Monday, October 04, 2010

Privatizing the Suppression of Free Speech

The Christian Science Monitor has posted an interesting article entitled “Free Speech: What if Terry Jones Went to Sweden?” The author, Mike Sacks, compares the right to free speech in the United States with the more limited versions granted in other countries, particularly European ones. It’s an interesting article, and it points out several examples both here and in Europe that will be familiar to regular readers of Gates of Vienna.

Like most Americans who examine the current assault against civil liberties in Europe, Mr. Sacks cites the First Amendment of the Constitution as an American bulwark against the kind of abuses that citizens of the EU have to endure on a regular basis:

In addition, much of Europe has also enacted hate speech laws that allow for prosecution of expression where the United States does not. Had Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., taken his “International Burn a Koran Day” overseas and arrived in Stockholm wearing one of the “Islam Is of the Devil” T-shirts that his church sells, he could have been charged under Sweden’s prohibition on expressing disrespect for a group based on their faith.

This is quite true. Assuming that his career could ever have proceeded as far in Sweden as it has in Florida, Rev. Jones could indeed have been charged with hets mot folkgrupp, incitement against an ethnic group.

Being prosecuted, however, is only part of the consequences that Terry Jones would have faced in Sweden. He would also have been ostracized and subjected to extreme social pressure, and been vilified by government officials and the media for his “xenophobia” and “racism”.

Oh, wait a minute… That’s exactly what did happen to Terry Jones right here in the USA. His church’s website was shut down, he was pressured by various religious and community groups, and he was denounced by local, state, and federal officials, right up to President Barack Hussein Obama.

In fact, Rev. Jones endured consequences that he never would have faced in Sweden: his church was slapped with a $180,000 bill from the local police force for the extra duty that his actions were alleged to have imposed on them.

And all this without burning a single Koran.

Hmph. Some freedom of speech.

The CSM article, like so many others on this topic, ignores the fact that there is more than one way to skin a cat when suppressing freedom of speech. Formal criminal charges are not even the best method of enforcing silence on those whose expressions are unwelcome. There are numerous other techniques that can be brought to bear, and in a Western society such means are usually more effective than simple prosecution.

In fact, the United States is often better than Europe at silencing dissent using alternative methods. Take, for example, the Danish Mohammed cartoons. Virtually no major American media outlet showed a single one of the cartoons. How many Americans actually saw a Motoon, except on the internet? Yet numerous European newspapers — even in politically correct strongholds like Norway — printed at least some of the cartoons at one time or another.

The First Amendment protected American newspapers and television networks. They had no reason to fear legal action if they published one of the Motoons. Yet still they kept them hidden.


There are a number of ways that American culture brings pressure to bear on those who express politically incorrect opinions. I’ll run through just a few of them, and readers are invited add more in the comments if they like.

1. Lawfare. Never underestimate the fear of lawsuits. The United States is a litigious society, with thousands of trial lawyers salivating for a piece of the damage award pie. A single class action lawsuit can make a lawyer into a billionaire if he picks the right case and the right venue.

Remember the Flying Imams in Minneapolis? Their original suit named individual passengers who had been alert enough to voice their concerns to the cabin crew — that is, for doing exactly what DHS had asked them to do to help prevent terror attacks.

Talk about a chilling effect.

2. Official legal harassment. A few weeks ago police in East Lansing, Michigan, offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the person who committed “desecration” by burning the Koran. There is no law in the United States against the desecration of anything. The man who did it had burned his own book without threatening or endangering anyone else.

Fortunately for the “desecrator”, a sensible judge threw the case out, realizing that there was no issue of law. But such an outcome is not guaranteed, and in many places he might have faced an extended and expensive battle to get the charges dropped.

How many other people will now think twice before engaging in similar forms of protest?

3. Institutional censure or expulsion. If you are enrolled in an institution of higher learning in the USA, you check your First Amendment rights when you pass through its ivy-covered portals.

Take, for example, the case of Jennifer Keeton. Augusta State University in Georgia has threatened this young woman with expulsion because she considers homosexuality morally wrong, as taught by her Christian beliefs:

Jennifer Keeton, 24, who is pursuing a master’s degree in counseling, said she was ordered to undergo a re-education plan that requires her to attend “diversity sensitivity training,” complete additional remedial reading and write papers to describe their effects on her beliefs, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The ultimatum: Complete this re-education plan or be expelled from ASU’s Counselor Education Program.

Ms. Keeton could, of course, convert to Islam. Then she could advocate toppling stone walls on homosexuals, and no one would bat an eye.

After all, some forms of diversity are more equal than others.

4. Loss of employment. A New Jersey Transit employee named Derek Fenton burned pages from a Koran at Ground Zero on 9-11, and was fired
the following Monday. Governor Chris Christie — a Republican, mind you, and currently celebrated nationwide by conservatives for his aggressive stance against fiscal profligacy — supported the decision by the transit agency.

A large proportion of the workforce is employed by federal, state, or local governments. All such workers must think twice before speaking out. And private employers are no better — many of them are even more zealous than the feds when it comes to mandating “inclusive” and “sensitive” speech by their employees.

5. Physical assault. As we have seen in so many circumstances, it is unsafe to voice conservative or anti-Muslim positions in public. People with cameras or video recorders are especially vulnerable to attack by those who don’t share their opinions.

The greatest risk of assault is probably from members of the Religion of Peace, but leftists are quite prone to fisticuffs, too. For example, a Human Events reporter was assaulted at the leftist “One Nation Working Together” rally in Washington D.C. last Saturday. Her crime? Videotaping Rep. Charles Rangel and his crowd of admirers:

A liberal protester at the “One Nation Working Together” march physically assaulted a HUMAN EVENTS reporter who was videotaping Rep. Charlie Rangel (D.-N.Y) at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where the liberal rally took place.

The reporter, Emily Miller, was first hit from behind while she was taping Rangel as the Harlem congressman glad-handed supporters in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Miss Miller is heard on the video saying, “Please don’t hit me.” The protester proceeds to yell at the reporter, “Well get out of the way! What do you think this is? A--hole.” The activist was attempting to meet Rangel herself. Miss Miller continued videotaping the event, when suddenly the same unhinged protester lunged at her, hit her on the arm, and yelled, “Don’t take my picture.”

As the footage shows, the protestor then slapped Miss Miller, hitting the flip cam and saying, “Do not take my picture. Do not take my f---ing picture and I mean it.”

The scene continued, as the deranged woman assaulted Miss Miller yet again, before having to be restrained by members of the Park Police.

Check out the footage at the linked article. You’ll notice that although the police intervened to protect her, they obviously wanted to tell the reporter to shut down her camera. They knew they had no legal standing to do so — there’s no law against videotaping a public event on public property — but the zeitgeist militates against any conservative who wants to record the antics of leftists in their natural habitat.

You just don’t do it. And, if you do, you’d best wear body armor and a football helmet, because you’re going to get smacked around and punched for your insolence and temerity.

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Those are just a few examples I can think of off the top of my head. I’m sure that alert readers can come up with many more incidents in which the constitutional rights of Americans to speak and publish freely have been squelched by non-judicial means.

Yes, it’s rare for us to be actually hauled into court for speaking our minds, but we are silenced quite effectively by various other methods. Like our European cousins, we can be financially ruined, officially harassed, and physically harmed by exercising our First Amendment rights.

It’s true we’re fortunate that we don’t generally have to go to jail for speaking out. But how much consolation is that right now for Derek Fenton or Jennifer Keeton?

Hat tip: DW.


Anonymous said...

There's also a softer type of censorship going on. Almost every time I say something even mildly un-PC in a politically diverse group, whether in person or on the internet, the hard-core leftists seize the platform and use unbelievably inflated language about trivia. Example: I mentioned I didn't like a certain Asian pop group, because they seemed overly scripted. Someone told me to stop the hate. Seriously. Only one person defended me, even though I knew for a fact that there were many other witnesses who knew what I said wasn't anti-Asian.

Jack said...

Usually it seems its not even the Muslims, or other ethnic groups kicking up the fuss, its the leftists communists etc doing it for them.

Anonymous said...

Here's a related story by Phyllis Chesler, in which some leftist students disrupted a ceremony honoring Dr. Martin Peretz. Even though Peretz is a liberal, he may have taken some "wrong" positions on the Middle East.
Red Guard Harvard Students "Educate" Dr. Martin Peretz

sulber nick said...

Let me tell you a story, albeit true... I used to have a managerial role in a government department. One day with very little to do I spent an entertaining half hour or so writing an ironic tale about the 'pc-police'. Somewhat carelessly not to say fatally for my career prospects I tidied my writings away and inadvertently placed them inside a file I was closing. Two years later the said file resurfaced in another office miles away from where I worked, an employee caught sight of my ironic tale and made a complaint - there was an investigation, my writing eventually found its way back to my desk, I was suspended, humiliated, had a strip torn off, and ordered to undergo 'equality training'. Of course I quit the job as soon as I could find other (much less lucrative) employment and my family has been struggling financially ever since. The ironic tale offended neither group nor individual, it merely poked fun at an idea - sensitive lot these liberals!

Old Lady said...

There is always the counter of each argument. Both sides have a right to free speech and opinion. I believe that we should not be killed for those thoughts and opinions, but somewhere along the line we must own what we say and be prepared for counter action and opinions. In all cases I believe in balance and co-existance. We all as a world will never agree in total on everything-but the most aggregious reaction to any opinion spoken publically is death. So, yes people will continue to loose jobs and suffer abuse from their opinions. But until balance and co-existence is achieved, extreme expressions of speech will continue.

Baron Bodissey said...

Peter1 is having trouble logging in to his Google account, and asked me to post this comment for him:


This is a very very good point. It is coming to me that what we call a "conservative" in the US is mostly about the rights of business vs the right of government. Thats it. No other conservative context, which we usually believe in. I don't say that this opposition business/government is irrelevant or not important, but there are other problems in this world, too. Some of them may be even more urgent than that.

The problem with many conservatives is that they apply their own beliefs to politics, which beliefs have nothing to do with real partisan divide. For example, they want to see the fight for freedom, equality and fraternity where there is a contest between business and government. Which both are actually necessary, and more than that, need each other. So, we put our passion in a non-existent fight, sort of a football game.

1389 said...

Gross dereliction of duty on the part of US and EU public safety authorities.

Kirk Parker said...

Well, let's be careful not to overdo it here, though--specifically regarding the East Lansing case.

Bogus charges are not as unusual as they should be, because even the best of us is still human and fallible, and often enough the police and prosecutors aren't "the best of us", merely mediocre and sometimes worse.

But what the tales of woe tend to overlook is how often cases of police overreach aren't just thrown out, but also result in serious compensation being paid as the result of subsequent lawsuits being filed against the departments and/or municipalities involved. Again, not as often as should happen, but often enough that it's hard for me to believe that media bias isn't at work, when we see how little these outcomes form part of the overall public perception.

Sean O'Brian said...

Harper's Magazine reprinted all of the Mohammed cartoons, retaining their cultural relevance as a serious arts publication in the process.

Interesting comment by Peter1. American conservatism does seem to have a strict ideological adherence to capitalism running through it along the lines of Adam Smith, von Hayek etc. This seems to have been exacerbated by the Cold War when competing economic systems took centre-stage.

By contrast a good example of a European conservative who wouldn't fit into the American context would be Charles Dickens, who's considered to be anti-capitalist. Jacob Marley and pre-conversion Ebenezer Scrooge could almost be Randian heroes.

Yet Nicholas Nickleby and other Dickensian heroes are conservative in temperament and in terms of traditional values, Christian instincts and an appreciation for the English countryside. Most would have agreed with Thomas Jefferson's low opinion of cities.