Tag: free speech under attack

On the Spirit of Free Speech

Ellie McFarland | United States

In the wake of what has been dubbed “The Smirk Seen Round the World” questions about the morality of doxxing are arising. In the case of this most recent incident, a video surfaced of a group of private Catholic high school students (attending the March for Life), “Black Hebrew Israelites”, and a Native American veteran ensconced in a what amounted to a commotion of dull screaming and a drum beat. But what caught the internet’s attention was the now infamous smirk of Nick Sandmann– the student pictured most prominently in the video. Soon after the video was released, the internet at large erupted into a tsunami of hit pieces and Twitter hate mobs. Eventually, full-grown adults found the addresses and other personal information of several Covington high school students. This is doxxing.

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Breaking The Rules Thoughtfully

By Craig Axford | United States

In her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi describes her living room as providing “a place of transgression” each Thursday morning where a select group of her female students could safely gather to discuss literature that had been banned by Iran’s Islamic regime. Not only were forbidden books and ideas on the agenda, but those in attendance could remove the veil and headscarf they were compelled to wear outside Nafisi’s small apartment, sometimes revealing jewelry or makeup in the process.

These gestures of self-expression were acts of defiance that served as reminders of the freedom and dignity the regime sought to suppress, especially among Iran’s female population. “It allowed us to defy the repressive reality outside the room — not only that but to avenge ourselves on those who controlled our lives.” Nafisi continues, “For those few precious hours we felt free to discuss our pains and our joys, our personal hang-ups, and weaknesses; for that suspended time we abdicated our responsibilities to our parents, relatives and friends, and to the Islamic Republic.”

A certain degree of defiance is necessary not only to experience true freedom but for anything like progress to occur. In societies that protect the individual’s right to expression, the kind of risks Nafisi and her students took each week over the life of their secret gatherings are difficult for people to imagine. If you’re reading this then imprisonment, torture, or even death for reading particular books or expressing your feelings and opinions probably isn’t even a remote possibility.

But stepping too far outside the collective comfort zone of any culture still comes at a price. The usually unwritten norms of a society still bring some expectation that they will be followed. Shunning, ridicule or even violence can follow in even the most tolerant of communities when individuals or groups start challenging convention too cavalierly.

While a willingness to question or even break the rules is essential to pushing ourselves and our communities forward, not all acts of transgression are created equal. Some conventions really are worth fighting for. The Dalai Lama XIV has offered potential rule breakers this bit of advice: “Learn and obey the rules very well so you will know to break them properly.”

Lashing out destructively is easy. Any two-year-old can and has done it. Lashing out constructively, on the other hand, requires a familiarity with both the problem being targeted and the limitations of the system perpetuating it. Knowing a little bit of the relevant history will also help us understand the context and better appreciate why people often cling to even the most regressive or misguided ideas and policies.

The gatherings described in Reading Lolita in Tehran were undertaken with the kind of awareness the Dalai Lama rightly states is necessary for successful rule breaking. The women were careful to reveal themselves both physically and emotionally to one another only under certain circumstances. With few exceptions, the forbidden topics that were the subject of their meetings were not discussed outside of them. It was understood that rushing into the streets waving their copies of banned books or shouting their disapproval of the regime from the rooftops would not, under the circumstances at that time, actually result in the kind of transformation they craved. The gatherings in Nafisi’s living room were both radical and pragmatic at the same time.

Sadly, freedom of expression is the sort of gift we tend to only truly appreciate when there is some great personal risk associated with it. Because many of us, particularly in Western democratic countries, have been enjoying it at a steadily declining price we have gone from making the mistake of taking it for granted to the even greater error of assuming the personal cost of free speech reflects its value. As a result, we’re now regularly treating it as cheap and disposable.

Alex Jones is an unfortunate case in point. The decision by a number of tech and social media companies to purge their platforms of Jones’ incendiary content has him claiming martyrdom and equating freedom of speech with the right to use social media platforms to express virtually any idea that might find its way into his head. While the women Nafisi writes about treated their Thursday morning get-togethers almost as sacred events to be treasured and protected at all cost, Jones has no sense of responsibility for the content of his rhetoric and demeans freedom of expression by conflating it with being heard. In Jones’ mind and that of his listeners — an audience which apparently even includes the president — the quality of the content is completely divorced from the privilege of having particular platforms from which to broadcast it.

Jones’ and other prominent contemporary figures are unquestionably rule breakers. Indeed, norms are being smashed left and right. Clicks and media ratings have, at least for the time being, replaced reasoned argument as the coin of the realm. But one is hard-pressed to find evidence that these proverbial bulls in democracy’s china shop have anything more than destruction in mind. Their place of transgression is the world as a whole rather than a living room where the larger cultural context is taken into account and the toll of breaking each rule is carefully weighed.

Fifty-five pages into her memoir Nafisi reminds us just how valuable freedom of expression really is. She does this not just by describing the act of engaging in forbidden speech, but the act of eating a forbidden meal with a man she is forbidden to be alone with without her father, brother, or husband present:

I raised my glass of water to him and said, Who would have thought that such a simple meal would appear to us like a kingly feast? and he said, We must thank the Islamic Republic for making us rediscover and even covet all these things we took for granted: one could write a paper on the pleasure of eating a ham sandwich. And I said, Oh, the things we have to be thankful for! And that memorable day was the beginning of our detailing our long list of debts to the Islamic Republic: parties, eating ice cream in public, falling in love, holding hands, wearing lipstick, laughing in public and reading Lolita in Tehran.

Alex Jones and others like him would have us divorce all our acts of expression from the consequences. In so doing they debase the currency of our democracy by placing every lie and conspiracy theory on the same playing field with meaningful debates about social policy, ethics, or the latest scientific theories.

From the most banal day-to-day activities like eating ham sandwiches or holding hands in public to the most popular public broadcasts and widely read social media posts, everything is diminished to meaninglessness in a world where taking into account civic norms and considering our responsibilities to one another bears no relation to preserving the right to freely express ourselves. As the parents of the children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre know all too well, Jones’ view of freedom of speech has very real consequences for the liberty and safety of others living in the same republic that has offered him the opportunity to speak his mind.

Rights don’t mean we needn’t bother putting any effort into identifying the proper time and place to transgress the rules. Rights and responsibilities will forever be two sides of the same coin. Jones isn’t hiding in a living room sharing his views with a handful of friends because to go any further is to risk arrest or torture. He has access to the greatest and most open communications network the world has ever seen. By ignoring the quality of his content Jones has invited individuals and companies alike to distance themselves from him to the greatest extent possible. That’s not censorship. That’s just what happens when you treat speech like garbage that can be hauled to the curb every week along with all the other trash.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him at Medium.com

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How #GoldRush2018 Could Save the Supreme Court

By John Keller | USA

Following the retirement of SCOTUS Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Republicans and the Democrats are locked in a battle of wills over who will be the nominee to fill Kennedy’s seat. The current partisan makeup of the Senate is 51-49, with the Republicans having the narrow majority. Mitch McConnell and head Republicans went “nuclear” in 2017, changing the votes required for nomination of a Justice from 60 to a simple majority, in order to get Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. These new rules allows for hyper partisan justices who are favored by the majority party in the Senate to be nominated.

The Republican Party may be waiting to nominate a Justice until the midterm elections this November in order to use the nomination process as a political weapon to get people out and vote Republican. The Republicans used a similar tactic in 2016, blocking President Obama’s nomination, Merrick Garland, for 293 days until President Trump could nominate Neil Gorsuch.

Voting Libertarian could save the Supreme Court from extreme partisanship. Should just two Libertarians be elected to the Senate, a 49-49-2 composition of parties would be created in the Senate, preventing any nomination that would be decided based on ideological differences and party politics. It would also allow for a return to nominating a Justice who would base their rulings on the constitution, rather than partisanship, just as Justice Anthony Kennedy had done. Justice Kennedy was a swing voter on the court, meaning he didn’t use his ideology as a basis for his rulings, but rather the Constitution.

This upcoming election could be critical in determining if the United States will have a partisan court or a non-partisan court that chooses to prioritize the Constitution rather than political opinion in its rulings. Two options can save the court: voting for Libertarians, such as Matt Waters (L-VA), or by “denuclearizing” the Senate and justices are confirmed. “Denuclearization” would mean a return to requiring sixty votes to confirm a Supreme Court Justice – a change that won’t come voting Republican or Democrat. Only the introduction of a third party to the Senate can prevent a partisan Supreme Court and begin the process of “denuclearizing” the Supreme Court Justice nomination process.

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Taking on the Duopoly – Bill Weld Sues the Winner-Take-All System

Early this month, on February 21st, Bill Weld filed to sue the state of Massachusetts to overturn the winner-take-all system for assigning electoral votes in Massachusetts. This system is used in 48 states, including Massachusetts. The suit claimed:

“The predominant method in America for counting votes in presidential elections violates the United States Constitution; it also distorts presidential campaigns, facilitates targeted outside interference in our elections, and ensures that a substantial number of citizen voters are disenfranchised when their votes are tallied in early November, only to be discarded when it really counts in mid-December”

It is believed that Bill Weld will be using the Equal Protection Clause of the XIV. Amendment to overturn this rule in Massachusetts, and as a result, America. The Equal Protection Clause is written as follows:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Based on the current “winner takes all” system in America with the electoral college, it is possible for over 50% of Americans votes to not be represented when the electoral college casts its votes in December. With a re-examination of the 2016 Presidential Election this trend is very clear, based on data provided by Politico.

In 2016, if an at-large by state electoral system, over the winner takes all system, was enacted no candidate would have gotten 270 electoral votes and they would have been distributed as such: 262 for Clinton/Kaine (D), 258 for Trump/Pence (R), 15 for Johnson/Weld (L), 5 for Stein/Baraka (G), and 1 for McMullin/Finn (I). If the electoral votes had been distributed, although unrealistically, nationally, then 31 electoral votes would have been awarded to third party candidates. Due to the winner take all system, Donald Trump won the presidency with 306 electoral votes (56.88%) despite winning only 46.09% of the popular vote.

In the winner take all system only the ticket with the most votes can get the electoral votes. As a result, in 2016 only 74,211,186 voters (57.60%) were represented at the electoral college. This means that 42.6% of votes had no effect, and essentially, didn’t matter in the election. With the implementation of the system Bill Weld is fighting for in Weld v. Massachusetts, only 5,335,130 (3.89%) of votes in the 2016 election would have not been represented in the electoral college.

Because of the winner-take-all system every person’s vote is not equal, thus their votes, and in turn their political voices, are not equally protected as guaranteed by the XIV. Amendment. 

The day after he filed suit, Bill Weld tweeted the following:


In the upcoming case the defendants of the law is Governor Charlie Baker (R), Bill Weld’s former Lieutenant Governor, and the state Attorney General Maura Healey (D). This case is one of the most important cases prior to the 2020 Presidential Election, almost just as important as the gerrymandering cases that are reaching the Supreme Court, as well as State Supreme Courts, prior to 2018 Midterm Elections. If the winner-take-all system is overturned, alongside the gerrymandering cases, the two-party duopoly will have a realistic chance of ending. If Bill Weld is successful, Weld v. Massachusetts will revolutionize America’s constitutional republic for hundreds of years, and potentially, forever.

The Fear of Fake News May Be the End of Europe

By Mason Mohon | EUROPE

1984 was a warning, not a manual.

France and the U.K. have had talks about the regulation of fake news, and what they are going to do to stop the spread of it. Macron has made statements that around the election seasons, there would be an increase in regulation around the media. This was his response to what he saw as disinformation being spread about him by popular alternative news source Russia Today.

Even more recently, the U.K. government has decided to dig in its heels and say that free speech regulations are on their way as part of a defense program. The prime minister’s spokesman said:

We are living in an era of fake news and competing narratives. The government will respond with more and better use of national security communications to tackle these interconnected, complex challenges.

But what does this all mean? What are the implications behind such a crackdown?

Fake News Phenomenon

With the election of Donald Trump and the 2016 election cycle, skepticism behind reporting from mainstream media sources has risen. Trust in CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC is at the lowest we have seen in quite a long time, and alternative media sources have seen gains in response.

When it gets down to it, it is a great thing that people, both American and European, are adding skepticism to their utility belt of political resources, but there are two ways that this can go wrong.

The first issue is that citizens may look at any news against “their team” as fake. In the United States, any negative reporting on Donald Trump is just brushed off as fake news by r/The_Donald and conservatives all over Twitter. When they can call it fake news, and pretend their president is all good and perfect, why wouldn’t they?

This issue is dwarfed by the other result of fake news-phobia. As mentioned before, the state is going after it in many different European nations. People should be in panic whenever the government becomes the arbiter of what is and is not true. As Robbie Travers reported:

If having a Government body decide what can and cannot be published – thereby creating a culture of both official censorship and self-censorship — is not enough to concern you, the briefest glance at what this newly created British body would consider “Fake News” should send you running into the street.

If the government can now decide what is and is not true, what the succeeds in media then becomes what does and doesn’t conform to the government’s view.

Why We Have Free Press

The first amendment to the US Constitution protects, among other rights, the freedom of the press. The founding fathers added this in because they saw the press of the regulator of the regulator. Someone needs to keep the government in check, so private institutions need the freedom to do so.

The Sedition Act passed by President Adams in our early years sought to ban criticism of the government. The U.S. has done this all before, and we have seen that these types of regulations are not morally right, nor do they work. We need a private apparatus to keep the institution of violence checked, which means that a free and unregulated press is integral to any free society.

The Solution?

There are two problems that we face; people deny the truth, and the government regulates news. Both of these are critical issues that require our attention.

The solution to the first problem falls on you and I. We have to be responsible and keep up our integrity in the course of debate and argument, and if somebody provides a fact, we cannot dismiss it as fake news. Even if the facts are convicting of you and your beliefs, they are facts.

The solution to the problem of the government is the market. The U.S. handled the fake news crisis very well. As people began to hate the mainstream media, they started reading alternative news sources. When people feel that they have been lied to, they demand a new source of information. In the marketplace, demand is a business opportunity.

We can rely on the free market to provide reliable information as long as the people feel that reliable information is needed. Government involvement will quickly turn the tide and turn all into people asking the state if they can say certain things. That is no way to organize a society, which is why things are looking grim for the European countries.

Image form Business Cloud News.