Tag Archives: free speech

Idaho Legislators And Their Lust For Goats

A little late to this, but a court has (predictably) struck down Idaho’s First Amendment abomination:

Idaho’s so-called “ag-gag” law, which outlawed undercover investigations of farming operations, is no more. A judge in the federal District Court for Idaho decided Monday that it was unconstitutional, citing First Amendment protections for free speech.

This is obviously the correct decision. The Idaho law not only violated the right to free speech, it was shameless about doing so to protect humans from being punished for infliction violence upon animals. Specifically, the law prohibited journalists or activists from filming inside such facilities where inhumane treatment was likely to occur. I often accuse free speech opponents of f**king goats. I think Idaho’s legislature clearly fits that bill. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so eager to ban the filming of what happens to farm animals.

I Wanna Be Forgotten…

and I don’t wanna be reminded…

So sang The Strokes over a decade ago, and it seems that Europe will let them have their way. This decision came down a while ago, but I’ve been waiting to see the full impact before commenting. Forbes summarizes:

Thanks to the recent decision by the EU’s highest court, Europeans can now force Google and other search engines to remove unfavorable links from search results connected to their name. The verdict came in a case brought by a Spanish lawyer who wanted to suppress a 1998 legal notice concerning the foreclosure of his home.  The info, he said, was no longer relevant and he didn’t want it showing up every time someone Googled his name. So, asserting the so-called “right to be forgotten,” he took Google to court, and five years later, he won.  The ruling issued last month gives individuals the right to redact results on searches of their names if the info is inadequate, irrelevant or simply out of date.

It appears that since this decision, Google has received 10,000 requests a day for removal of links, many from ex-convicts.

There’s a possible argument to be made in favor of such a policy: given human cognitive failings, we probably do overvalue information that is “inadequate, irrelevant[,] or simply out of date.” The rules of evidence, for example, exclude evidence whose prejudicial effect outweighs its probative value. Thus, when a banker is on trial for embezzlement, you cannot introduce evidence of a statutory rape conviction from when he was 17.

Outside the courtroom, however, this rule is unworkable because of another important policy: free speech. The “right to be forgotten” means “the right to tell someone else what they can’t say about you.” This policy prohibits truthful speech, since there is no allegation that the information presented in Google’s search results was inaccurate. It’s also terrifyingly vague: what the hell is inadequate, irrelevant, or out of date?  Because of its vagueness – likely unconstitutional in the US under First Amendment jurisprudence – such a rule also necessarily chills all kinds of truthful speech: when in doubt, don’t publish the information, lest the European courts punish you for doing so. (Assuming that you could be punished for doing so. I don’t know.)

As a free speech absolutist, I find the “right to be forgotten” a ridiculous overreaction to the new world of privacy. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one trying to police this line, and I don’t trust anyone else to do it, either. As such, I’m pretty happy that I live in a jurisdiction that has the First Amendment.

Follow-Up To The Follow-Up On Duck Dynasty

After discussions in response to my posts on the Duck Dynasty furor, a few clarifications are in order. To the bullet points!

  • I haven’t taken a position on whether A&E should or should not have suspended Phil Robertson. I don’t really care. Their responsibilities, as as profit-making enterprise, is to maximize value for their shareholders. I don’t think their airing of Duck Dynasty is some sort of endorsement of the views of the individuals they depict.  There is no difference between them and the may media companies that are making money by covering this story: they both provide a huge audience for the statements in question and the person that holds those views. I don’t think A&E as an entity has any responsibility here, and if they believe it’s in their best interest to suspend Robertson, they may. It appears that the show may be cancelled because of the suspension, so this may backfire on A&E financially. Their money, their decisions, so nothing to see here.
  • I thought when I wrote it that citing Steve Sailer’s “What goes unsaid eventually goes unthought” might muddle things, and it did. As I suspected, many people believe that Robertson’s views should go unthought, so it’s fine to pressure them into going unsaid. I just disagree with that even though I also believe that ideally, no one would hold Robertson’s views. The reason I disagree with the power of the backlash is that I don’t trust anyone to decide what should go unthought. In a democracy, you’d get tyranny of the majority in a hurry – imagine what 1800’s Alabama may declare as unsayable and thus unthinkable. Public opinion is unstoppable, in a way – as long as we have a civil society, and people care about what others think, certain views will be despised and others will be popular. What I’m lobbying is not acceptance of unpopular views, but an environment in which they can be stated, debated, and we can engage in persuasion and education, not suppression.
  • On this last point, John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (one of my favorites – I’ll post a review soon) makes an excellent point. Mill understands that a free society is bound to have its pressures of popular opinion – if you’re free to ignore someone you disagree with, then many people doing so will have a chilling effect on saying disagreeable things. However, Mill calls for more tolerance of rare or unpopular views, which he refers to “eccentricity.” This doesn’t mean endorsing the views or treating them as equal to others; it means permitting these views to be aired so that they can be discussed and debated. This is a difficult point to make when the views in questions sound hateful and exclusionary, but the rule must be the same for all opinions – remember that at any point in history, the popular opinion was more likely to be hateful and exclusionary than not.
  • Obviously my comments on speech don’t extend to action, though Robertson hasn’t implied any desire to harm gays.

Ultimately, my point is that those of us who wish for a more tolerant and better world can’t achieve it by prohibiting opinions we don’t like. The battle is for hearts and minds, and it can only be won through persuasion and education. There are no shortcuts.

Duck Dynasty Backlash, Overreach Edition

I was hoping I could avoid further comment beyond my initial post on the Duck Dynasty Debacle, but just as as I posted my piece on it I came across a great example of exactly what NOT to think when stuff like this comes up. Josh Barro of Business Insider tells us that Phil Robertson proves There Are Two Americas, and One Is Better Than the Other:

When Sarah Palin and her cohorts talk about the importance of “free speech,” they mean something much more specific: That the sorts of things that Robertson said are not the sorts of things a private employer should want to fire someone for saying. That they are, or ought to be, within the bounds of social acceptability.

But they’re wrong. The other America—the America I live in—has this one right. Racist and anti-gay comments and comments disparaging of religious minorities are rude and unacceptable and might cost you your job. It’s not OK to say that gay people are “full of murder.” …The things Phil Robertson said should get you fired from most jobs.

Barro’s America has this one right, declares Barro. I’ll hold my comment until we hear a little more, except to note that I bet Robertson and his compatriots also feel that their side has this one right. To quote blog-favorite Christopher Hitchens, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

Phil Robertson represents some very real pathologies of his culture, and his job is to provide a look into the reality of that culture to the TV viewer. In some sense, when Robertson compares gays to terrorists, he’s doing his job, too. So I’m sympathetic to the idea that A&E shouldn’t suspend him for this. But if they shouldn’t suspend him, it’s because it’s acceptable for Robertson to say unacceptable things, not because his remarks were acceptable.

Ah, there is. The remarks are unacceptable. They cannot be accepted. You should not accept them. You should shun those who say such things, and the viewpoints they espouse. This is a dangerous statement to make. Dangerous, and arrogant: who the hell is Josh Barro to tell me what may or may not be said? I wonder if Barro would agree if I declared certain things he espouses as unacceptable.

As a holder of many unpopular views, I react quite viscerally to these sort of declarations. I bet you that Josh Barro and his ilk are a lot closer to declaring my views about the differences between men and women “unacceptable.” I won’t even mention my views on group differences. Say what you want about Steve Sailer (and he’s criticized plenty and often for good reason), his most insightful point is that “What goes unsaid eventually goes unthought.” It’s a distillation of a larger point made by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, which is that thoughts (and speech) cannot be banned – they must be continually debated, and, when appropriate, refuted. This not only keeps us sharp, in that we have to constantly justify our views with evidence, it permits unpopular but true views to remain “alive” until they become widely accepted.

This is already way more than this topic deserves, but it needs to be said lest it go unthought.

Mandatory Duck Dynasty Post

A Louisiana man says something most people assume Louisana men think; uproar ensues

Phil Robertson, one of the men in A&E’s Duck Dynasty, said some things in an interview with GQ that I wasn’t going to comment on except that they’ve taken over my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Duck Dynasty is one of the highest-rated cable shows of all time, including the highest-rated “non-fiction” show of all time. I don’t watch it, so I won’t speculate as to the appeal of the show. Suffice it to say, from what little I’ve seen, it features Robertson’s family which acts consistent with all the stereotypes you’d expect from rural Louisiana hunters. Here are some of the quotes that have caused the uproar in my social media worlds:

“It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

“Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong. Sin becomes fine. Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

There has been a backlash, and then a backlash to the backlash. The backlash called out Robertson for “hateful” and “bigoted” views, calling for a boycott of A&E and the show (A&E suspended Phil from the show immediately). The backlash to the backlash castigated the backlashers for punishing Phil for his exercise of First Amendment rights. Both sides have gone way overboard, and I’ll address some of these points in the always-popular bullet point style.

First, the easiest: nobody’s First Amendment rights have been violated. I haven’t seem many reasonable people argue that they have, but just to spell it out: the First Amendment protects you from the government’s interference in your speech; it does not protect you from reactions of private individuals who may choose not to associate with you as a result of your speech.

Second, most people I’ve seen invoke the First Amendment used it correctly: Robertson WAS exercising his First Amendment rights when he said what he said, and that’s exactly what he’s being “punished” for. That doesn’t mean his First Amendment rights were violated, of course, since that can only (with a few exceptions) be done by the government.

Third, while I am a free speech absolutist, I’m starting to grow uncomfortable with the strength of the backlash that is unleashed against those who air unpopular views. This is magnified when the unpopular views go against the liberal elite that is hyperrepresented in the media. Yes, you’re entitled to petition A&E to cancel the show, or fire Robertson, and you can arrange for a boycott of whatever duck-related items the Robertson family manufactures – that’s the flip side of free speech and free association – but these sorts of things have serious effects on real people, including those entirely unrelated to Robertson. The show’s employees, advertisers (and their employees), the Robertsons’ employees, and their various suppliers would suffer from any effective boycott. How much of this collateral damage is permissible to silence an unpopular viewpoint? More importantly, should Robertson (or someone poorer) lose his livelihood for holding these viewpoints?

I’ll end this with Brian Doherty’s excellent formulation of the dilemma:

There may have been a good reason why classical tolerance of expression was summed up in the epigram: “I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it!”

That has a different feel than: “I disagree with what you say, I think you are evil for having said it, I think no one should associate with you and you ought to lose your livelihood, and anyone who doesn’t agree with me about all that is skating on pretty thin ice as well, but hey, I don’t think you should be arrested for it.”