and other entities have their own varieties of censorship — but the censorship culture tends to emanate from American institutions of higher education, where eager and impressionable students are easily conditioned to believe they are doing the right thing by removing from their purview ideas they don't like. The irony is that young people believe they're dissenting when they quash dissent, usually at the behest or encouragement of faculty and administrators who enjoy positions of authority.

Build thick skin; develop counter-discourse; sharpen your own mind and rhetoric. But don't put the institutional muzzle on free expression.

Students above all will benefit from Lukianoff's quick and informative read. They'll learn that intellectual comfort is dangerously close to unthinking laziness and that censorship is not a matter of "left" versus "right," "liberal" versus "conservative," or any other simplistic, polarizing signifiers that dumb down constructive debate or prevent it altogether.

Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom from speech. Rather than learning how to avoid offense at all costs, academics, professional victims, and those pretending to be academics and victims ought to learn how not to take offense, how to handle offense in healthy and productive ways, or how to intelligently, rationally, creatively and convincingly rebut arguments and positions with which they disagree. Build thick skin; develop counter-discourse; sharpen your own mind and rhetoric. But don't put the institutional muzzle on free expression.

We all on some level wish to live out our days serenely and swimmingly, away from opposition and complacently content with our limited experience and cherished presuppositions. It's work, after all, to defend our convictions and justify the actions that our beliefs inspire us to take. The fact of the matter, however, is that we cannot progress without overcoming challenges. If universities are places that cultivate critical thinking, as they claim to be, they must welcome a range of values and opinions. Freedom of speech cannot mean freedom to suppress the speech of others. A freedom that is divisible or available to a preselected few is no freedom at all. Lukianoff realizes this. His organization combats censorship in its many manifestations on a daily basis.

As battles over university censorship continue, keep your eye on Lukianoff. He’ll be on the front lines. “The fight for freedom of speech has never been easy,” he says, adding that “it will be a hard battle indeed.” More than a few readers of this book will be ready to enlist. Mr. Lukianoff, reinforcements are on their way.


Editor's Note: Review of "Freedom From Speech," by Greg Lukianoff. Encounter No. 39, Broadsides. Encounter Books, 2014, 61 pp.



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The Thin Blue Line

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There’s a lot we won’t ever know for sure about the death of 16-year-old Kimani Gray, shot to death by police on Monday, March 11 in the Brooklyn district of East Flatbush. Here’s what we do know: two plainclothes officers approached Gray after seeing him “suspiciously fixing his waistband.” The confrontation ended with the officers firing eleven bullets at the teen, hitting him with seven, including three in the back.

In between the waistband-fixing and the body hitting the ground, things get less clear. The officers claim that as they approached Gray, he pulled out a revolver and aimed it at them, thus their use of deadly force. At least one eyewitness, however, claims that Gray had nothing in his hands and did not appear armed; furthermore, when he was already on the ground, clutching the wound at his stomach, one officer told him to “Stay down or we’ll shoot you again.” Another witness claimed that Gray did have a gun, and was trying to make that known precisely so he wouldn’t be perceived as a threat. But let’s give the cops the thing they never seem to give suspects in these situations: the benefit of the doubt. Say Gray was pointing a gun at them. Are they justified in firing? Firing eleven rounds, including three after Gray’s back was already turned?

Remember, from Gray’s point of view, these men aren’t identifiable as policemen. That’s the whole point of plainclothes. All he sees is two random guys approaching him, intent on something. Even if he does draw, even if he does take aim, this is still a defensive posture. The police and various eyewitnesses naturally disagree as to whether any advance warning was given, but even if the officers did announce themselves before firing, Gray has no reason to believe them.

Bear in mind that this is the version in which the police come off best. This isn’t the telling in which two patrolmen shoot yet another unarmed black male, and plant a gun on him in order to cover up their malfeasance, and trust in the blue wall of silence to take care of the rest. No, in this rendering, a case could be made, however tenuous, for pumping seven bullets into a scared teenager. But even so, the incident — like several hundred more in the last few years alone — stands as an indictment of the policing tactics in Mayor Bloomberg’s city.

If you disagree, you are free to protest — but NYPD is also free to treat your protest as an incipient riot, and deploy troops accordingly.

Recall that it was Bloomberg who strongly encouraged the use of “stop and frisk” techniques, which allow policemen operating under a “reasonable suspicion” to detain anyone on the sidewalk, and publicly pat them down for weapons. Even though more than 90% of these stops do not result in arrests — and far fewer still in convictions, often because they illegally seize small drug stashes (and, lately, arrest women carrying condoms as prostitutes) in the process — and even though by the city’s own stats these tactics are disproportionately used on blacks and Latinos, intensifying the distrust felt by many minorities for the police, Bloomberg insists this suspension of Fourth Amendment rights is crucial to protecting New Yorkers as they go about their daily business.

The question of who, exactly, will protect New Yorkers like Kimani Gray (or those within stray-bullet or ricochet range when police open fire), seems irrelevant to these calculations — if you are “fixing your waistband” in public, and especially if you’re young, black, or Latino, you simply don’t count in the same way as the hypothetical citizen Bloomberg has in mind. If you disagree, you are free to protest — as many in the community did in the nights after Gray’s death — but NYPD is also free to treat your protest as an incipient riot, and deploy troops accordingly. The last few nights, police in riot gear have used “kettling” tactics, extending netting across streets and maneuvering on horseback in order to constrict protestor movement, and eventually to envelop them completely. A minimum of 19 (and possibly upwards of 40 or 50) were arrested, many of them young black women. Hair was pulled, faces were pushed into concrete, pregnant woman were shoved to the ground.

When several journalists, who were streaming a live feed of the scene, tried to approach closer, they were met with police claiming another of Bloomberg’s suspensions of constitutional rights: the “frozen zone” that supposedly trumps the First Amendment protection of freedom of assembly. Like so many abrogations of our rights, this has its roots in counter-terrorism, being conceived as a justification for dispersing crowds around the WTC site on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. It was deployed liberally against the Occupy crowds, since Zuccotti Park was conveniently located near Ground Zero; now it appears to be available as an on-site justification anywhere in the city. Here’s how it seemed to work last night: a journalist approaches the scene of an arrest, and a cop orders them to leave, because it’s a frozen zone — and that is the extent of the logic involved: “Because I said so.”

It’s the same logic that’s at work throughout Bloomberg’s fiefdom, extending all the way from Wall Street to the corner store (even if the ludicrous Big Gulp ban was at last overturned). The control he exercises makes him the envy and icon of every politico who aspires to power simply because he knows best — and, if you’ve been keeping track, you’ll know that’s pretty much every one of them.

The end result of such arbitrary, good-for-you power is what has been termed the “carceral state”: a polity based on imprisonment, whether or not that corresponds with actual prison bars. The days of community policing are long dead; the model now is adversarial policing. Kettling, stop and frisk, frozen zones: these are prison tactics, marks of a society bent on treating citizens as inmates. So far in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York, that has meant inconvenience and harassment for millions, and death for Kimani Gray and hundreds more.



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Negligence of the Inept

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Most people, including many Obama supporters, were stunned when the Obama administration blamed the Innocence of Muslims video for the 9/11 attack on our Benghazi consulate. With his recent swagger ("bin Laden is dead" and "Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat"), Mr. Obama seemed to be telling us that his conciliatory diplomacy was winning the day. Surely no one could have predicted that an obscure internet video, based on an obscurer film, would cause the murders of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans. But that was the administration’s explanation for the shattering of its Middle Eastern policy.

As for the film: all of us should have been stunned by the administration's betrayal of our First Amendment. Instead of defending free speech, Hillary Clinton denounced the film as "disgusting and reprehensible." Many liberals, of all people, condemned the producer, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, for the violence he allegedly incited — the equivalent of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Nakoula is, by all accounts, a sleazy character. But if a third-rate, 14-minute trailer can thrust thousands of Muslims into a barbaric, murderous rage, then "Fire!" is precisely what should be shouted; the theater is already in flames.

Tiny Denmark defended the free speech of Jyllands-Posten, publisher of the Muhammad cartoons, doing so in the face of violent threats by Islamic extremists. America didn't have the spine to do; we apologized for the film, asked Google to remove it, and arrested the filmmaker.

A conflicted Google defended free speech in refusing to remove the video in the West, but caved to White House pressure in pulling it from several Arab-Muslim countries. A confused Nakoula was arrested in a disgraceful, groveling attempt to appease the Islamic world. When it comes to politically incorrect films, Muslims everywhere can now look to America for intolerence rivaling their own.

The foreign policy ineptitude of the Obama administration was exposed by its use of both the film and the arrest: the former as a pretense for causing the attack; the latter as a pretense for calming Muslims sympathetic to the attackers. White House and State Department officials were no doubt heartened by the spectacle of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department taking Nakoula from his home, perhaps hoping that it would quench post-Arab Spring hatred of Americans. But the true spectacle was ironic: the number of law enforcement officials hustling Nakoula off to jail in the US exceeded the number of security guards protecting the four Americans murdered in Libya.

If a third-rate, 14-minute film trailer can thrust thousands of Muslims into a barbaric, murderous rage, then "Fire!" is precisely what should be shouted; the theater is already in flames.

In America, where inflammatory artwork such as Andres Serrano’s "Piss Christ" is celebrated, the moral enlightenment of the politically correct usually comes back to bite them in the ass. So it was with Hillary Clinton, who once pasionately defended the free speech right of "The Holy Virgin Mary," a painting by Chris Ofili that depicts a black Madonna smeared with elephant dung and surrounded by collaged pornographic images of female genitalia. That passion is now a distant, hypocritical memory. In the Obama era of apology and appeasement, Mrs. Clinton is embarassed by free speech. On Pakistan's “Day of Love for the Prophet,” she ran an ad featuring President Obama blathering about our tradition of religious tolerance, and herself, pleading that our government had nothing to do with The Innocence of Muslims.

The day of Muslims loving their prophet ended with 23 people killed in Pakistan alone and revealed the deep folly of Obama's Middle East policies. Violent anti-American protests spread throughout the hyper-senstitve, irony-challenged Muslim world. People burned American flags, ransacked American businesses, attacked American embassies, etc. It's hard to imagine that a more "disgusting and reprehensible" display would have happened, if Mrs. Clinton had run a free speech ad instead.

To the consternation of Barack Obama, the sons of men who hated, but respected, George Bush, have become men who both hate and disrespect him. Subsequent to the Benghazi attack, "Obama, Obama, We Are All Osama" became the chant of the new liberal Arab youth. To many, perhaps millions, of them, Obama's achievement is an abomination. He murdered bin Laden, the spiritual champion who lives in their hearts — hearts that will be inconsolably inflamed upon the release of Zero Dark Thirty, a movie celebrating the killing of their hero. That will be the day when Obama's "bin Laden is dead" mantra will come back to bite him in the ass.

And it is Obama's movie. According to documents obtained by Judicial Watch http://www.judicialwatch.org/press-room/press-releases/judicial-watch-obtains-4-to-5-inch-stack-of-overlooked-cia-records-detailing-meetings-with-bin-laden-filmmakers/, the White House worked closely with director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal to incorporate administration talking points and play up the president's role as the gutsy decision maker. To the dismay of Mrs. Clinton, our government is not innocent in the case of Zero Dark Thirty.

What, then, will the Obama administration do to prevent the rampant violence that this film will certainly incite? Pressure Sony to stop its distribution? Perp-walk Bigelow and Boal to jail? These steps may be unnecessary, if the administration succeeds in shifting blame to the intelligence community. Finally admitting that the Benghazi massacre was a terrorist attack, administration officials now tell us that they were unaware of terrorist threats converging on the consulate with the anniversary of 9/11. Had they known, measures would have been taken to protect the Americans stranded in Benghazi.

But, dashing hopes for an Obama Oscar (to go with his Nobel Peace Prize), they did know. There were numerous intelligence and DoD reports warning of the intense al Qaeda buildup in Libya during the six months prior to the Benghazi attack. According to reports such as “Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile” (released in August), al Qaeda terrorists were probably bumping into each other in Benghazi. Ansar al Sharia held a June demonstration at Liberation Square; 15 militias showed up. Recent news reports reveal that, contrary to its repeated claims of ignorance, the administration was well aware of 13 threats or attacks on western diplomats and officials in Libya during the period. This is where president Obama's "Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat" mantra comes back to bite him, viciously.

Not only was the Obama administration cognizant of the emerging al Qaeda threat, it was aware of repeated requests from Benghazi for additional security — requests that were denied. Moreover, as al Qaeda forces were advancing, US forces were being withdrawn. According to CBS News, the State Department removed three Mobile Security Deployment teams and a 16-member Site Security Team between February and August. In the sobering aftermath of such blunders, a stern Obama warned of the consequences to countries that fail to protect Americans: we will send the FBI three weeks later, after reporters have left, examine the crime scene for an hour, and write a nasty report condemning the murders (after the election).

Not only was the Obama administration cognizant of the emerging al Qaeda threat, it was aware of repeated requests from Benghazi for additional security — requests that were denied.

Audaciously taking credit for the death of bin Laden, Obama purposefully evades responsibility for the deaths of Ambassador Stevens and his three colleagues. It is a shameless coverup for monumental ineptitude. He conceals his failed conciliatory policies, his misreading of the Arab Awakening, and his lack of interest in actionable intelligence information. Calls to seek justice and form yet another investigatory panel ("We're still doing an investigation," said President Obama, yukking it up on “The View” while FBI agents fretted in Tripoli) merely hide the negligence that left four Americans stranded in a pathetically unprotected facility to die valiantly and alone, murdered by a horde of terrorist cowards. Negligence, and ineptitude — the ineptitude that has transformed America's "Don't Tread on Me" into Obama’s "Grin and Bear It."

quot;bin Laden is dead




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Censoring South Park

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Earlier this year I read an interview with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creative duo behind the hit animated comedy South Park, in conjunction with their new Broadway play The Book of Mormon. What struck me was one of them saying that in the episode of South Park in which they lambasted the cult of Scientology, they had wanted to say that Tom Cruise is in the closet. Their lawyer advised them that Cruise could sue them for defamation, so instead they put the cartoon version of Tom Cruise in a literal closet that he refused to come out of. The result was laugh-out-loud comedic gold, but it highlights one of my major peeves about legal causes of action, which is the law of defamation.

Defamation is a cause of action under which a plaintiff can sue a defendant for damage to his reputation. In For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard wrote that he believed defamation law should be abolished, because a person’s reputation exists in the brains of other people and the plaintiff has no property right in other people’s minds. My concern is broader; I believe that defamation law scares people away from making statements that might offend those among us with the money to hire lawyers. This fear of being sued for defamation chills people's ability to say what they want. It scares them away from criticizing others, even when the criticism might be justified and deserved.

This danger is often poignant in the case of such artistic representations as South Park, which makes deep, meaningful social commentary by making jokes, often offensive ones, directed at people who could easily take offense and who generally have money. The strange thing is that the first amendment has a clause that guarantees freedom of speech. Why isn't the First Amendment regarded as making charges of defamation unconstitutional?

There is a larger and a smaller answer. The larger answer is that the members of the Supreme Court, even the supposedly “textualist” and “originalist” conservatives, do not take the words of the Constitution literally. They make interpretations that twist and mangle it into something that looks like what they want, something that deforms the meaning of the words on paper, written by the Founders. The smaller, more specific answer is that the Supreme Court has grappled with the conflict between free speech and defamation, and has chosen a middle ground that tries reconciles the two.

Why isn't the First Amendment regarded as making charges of defamation unconstitutional?

In the landmark case of New York Times v.Sullivan (1964), an overseer of Southern police officers, sued the Times and members of the civil rights movement under a defamation theory, accusing them of damaging the policemen’s reputation by publishing an ad indicating that the police had committed crimes against demonstrators. Instead of holding defamation unconstitutional, the Supreme Court found for the defendants, holding that when public officials assert defamation they must prove “actual malice,” meaning that the defendant knew his statement was false or acted with reckless disregard for truth. This is a much higher standard than the “negligence” requirement that applies to defamation against private individuals on matters of public concern or the mere “publication” requirement that applies to defamation by private citizens on a matter of private concern. However, after Sullivan the Supreme Court expanded the actual malice rule to cover “public figures” as well as public officials, so most celebrities, such Tom Cruise, must prove actual malice.

Actual malice was designed to prevent censorship. I am sure that the Court believed it was being quite generous by creating such a high barrier to recovery. But because defamation continued to exist, the fear of being sued and the expense of litigation remain a serious impediment to American free speech and to our ability to criticize people of political and social importance. Speaking freely about the flaws (real or alleged) of our political and cultural leadership is a basic requirement for democracy to function.

A more recent important case is Hustler Magazine & Larry Flynt v.Jerry Falwell, a 1988 United States Supreme Court case in which evangelist Jerry Falwell sued a pornographic magazine for printing a joke that accused him of having sex with his mother. The accusation was obviously a joke that no one could take seriously. It was also clearly an example of the use of charges of defamation to censor criticism and take revenge against people who offend you. The jury found against Falwell on his libel claim, but found against Hustler on the “intentional infliction of emotional distress” claim, which is a somewhat similar cause of action that is also used to censor criticism and punish offensive behavior. The jury awarded substantial monetary damages. The Supreme Court, however, found in favor of the magazine on the “IIED” (as lawyers call it) claim, citing the need to protect the American tradition of political satire cartoons, and held that the New York Times v.Sullivan “actual malice” standard for defamation against public figures should also be used in cases involved intentional infliction of emotional distress claims against public figures, in order to protect free speech and create breathing room for vigorous debate. Regarding the right to be offensive towards other people, the court said that offensive speech is protected by the First Amendment.

But again, the Court refused to see the truth sitting right under its nose, which is that the only real purpose of claims of defamation (or intentional infliction of emotion distress claims alleged against plaintiffs because of what they say or write) is to censor speech; and this violates the first amendment. The law of defamation has no place in a society that believes in intellectual freedom for all citizens. We libertarians are basically the only group of people in America who say that the emperor has no clothes and who criticize governmental mistakes that modern-liberals and conservatives ignore or condone. Defamation is an obvious abuse of the law and of the state’s coercive power to repress independent thinking, and we should all get angry about it.




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They're Coming for Your Internet

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In a thinly-veiled message to Internet users throughout the US and beyond, the FBI today (Jan. 19) shut down the file-sharing service MegaUpload.com, seizing the company’s domain name along with its headquarters. With this raid, the feds clearly meant to show that they were the bosses of the online world, laws and legislation be damned. As usual, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

Back up a couple days. On the eve of January 17, Internet sites all over the world were preparing to “blackout” to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) then under consideration in the House of Representatives (in the Senate, as the Protect Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA). The bill would give the government power to seize any website that was reported to be hosting pirated material, or even providing links to such material.

Those doing the reporting, of course, would be the media companies themselves — thus giving them, essentially, a kill switch for sites they don’t like. So if you pan a big-budget movie — or break off a relationship with a studio exec — or really just in any way piss off anyone connected to a lawyer in the entertainment industry — your site could get shut down without due process and without recourse.

But the possibilities for petty revenge are far from the worst thing about the bill. That would be instead its potential to crush political dissent. Under SOPA, the presence of any link to “pirated” material would be sufficient to kill a site — even if the content is provided by anonymous commenters. Hence, the easiest way to silence dissidence online would be to spam the offending site with dubious links.

Even the biggest sites would be susceptible to such tactics; hence why even the behemoths of the Internet, such as Google and Wikipedia, signed onto the protest. With such sites as these “blacked-out” (usually redirecting to petitions or email-your-congressman forms), even casual Internet users found themselves confronted with the ramifications of the government’s latest lunatic notion. For once the people spoke, and many Congressmen reversed position.

The feds couldn’t let such a demonstration go unpunished, but lacking the power to shut down Google and Wikipedia (for now, anyway), they did the next best thing: publicly target and destroy a site like MegaUpload, as a way of announcing that they would shut down whomever they felt like. What they always forget, though, is how little they know about computing and networking, compared to the people who put together the kinds of sites they want to shut down. The response from the actually competent sector of the online world was swift and brutal: within two hours, the hacker collective Anonymous (previously best known for taking down the Church of Scientology site) had attacked and temporarily killed off the sites for the Department of Justice, the FBI, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, the US Copyright Office, and assorted major film studios and record labels.

These sites will all come back, obviously: only the government would claim the right to banish a site for good. But the mere fact that they could go down at all shows their vulnerability to attacks from very loosely affiliated networks of competent individuals. And that is a weakness that, try as they might, the DoJ, the FBI, the MPAA, et al., can never come to grips with: their very existence is predicated on massive, centralized, bureaucratic incompetence. To give that up would be to begin their own dismemberment.

It will be fascinating — and a bit worrying — to see how the government and major media companies will respond. Certainly SOPA and PIPA will come back in new, more insidious forms, probably as riders on unrelated bills. Though President Obama bucked his industry pals and came out against the bills this time (only, of course, once the online campaign against them was in full cry), there is no guarantee he would in a second term. Meanwhile, among the Republican candidates, only Ron Paul (natch) has denounced the bills; a President Romney, Gingrich, or Perry would probably sign them into law. [Edit: in the evening's Republican primary debate in South Carolina, candidates Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul all spoke out against SOPA — though Romney and especially Santorum still appeared to leave space for future censorship of the internet.]

Until then, what is required of us is vigilance — vigilance, and an unyielding determination not to let a few hundred computer illiterates in Washington DC legislate away our cultural future.



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