Left and Right Assault Free Speech

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published July 22, 2011, by Grand Junction Free Press.

Within a week of Independence Day, representatives of the left and right started lining up to assault free speech and advocate censorship.

On July 7 Michele Bachmann, a Republican candidate for president, signed a pledge from the Family Leader to “protect” women from “all forms of pornography.” The next day, guests on Thom Hartmann’s “progressive” radio show called for a Constitutional amendment to censor political speech. God help us if they ever reach a “bipartisan” agreement to gut the First Amendment.

We’ll start with Bachmann. The pledge she signed neglects to specify what should be done about pornography. But this is a pledge for candidates, so we can sensibly conclude the intent is to pass laws limiting or outlawing pornography. Moreover, the pledge equates pornography with slavery and the murder of children, and obviously those latter two things should be outlawed. (The pledge also suggests abortion should be banned, but that’s the topic for another article.)

The first problem is who gets to decide which naked pictures constitute high art and which get banned as pornographic. For example, R. Crum’s illustrated Genesis features a nude Adam and Eve, both looking quite healthy (and neither wearing a fig leaf). Should we ban that?

Pornography can be written text as well as images. Chapter 19 of Genesis features Lot’s daughters getting him drunk and then having sex with him. The daughters get pregnant, having sons who go on to found the Moabites and Ammonites.

So who in Bachmann’s world gets to decide which sexually explicit images and texts rise to the sacred and which deserve criminal prosecution? What about Playboy? What about romance novels? What about Michelangelo’s sculpture of David?

Obviously the government has a legitimate interest in protecting the rights of children, who have not reached the age of consent. But consenting adults properly have the right to engage in whatever behavior they want, free from political interference. Anything short of that standard leads logically to the incremental destruction of individual rights.

While Bachmann deserves the harshest criticism for her frankly idiotic move to sign the pledge, the left’s censors deserve even harsher condemnation. They should know better. There was a time in this country when the left actually took free speech seriously. Not anymore.

Hartmann’s guests made two recommendations. First, amend the U.S. Constitution such that only registered voters may donate funds to a campaign or issue group, and regional politicians may limit the amount donated. Second, finance all campaigns for public office with tax dollars. Both these measures blatantly violate freedom of speech.

The purpose of the proposed amendment is to prevent corporations and other groups from funding campaigns. But who gets to decide which people are qualified voters? Some people don’t register to vote for ideological reasons; do they lose their rights of speech? Apparently seventeen-year-olds lose their rights.

Even if the amendment were restricted to individuals, rather than qualified voters, it still would violate people’s rights. True, as leftists monotonously drone, corporations aren’t people. But apparently leftists have neglected to notice that corporations are comprised of people. So are unions. So are educational organizations.

Individuals have the right of free speech, and they have the right to join with others to speak. People don’t lose their rights merely by collaborating with others.

Limiting the amount people can give to political causes also violates their rights of free speech as well as property. People have the right to support the speech of their choice, whether by lending a printing press, handing out flyers, or donating money to help somebody else speak. Limiting people’s ability to support the speech of their choice constitutes censorship.

What about “publicly” funded campaigns? The freedom of speech entails the right not to speak. If somebody forces you to stand up and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or the Communist Manifesto, or whatever, that violates your rights of free speech. Likewise, forcing people to financially support speech against their will violates their freedom of speech.

An important practical problem is who gets to decide which candidates “deserve” tax dollars. Can just any kook declare to be a candidate and go on the campaign dole? Obviously that wouldn’t work, so somebody would be in charge of blessing the “right” candidates with political welfare.

Notice that both Bachmann and Hartmann’s guests offer their pretexts for imposing censorship. The religious right often claims that pornography promotes sexual promiscuity and so on. The left claims that money in politics corrupts it.

Censors of all stripes unite in their belief that individuals are just too stupid to make their own decisions, and therefore they need benevolent politicians and bureaucrats to do their thinking for them. No presumption could be more deadly to a free republic.

Cowards at Denver Post Pull ‘Where’s Muhammad’ Cartoon

Just weeks after violent Islamists sent American cartoonist Molly Norris into hiding in fear of her life, the Denver Post pulled a Non Sequitur cartoon titled, “Where’s Muhammad,” Michael D. Brown reported.

Because Brown does not offer direct evidence that the Denver Post also pulled the cartoon, I called the main switchboard and asked for somebody who works in the cartoon department. A representative told me, “Yes, we did pull it.”

As Brown notes, “Muhammad doesn’t even appear in the cartoon.”

With this decision, the Denver Post has sanctioned violence and betrayed the First Amendment. I urge the paper to change course.

***

Comments

Anonymous October 11, 2010 at 1:30 PM
Ari,

How can you blame the Denver Post? In our egalitarian Leftist society, noone will come to your defense against Jihad Muslims, not even the government. But I wonder how you reconcile your position with unlimited mass 3rd world immigration, including Muslim immigration.

The problems we have with death threats from Muslims is because there are Muslims in the West. If we want to live free of Sharia and Jihad violence, don’t you think it would be a good start to limit our Muslim population (preferably down to zero)?

D. Bandler

Ari October 11, 2010 at 1:35 PM
First, I do not call for “unlimited” immigration; the contagious and the violent must be kept out. Violence is precisely the issue at point here.

Second, keeping out all peaceful Muslims because of the violence of other Muslims violates justice as much as it would for any other religious group.

Draw, Don’t Burn

It occurred to me that it may not be perfectly obvious to everybody why I and many others endorsed and participated in Everybody Draw Mohammed Day but I oppose Terry Jones’s idea to burn the Koran. If you think the two acts are similar or comparable, you are utterly confused.

The first critical point here is that, as Sarah Palin pointed out, people have a political right to burn the Koran, as they have the political right to burn the flag or the Christian Bible. But just because you have a political right to do something, doesn’t make it moral.

As I argued with respect to Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, it is perfectly moral to draw Mohammed, even in a disparaging way. Doing so constitutes (or at least may constitute) a constructive addition to the cultural discussion and state some sort of interesting point.

On the other hand, burning the Koran is a repulsive and immoral act, simply because burning any book to protest the contents of the book is repulsive. The way to fight bad ideas is to argue against them, not try to wipe them out of existence. This point is especially poignant given the Christian penchant for burning groundbreaking scientific texts during the Middle Ages.

Consider the worst book I can imagine, Hitler’s Mein Kampf. While I don’t have the stomach to read it, I want people like Stephen Hicks to read it and explain to the world precisely why it is so evil.

I regard the Koran as basically a bad book because it demands total personal sacrifice to a false supernaturalist construct. While debate rages about the proper interpretation of the text, nobody can seriously dispute the fact that the book has inspired many to commit grotesque acts of violence, oppress and abuse women, and murder homosexuals and “infidels.” But the goal should be to read the book, understand it, and explain why it’s wrong.

All that said, the very fact that the Obama administration has warned about possible Islamist violence in the wake of a Koran burning illustrates the vicious nature of the violent incarnations of the religion. Burning a book, so long as it’s your copy of the book, violates nobody’s rights. Hurting or killing somebody obviously does. Burning a book should not be a crime; committing vioence against another person properly is. If Muslims seriously regarded their beliefs as a “religion of peace,” they would not respond to a book burning with violence.

While it is wrong to burn any book to protest its contents, it is immeasurably more evil—and properly against the law—to physically hurt or threaten people for their beliefs or expressions.

May 30, 2017 Update: I would no longer argue that burning a book necessarily is “immoral.” It can be immoral, and more often it can be stupid and counterproductive. —Ari Armstrong

Comments

Where’s the Argument

You say “it is wrong to burn any book to protest its contents.”

You have not made any type of case to back this up. I can think of many cases where burning a book is a legitimate SYMBOL of rational defiance and love of liberty. Under the right circumstances and for the right reasons, and this excludes the Christian pastor Jones, burning the Koran would be a legitimate means of protesting its disgusting contents.

Usually, I agree with your views. But this comes across as the same mealy mouthed timidity I hear from Conservatives.

D. Bandler
September 10, 2010

Book Burning Is Anti-Intellectual

Very good piece that nails the essential issue. Book burning, while it should be legal, is as anti-intellectual, and therefore as anti-reason, anti-thought, and immoral as it gets in terms of activism. It is completely impractical in the effort to persuade people that a religion (and any and all religion for that matter in my view) is bad. It shows complete contempt and indifference to ideas and philosophy as such.

Jason
September 10, 2010

Why is Burning a Book Repulsive?

Ari,

You write, “On the other hand, burning the Koran is a repulsive and immoral act, simply because burning any book to protest the contents of the book is repulsive.”

But why is burning any book to protest its contents repulsive? For example, apparently a book came out a few years ago which accused George W. Bush’s grandfather of helping Hitler get in power. I wouldn’t have a problem if Bush burned the book.

Also, which important scientific texts were burned in the Middle Ages?

Neil Parille
September 11, 2010

Ari Armstrong Replies

“Mealy mouthed timidity?” I’m flat-out calling the act of burning the Koran immoral, hardly a timid position. My case is brief but unassailable: burning a book is no way to repudiate its contents, and it shows the burner to be an anti-intellectual and destructive force. In the case of the book about Bush, burning an obviously idiotic and unknown book would serve only to draw attention to it.

Ari Armstrong
September 11, 2010

Book Burning Can Be a Dramatic Expression

When done by private individuals and not government, book burning doesn’t necessarily seek to wipe out the ideas, it merely represents a dramatic rejection of them, like all effigy-burning. In particular, if the book itself is anti-intellectual, is it really anti-intellectual to burn it? I wouldn’t go out and buy a book just to burn it for a number of reasons, but if I owned a book, read it and found it abhorrently repulsive, I would destroy it rather than keep it in my home or give it away i.e. spread the bad book’s ideas further.

This Koran-burning event won’t wipe out all Korans in existence, so I see no destruction of ideas, merely a highly visible rejection of them. Of course the reasons for the rejection need to be publicized, but one person can write an article explaining why whilst ten thousand people burn their copies of the book to show their agreement.

My junior high and high school classmates burned their homework at a beach bonfire at the end of each year. If anything that was pro-intellectual. We didn’t burn reports or textbooks or anything of value. We burned the pointless drills and mindnumbing tasks we had been forced to perform (and also forced to save until year end). It was a way of putting an unpleasant past behind us with drama and finality. And marshmallows.

I don’t doubt that this Koran burning event is anti-intellectual, but I do doubt the extrapolation that all book burnings must be so. I grant you that most actual book burnings I can think of definitely sought to intimidate or threaten and had a riotous, mob-like feel to them, but actually music burnings are not all that uncommon and don’t have that same feel at all, though they have the toxicity problem to deal with. Maybe the difference is that music burnings tend to involve burning your own copy, not going out and buying something just to burn it. The latter seems more like trying to wipe out ideas, whereas the former is an expression of anger and frustration at having wasted your time and money on lousy art.

Do you think destroying a book in the privacy of your own home is moral? Is it the large-scale, organized, public nature of formal book burnings that you consider anti-intellectual, or would the destruction of any written text be immoral? If the latter, is book burning different from comment moderation on a blog?

The issue’s up in the air for me, but I don’t think your argument is unassailable as 1. book burning is not necessarily meant to repudiate the contents and 2. it is generally not morally required to spend your time refuting bad ideas.

Katrina
September 14, 2010

There Is No Need to Read Some Books

I take issue with your statement that someone should read and then counter the arguments of the Koran. The basic argument of the Koran is known: some mystical creature commands you to go conquer the world and kill all who resist. I do not need to read, or even address, any of these arguments. If someone’s idea is “Let’s go kill people, and enslave their children and hear the lamentations of their women,” the only proper response involves vulgarities and Charleton Heston quotes (or maybe Dirty Harry).
Furthermore, mysticism has already been debunked; there is no need to go and stomp out each of its’ hydra-like iterations, one by one, including Mohamedanism. Therefore, the statement that the Koran should be preserved and examined in order to refute its ideas is incorrect.

Park
September 18, 2010

Ari Armstrong Replies: My argument is not that every single person needs to read the Koran and refute it. My argument is that, if you care enough about the issue to publicly speak out against the Koran, the way to do it is to argue against it (which entails that you know at least the gist of its contents), not burn it.

Fire Is Not an Argument

Ari wrote, “Burning the Koran is a repulsive and immoral act, simply because burning any book to protest the contents of the book is repulsive.”

To put it another way, no one in debate club is allowed to go over to the other team and set their table on fire in order to win the debate. That is just not an argument.

Now, if you have some other purpose in mind for burning the book, that might be different.

Trey Peden
September 20, 2010

Why James Taranto is Clueless on Mohammed Drawings

James Taranto just doesn’t get it with respect to “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day,” which I have endorsed and promoted.

Here are the essential lines of Taranto’s April 26 column entitled, “Everybody Burn the Flag: If we don’t act like inconsiderate jerks, the terrorists will have won!”

[H]olding an “Everybody Burn the Flag Day” would be stupid, obnoxious and counterproductive if one seeks to persuade others that flag burning should be tolerated.

“Hate speech”–for example, shouting racial slurs, positing theories of racial supremacy or denying the Holocaust–is illegal in Canada and many European countries. In the U.S. it is protected by the First Amendment–but it has been known to provoke a violent reaction. … This column is also of the opinion that hate-speech laws are pernicious and that the First Amendment does and should protect the expression of even ugly and false ideas. But we would not endorse or participate in an “Everybody Shout a Racial Slur Day” or an “Everybody Deny the Holocaust Day” to make the point.

Why is “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” different? Because the taboo against depictions of Muhammad is not a part of America’s common culture. The taboos against flag burning, racial slurs and Holocaust denial are. The problem with the “in-your-face message” of “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” is not just that it is inconsiderate of the sensibilities of others, but that it defines those others — Muslims — as being outside of our culture, unworthy of the courtesy we readily accord to insiders. It is an unwise message to send, assuming that one does not wish to make an enemy of the entire Muslim world.

Taranto is totally wrong in all of his comparisons. (He is right to defend the First Amendment even in troublesome cases, so he gets full credit for that.) Drawing Mohammed is not remotely like burning the flag, shouting racial slurs, or denying the Holocaust. Nor does drawing Mohammed to protest Islamist death threats have anything to do with defining Muslims as cultural outsiders.

Even though people have the right to burn the American flag, it is the wrong thing to do because burning the flag is an expression of hatred against America, in its essential founding principles of liberty the greatest nation in the history of humanity. Shouting racial slurs, while properly legally protected, is wrong because racism is immoral and rooted in irrationality. Denying the Holocaust, again while properly legally protected, is wrong because the Holocaust is an objective fact of history, and denial of it is inextricably tied to racism (antisemitism).

In contrast, there is nothing inherently immoral about drawing Mohammed or any other religious figure. The Islamic taboo against drawing Mohammed is sheer irrationality and utterly ridiculous. Therefore, not only is drawing Mohammed properly legally protected, it is entirely morally proper, unlike burning the flag, shouting racial slurs, or denying the Holocaust.

For Taranto to miss this key distinction is simply stunning.

(Update: however, I can think of a hypothetical circumstance in which burning a U.S. flag would be acceptable, if unsavory. Let us say that some Americans were making death threats against some leftist group or some Muslim group for burning the flag. Let us further say that such a threat had actually been acted on or carried out, as is the case with Islamist threats, and that there was a legitimate fear of more murders. In that case, burning the flag with the express purpose of protesting the death threats and alleviating the plight of the threatened parties (by providing moral support and by spreading the risk) would be acceptable. In that case, burning the flag would not be a sign of hatred for America, but an act of solidarity for the core principles of America, which involve the protection of individual rights. Similarly, if the U.S. passed “hate speech” censorship laws, there might be a way to violate the technical aspects of the law without actually endorsing racism or Holocaust denial. Notice that no such contextual nuance is possible regarding an outright taboo against drawing Mohammed, precisely because such a taboo is by its nature inherently irrational.)

Now, I also went out of my way to make my drawing of Mohammed otherwise blasphemous, in that I refer to Mohammed as a “false prophet.” However, in my view, Mohammed really is a false prophet, and in reality Mohammed in no way represented any god.

My wife, by contrast, drew a great picture of Mohammed that is not on its face blasphemous, beyond the fact that any drawing of Mohammed is considered by Islamists to be blasphemous. (Whether scholarly Islam in fact prohibits any and all drawings of Mohammed is a theological point beyond my interests.)

A free society requires a clear distinction between what is moral and what is legally protected, and Taranto largely grasps this critical point. People properly have the legal right to do all sorts of immoral things, ranging from getting roaring drunk and lying to their mother to expressing racist views. What is properly outlawed is any action that violates the rights of another individual by initiating force or fraud.

Taranto is noting a superficial similarity between drawing Mohammed, expressing racist views, etc. — namely, that all those things are properly legally protected — and inappropriately drawing a moral equivalence between all those things. But expressing racist views is inherently immoral, while drawing Mohammed is inherently within the bounds of morality. Taranto grasps that not everything that should be legal is moral, but he fails to notice that, in the case of drawing Mohammed, what is properly legal is also perfectly moral.

Regarding the alleged definition of Muslims as outsiders, Taranto is simply Making Stuff Up. While perhaps some who participate in the “Everybody Draw Mohammed” campaign may wish to define Muslims as outsiders, there is nothing involving the campaign itself that does so. Taranto seems to forget that plenty of U.S. citizens are Muslims. Taranto also seems to assume that all Muslims everywhere think it’s wrong to draw Mohammed. I’m sure that lots of Muslims throughout the world regard the taboo against drawing Mohammed as stupid, irrational, and counter to an enlightened religious view.

Regardless, what is relevant is that some Muslims (who happen to be American) have made death threats against other human beings. While I am especially motivated to participate in the campaign to draw Mohammed because the most recent threats were made against people from my home state, the point of the campaign is to protest such death threats, regardless of where they are made and against whom they are made.

If (counterfactually) it were the case that drawing Mohammed made “an enemy of the entire Muslim world,” that would only prove the irrational hatred and violence of the entire Muslim world — hatred and violence that would be sparked by any number of faux “offenses.” But, thankfully, Taranto is wrong; a significant portion of the Muslim world — particular within the U.S. — is more enlightened than to display hostility over some drawing. However, obviously violence and rights violations are all too common in the Muslim world, and we have a moral responsibility to condemn that.

* * *

Taranto also quotes Ann Althouse as condemning the “Everybody Draw Mohammed” campaign because it “doesn’t show enough respect and care for the people who are trying to tolerate the expression that outrages them.”

By that logic, the recent works of the “new Atheists” never should have been published, because those works did not adequately respect Christians.

Althouse’s argument is bunk.

The primary and overriding purpose of free speech is to allow us to express our ideological views without fear of punishment or reprisal. I think Platonism is false. I think Kantianism is false. I think Christianity is false. I think Islam is false. And by God I’m going to say as much, and I’m not going to be intimidated into silence because Platonists, Kantians, Christians, or Muslims may be offended by my statements.

I’m certainly not going to refrain from drawing some religious figure because of an absurd, antirational, ignorant taboo.

I do not believe that it is a sign of respect to someone to pander to his or her blatant irrationalism. I believe it is a profound sign of disrespect. For, apparently unlike Taranto and Alhouse, I believe that Muslims, as people with a rational capacity, are potentially open to reason, rather than hopelessly mired in insane superstitions.

While it is true that a drawing of Mohammed, as such, is not an argument, it is also true that my drawing contains an explicit message, and that a drawing can point toward a rational argument.

It is precisely because I define Muslims as “insiders” — as fellow members of the human race — that I insist on engaging them in reasoned dialog and refuse to accept their threats of violence as substitute.

It is Taranto and Althouse who disrespect Muslims and define them as outside the realm of reason.

* * *

Taranto does provide some useful background on the matter. While I had credited Dan Savage with the idea for “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day,” in fact he in turn picked up the idea from Molly Norris. Norris, it turns out, was quite surprised by the attention her little cartoon generated.

Of course, having seen Norris’s cartoon, I understood that her “group” was fictional and intended in jest. I had noticed the line from her cartoon: “Sponsored by Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor or CACAH (pronounced ca-ca).” I remember enough Spanish to understand that was a joke. Also, Norris drew the “likeness” of Mohammed as various silly objects, such as a coffee mug and a cherry.

Regardless of its origins as a jest, the “Everybody Draw Mohammed” campaign is a great idea, and it has a very serious purpose. The point of it, beyond illustrating the lunacy of prohibiting the drawing of a religious figure, is to provide so many targets that the violent Islamists cannot hope to intimidate everybody. They can send a handful of Danish cartoonists into hiding. They can suppress South Park. But they cannot intimidate, suppress, or harass all of us. Drawing Mohammed is a legitimate and important way to express our outrage over such death threats, to show our solidarity with the threatened, and to stand up for freedom of conscience.

For what it’s worth, here is Norris’s recent statement, as posted on her web page:

I make cartoons about current, cultural events. I made a cartoon of a fictional ’poster’ entitled “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!” with a nonexistent group’s name — Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor — drawn on the cartoon. It was in specific response to the recent censoring of a South Park episode, a desire to bring home the importance of the first amendment. I did not intend for my cartoon to go viral. I did not intend to be the focus of any ’group’. This particular cartoon has struck a gigantic nerve, something I was totally unprepared for.

Personally I can feel afraid of Muslims because I really have no idea if in their hearts they hate non-Muslims. There are so many interpretations of the religion that I hear told — sometimes it is a very extreme translation (that’s the scary part, the radicals that believe that Westerners should die), then at other times it sounds more peaceful.

I hope for the sake of this country that moderate Muslims will speak out with everyone else against any violent members of that or any other religion. That way I would know that there is a difference. Maybe this cartoon I made, this fictional poster of “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!” had such a wildfire effect because it is finally time for Muslims and non-Muslims to understand one another more.

I am going back to the drawing table now!

Thanks,
Molly

My response is this: Hang in there, Molly! You did nothing wrong. Those of us who have chosen to draw Mohammed have done so for our own reasons, and not because of you. I respect you for standing up for the First Amendment, and I encourage you to be even more bold in that stance.

The Minnesota Fox affiliate posted a follow-up story about Norris, which is a little sad:

In more fallout around the decision by Comedy Central to censor an episode of “South Park” that contained comedic depictions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, a cartoonist has now censored herself. … Now Norris has backed off from that position. She no longer has the illustration on her website and she claims responses to the idea were overwhelming.

When did we get so damned afraid in this country speak our minds?

* * *

Throughout the debate over South Park, various commentators have been extremely sloppy in their use of the term “censorship.” That’s a real problem, because censorship is a horrible evil, but it’s hard to fight if people don’t even know what it is.

While in other contexts “censorship” can carry a broader meaning (as with the term “self-censorship”), in the political context censorship means the use of political force to ban or suppress expression. For example, if the government fines, arrests, imprisons, or harasses you for what you say or write, that is censorship.

The actions of private parties never constitute censorship. If a newspaper decides to fire a writer or pull a writer’s article, the newspaper is NOT censoring that writer. If I write a blog post but then intentionally erase it, that is NOT censorship.

While Comedy Central capitulated to terrorist threats and suppressed the expression of the South Park creators, Comedy Central did not technically censor the show. You can call the acting executives at Comedy Central damned cowards, but you oughtn’t call them censors. They have the right to broadcast whatever they want on their station, consonant with their contractual obligations.

To conflate government censorship with nonviolent private acts is to obliterate the very concept of censorship and to open the gates to actual censorship.

If somebody calls you on the phone or writes to you and threatens you over an article you’ve written (as I have been threatened), that certainly constitutes the criminal suppression of speech, something that is properly outlawed and that the government properly protects against. However, such criminal action is not properly considered censorship, a term that refers only to government action.

Now, a government can sanction the criminal suppression of speech, by failing to protect those who have been threatened, and that becomes censorship. Or, as with the case of the Taliban, the street criminals effectively constitute the government, so criminal suppression of speech amounts to censorship. Morally, government censorship and criminal suppression of speech are equivalent evils.

The U.S. government has, by my understanding, taken measures to protect the creators of South Park, even if those measures have been too weak. If President Obama has condemned the death threats, I have not heard of it.

It is absolutely critical that we understand and articulate the meaning of censorship, for there is nothing more important to the maintenance of a free society than the protection of free speech, which requires the eradication of criminal suppression of speech and of (government) censorship.

***

Comments

Charles T.April 27, 2010 at 8:09 AM
Hear hear. Well stated, Mr. Armstrong. And here’s a likeness of Mohammud for everyone to enjoy:

;-[

A.W. April 27, 2010 at 9:21 PM

Hey i posted this on your previous “everyone draw mohammed” post, but i am happy to do it twice. I have created a blog for the everyone draw mohammed protest, here:

http://everyonedrawmohammed.blogspot.com/

Aaron

Anonymous April 30, 2010 at 6:05 PM

Your discussion about what constitutes censorship is really quibbling over use of the word. MW indicates censorship is the act of censoring, which is “examining in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable”. There is no requirement that the censoring is being done by a government or some other group engaged in what you term criminal suppression. So use of the word censorship in the dialogue is not necessarily an indication of sloppy usage.

I would agree that censorship by those groups is more egregious as it represents some censoring being attempted by parties not otherwise party to any given speech. In this particular instance, I think those complaining about Comedy Central’s decision may have misdirected their ire.

Otherwise, not a bad article. Still have some mixed feelings myself about Everybody Draw Mohammed Day and undecided as to whether I’ll participate.

Ari April 30, 2010 at 6:45 PM

Anonymous is quite wrong about the meaning of censorship. I note that, in other contexts, it can have different meanings. But the key meaning is in politics, where censorship means only government action to suppress speech. Otherwise, censorship basically becomes a synonym for editing. Obviously we don’t want to ban editing, but we certainly do want to ban government suppression of speech. It is absolutely imperative to distinguish private action versus government action when it comes to the limitation of speech.

Abolish the FTC: New Blogging Rules

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has imposed unjust new rules — “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising” — that take effect today.

Eric Robinson summarizes the nature of the rules:

[The FTC’s rules] suggest that bloggers or other consumers who “endorse” a product or service online may be liable for civil penalties if they make false or unsubstantiated claims about a product or fail to disclose “material connections” between themselves and an advertiser. (Although Richard Cleland, assistant director of the FTC’s division of advertising practices, told Fast Company that the Commission will focus on warnings and cease-and-desist orders, rather than monetary fines, and told PRNewser that the Commission will target advertisers for violations, not bloggers. Another FTC official reiterated this.)

The new rules pose a variety of problems. The FTC has no legitimate authority to issue such rules, which defy the First Amendment and constitute censorship and the chilling of free speech. The rules are extremely broad, ranging from free review copies of books to Twitter posts. The rules are arbitrary and ambiguous, such that their precise requirements and penalties cannot be determined in advance. The rules thus open the door to political abuses. The rules are discriminatory in that they subject bloggers to different standards than print journalists.

The FTC is acting in blatant defiance of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and therefore the FTC should be abolished and its rules rescinded.

First I summarize the basic arguments against the FTC’s rules. Then I link to other commentaries about those rules. Finally I review and analyze the rules in some detail.

FTC’s Rules Overreach and Violate Rights

1. The FTC’s rules constitute censorship and onerous controls.

Censorship consists not only of forcibly restricting what people may say and write, but forcing people to say and write things against their judgment. In this case, the FTC is forcing people to issue disclosures regarding communications that do not in any way violate anyone’s rights.

Edward Champion points to an article by Caroline McCarthy for Cnet News indicating that the FTC rules apply to Facebook and Twitter posts as well. The FTC’s Richard Cleland told McCarthy, “There are ways to abbreviate a disclosure that fit within 140 characters [Twitter’s limit]. You may have to say a little bit of something else, but if you can’t make the disclosure, you can’t make the ad.”

The FTC thus requires that any Twitter post that could be construed as an “endorsement” include a disclosure that meets the FTC’s guidelines, within 140 characters. Such a policy limits the amount of information a user can post to Twitter or discourages the use of Twitter for certain purposes.

Champion notes that even an “Amazon Affiliates link” might trigger the FTC’s disclosure requirements.

The FTC’s rules constitute onerous controls in that they require bloggers and others to spend time complying with the FTC’s rules. For example, the primary documentation of the rules runs 81 pages in length. The effort spent complying with the rules detracts from time available to write about other issues.

2. The FTC’s rules are capricious and nonobjective.

The FTC’s rules, by the agency’s own admission, cannot be decided in advance in all cases. Instead, the FTC will “consider each use of these new media on a case-by-case basis for purposes of law enforcement” (page 8. Unless otherwise specified, page numbers refer to the FTC’s documentation of the rules).

The FTC’s rules depends on what “consumers are likely to believe” about a communication, a subjective guideline that cannot be determined in advance (e.g., page 4).

The rules also extend to those who supply free samples or review books. Using the example of a video game manufacturer who sends a free copy of a game to a reviewer, the FTC states, “The manufacturer should advise [the recipient] at the time it provides the gaming system that this connection should be disclosed, and it should have procedures in place to try to monitor his postings for compliance” (pages 79-80). What constitutes adequate compliance, and under what circumstances a supplier might be subject to enforcement, the FTC declines to detail.

In an interview with Edward Champion, the FTC’s Richard Cleland offered only guesswork in answer to whether a free movie screening constitutes compensation: “The movie is not retainable. Obviously it’s of some value. But I guess that my only answer is the extent that it is viewed as compensation as an individual who got to see a movie.”

Cleland chose to “reserve judgment” on another matter. Champion writes, “In cases where a publisher is advertising one book and the blogger is reviewing another book by the same publisher, Cleland replied, ‘I don’t know. I would reserve judgment on that. My initial reaction to it is that it doesn’t seem like a relationship.'”

Cleland further told Champion, “These are very complex situations that are going to have to looked at on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not there is a sufficient nexus, a sufficient compensation between the seller and the blogger, and so what we have done is to provide some guidance in this area. And some examples in this area where there’s an endorsement.”

Furthermore, as Champion reports, whether the FTC will target bloggers with fines — and how much the fines might be — remain points of ambiguity.

In other words, often there no objective way to determine when and how the FTC’s rules apply prior to an enforcement action by the FTC.

As Walter Olson notes, “FTC enforcers will engage in their own fact-specific, and inevitably subjective, balancing before deciding whether to press for fines or other penalties. In other words, instead of knowing whether you’re legally vulnerable, you have to guess.”

Moreover, Olson notes, the receipt of freebies can “after some ill-defined point” create a relationship requiring a blogger “to disclose that relationship whenever writing about the institution in question.”

Ann Athouse argues that the FTC has “deliberately made a grotesquely overbroad rule, enough to sweep so many of us into technical violations, but we’re supposed to feel soothed by the knowledge that government agents will decide who among us gets fined. No, no, no. Overbreath itself is a problem. And so is selective enforcement.”

The FTC’s rules will therefore have a chilling effect on free speech. Those who are not part of an organization with legal representation — and those who cannot independent afford to pay lawyers — will now face a serious risk in publishing commentary.

Moreover, book publishers and others will face increased costs associated with complying with the rules, increasing the difficulty especially of small firms to publish works and advertise via review copies.

3. The FTC’s rules open the door to further political abuses.

Political operatives inside government once turned to tax audits to punish ideological opponents. More recently campaign finance complaints have chilled free speech. The FTC’s rules will provide yet another opportunity for political attack dogs to harass their opponents by filing complaints with the FTC based on perceived technical violations of the rules.

Even if the FTC clears the accused party, fighting such complaints can consume considerable money, energy, and worry. The possibility for such politically-motivated abuses will further chill free speech.

The FTC’s Richard Cleland told Caroline McCarthy, “As a practical matter, we don’t have the resources to look at 500,000 blogs. We don’t even have the resources to monitor a thousand blogs. And if somebody reports violations then we might look at individual cases…”

McCarthy notes that “angry readers may use the regulations to attempt to get back at blogs they don’t like.” Ron Workman predicts that “the trolls will have a great time turning these offenders in.”

4. The FTC’s rules undermine the equal protection of the laws.

The FTC “acknowledges that bloggers may be subject to different disclosure
requirements than reviewers in traditional media” (page 47).

The FTC’s Richard Cleland explicitly acknowledged that the FTC’s rules subject bloggers to different standards than newspaper book reviewers.

5. The FTC’s rules violate privacy.

A blogger properly has the right to choose what information to disclose and what information to keep private.

In some cases, the FTC’s rules might require bloggers to disclose information that could compromise an individual’s privacy or safety. For example, following in the footsteps of America’s founders, someone might choose to write anonymously about a controversial political issue, such as abortion or homosexuality. A blogger with a material connection to the writer could not write about the anonymous work without disclosing personal information about the author.

The ability to write anonymously is central to the First Amendment, as it was central to American independence and the creation of the United States Constitution.

6. The FTC’s rules are unnecessary.

In clear-cut cases of a seller paying somebody to promote a product, generally those parties do have a moral obligation to potential customers to disclose the nature of the relationship. However, most things that are moral obligations ought not be forced by law.

Publications large and small generally implement policies to assure readers or viewers that their material is free from financial incentive, or that any incentive is disclosed. Bloggers have an incentive to disclose relevant material connections in order to build trust with readers, and consumers tend to promote reputable sources of information. Producers and consumers of information tend to interact voluntarily to resolve potential problems of disclosure.

Those who hide a clear bias generally suffer exposure and ridicule, as John Lott discovered after posting positive comments about his own work under an assumed name.

The government does have a legal responsibility to crack down on fraud. For instance, if someone claims to be an uncompensated reviewer but is in fact paid to write positive reviews, that would constitute dishonest fraud, properly the target of a criminal or civil suit.

However, short of fraud and overt calls for violence, what people say and write, and how they say and write it, is properly none of the government’s business.

The FTC’s rules rest on the fallacious doctrine that material conditions determine ideas. Granted that some people express views because of financial incentives, generally what matters most is a person’s ideological conclusions. While ideology is necessary to integrate ideas, it can adhere to the facts of reality or stray from them. Often the more dangerous bias arises not from financial incentives but from ideological blinders, and obviously no federal rule can address that vastly more serious problem.

Even a direct and substantial financial connection need not indicate any financial bias. Often a paid spokesperson already supported the product in question. The much weaker and distant material connections the FTC’s rules may also cover, ranging from free books to Amazon links, don’t pose any serious problem of bias, and certainly not any problem serious enough to warrant threats of federal enforcement actions.

Whether a substantial financial relationship is present or not, and whether it is disclosed or not, consumers of information and products have a responsibility to critically evaluate claims. A consumer who takes a single blogger’s weakly substantiated word about some product is frankly an idiot, and no federal rule can compensate for that.

The FTC’s rules continue the trend of infantilizing American adults. The FTC presumes that American consumers are just too stupid to check the facts for themselves and properly evaluate claims about products. Yet such rules tend to generate a self-fulfilling prophesy: they encourage consumers to rely on government bureaucrats to do their thinking for them. Such rules promote Homer Simpson’s mentality: “The whole reason we have elected officials [and their legions of bureaucrats] is so we don’t have to think all the time.” Thus, such rules undercut the self-responsible individualism that is the backbone of America’s success.

Links to Other Commentaries About the FTC’s Rules

Regulating Speech to Death
by Diana Hsieh
October 5, 2009

A double standard for online speech
by Vincent Carroll
October 14, 2009

Interview with the FTC’s Richard Cleland
by Edward Champion
October 5, 2009

FTC: Bloggers Must Disclose Payments for Reviews (NYT)
by Ron Workman
October 5, 2009

Yes, new FTC guidelines extend to Facebook fan pages
by Caroline McCarthy
October 5, 2009

Where Did You Get That Keychain?
by Walter Olson
October 16, 2009

New FTC Rules Aim to Kill the Buzz on Blogs
by Eric P. Robinson
October 8, 2009

The FTC going after bloggers and social media is like “sending a government goon into Denny’s to listen to the conversations in the corner booth and demand that you disclose that your Uncle Vinnie owns the pizzeria whose product you just endorsed.”
by Ann Althouse
October 6, 2009

Letter to the FTC on Guides Governing Bloggers>
by Laura Sell, Senior Publicist, Duke University Press
October 7, 2009

Disclosures

The document, “Ari Armtrong’s Disclosures Unjustly Compelled by the FTC,” has now been published. I will update it from time to time in an attempt to comply with the FTC’s unjust and rights-violating rules.

As I note in that document, “I do not expect that the FTC’s rules will be ambitiously enforced in the short-term. Many bad laws (and authorized rules) have no noticeable impact when they are first implemented. Often such laws and rules remain on the books for years before bureaucrats and prosecutors take advantage of them to actively violate people’s rights. That does not make their existence more comforting.”

Bailouts Versus Free Speech

Fox News reports:

Democrats in Congress have declared war on prayer, say conservative groups who object to a provision in the stimulus bill that was passed by the House of Representatives last week.

The provision bans money designated for school renovation from being spent on facilities that allow “religious worship.” It has ignited a fury among critics who say it violates the First Amendment and is an attempt to prevent religious practice in schools.

However, forcing people to fund schools that do allow “religious worship” violates their free speech rights. We have the right not to finance the propagation of ideas with which we disagree.

There is, of course, an obvious solution to this that violates no one’s rights of free speech. Reject the bailout.

Censorship for Allah

“A right-wing lawmaker should be prosecuted for inciting racial hatred with anti-Islamic statements that include calling the Koran a ‘fascist book,’ a Dutch court ruled Wednesday.”

Because the best way to demonstrate that the Koran is not a “fascist book” is to promote fascism in the name of the Koran.

Unfortunately, and hypocritically, the lawmaker in question “called for a ban on the Koran ‘the same way we ban “Mein Kampf”‘.” Someone who wants to censor the Koran (or Hitler’s screed) can hardly complain when somebody wants to censor him.

If the West loses free speech, it loses itself. There is no more important political issue than maintaining free speech, no matter who finds it offensive.

Criminal Libel Makes Bad Law

Vincent Carroll describes a recent case of criminal libel, then concludes:

[J.P.] Weichel [of Loveland] may not be a very nice guy, but the answer isn’t to put him in jail for speech that doesn’t endanger a soul. If what he said was false, then the victims should sue him for libel.

But leave the district attorney out of it.

It is a horribly written, nonobjective law:

18-13-105. Criminal libel.

(1) A person who shall knowingly publish or disseminate, either by written instrument, sign, pictures, or the like, any statement or object tending to blacken the memory of one who is dead, or to impeach the honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation or expose the natural defects of one who is alive, and thereby to expose him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule, commits criminal libel.

(2) It shall be an affirmative defense that the publication was true, except libels tending to blacken the memory of the dead and libels tending to expose the natural defects of the living.

(3) Criminal libel is a class 6 felony.

Notice that the law expressly allows the possibility of true “libel,” though the more common sense of the term implies that a libelous statement is false. The first paragraph contains no test of truth.

We have every right — and indeed a moral responsibility — to “blacken the memory” of bad people who have died, as well as to impeach the reputations of the living insofar as they negatively impact the culture or polity.

Colorado’s criminal libel statute is an affront not only to free speech but to justice.

I hereby publicly declare that the politicians who supported the passage of this statute thereby violated liberty and justice and implemented an idiotic law. My express purpose here is to “blacken the memory” of those politicians. I further publicly declare that among the “natural defects” of Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson, who filed charges against Weichel, is a willingness to trample liberty and justice, insofar as he sanctions the criminal libel statute. I intend here to impeach his reputation, and I heartily encourage the public to heap upon him hatred, contempt, and ridicule for this case.

(While I hate to follow such a diatribe with a magnanimous note, Abrahamson may have inadvertently performed a public service by again bringing this unjust law to public light and giving the 2009 legislature another opportunity to repeal it. Now all Abrahamson needs to do to restore his reputation is to testify for the law’s repeal.)

Eric Daniels Defends Free Speech

Linn Armstrong and I are coming out with a column on free speech this Monday; see Grand Junction’s Free Press. We quote Eric Daniels, Research Assistant Professor at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. Unfortunately, we had space only for a few of Daniels’s comments. Thankfully, he has agreed to let me reproduce the entire interview here.

My purpose in contacting Daniels was not to cover familiar ground, but to elicit responses about some of the most difficult implications of free speech. Until I thought more carefully about the matter on October 23, talked with another friend about it, and contacted Daniels, I wasn’t sure about my position on the matters of campaign-finance disclosure and campaigns by foreigners. Now I am sure. I am for freedom, not controls.

Daniels’s answers follow the questions in bold:

Briefly, why do you think free speech has come under attack by both right and left in recent decades?

Fundamentally, the reason free speech is under attack by both is because both fail to understand the nature of individual rights. The majority opinion in politics today holds that rights are gifts from the government that allow individuals to do some things as long as they do not upset certain vested interests. In the case of free speech, politicians believe that you should
be allowed to say what you want as long as it does not, for example, offend religious or ethnic groups or as long as what you say is not backed by too much money, or as long as what you say meets some vague notion of community standards. But that is not free speech. Free speech means the right (not privilege) of individuals to express their opinions without government
censorship of any kind, whether by hindering speech through regulation or through restricting it through prosecutions after the fact.

Should the law require disclosure of campaign-related expenses? I’m leaning no. People have a right to speak anonymously. There’s no clear way to distinguish between advocacy and education. And, the voters can demand disclosure with their votes. Do you agree with this? Explain.

I do not think the law should require public disclosure of campaign-related financing. If politicians wish to disclose the source of their financing to the public, they are free to do so. Likewise, if they choose to keep their donors’ identities to themselves, they should also be free to do so. The electorate can indeed decide through voting whether to support candidates who do or do not disclose their financing. Contributing money to a political candidate or to supporters or opponents of a ballot measure should properly be a matter between the private parties themselves. It does not matter how much a person gives or how much air time he buys, voters always remain free to take the message for which he has paid in the appropriate context. No one
forces the voters to believe or discredit any given message, they do so of their own will.

Should the law prohibit campaign contributions from foreign entities and people? For instance (Diana Hsieh raised this example), if the U.S. were going impose a tariff on British goods, should British citizens be able to campaign against it in the U.S.?

Giving money to a political campaign is an issue of individual right — that is, the donor who has earned his wealth has a right to give it to whatever candidate he chooses, and the candidate has a right to accept money from anyone he chooses. Foreign citizens or political action committees have just as much right to speak as do Americans. Again, if there is some belief on the
part of voters that foreign influence is unduly affecting some candidate, the voters retain the right to demand that the candidate disclose the source of his funding or face losing their votes.

Is there anything else we should know about free speech in the modern era?

Even though much of the recent controversy about free speech is tied to speech about political issues, it is important to remember that we have the freedom of speech not just because it facilitates a robust discussion of public policy
(which is the unfortunate modern interpretation), but because it is a right of each individual to express his ideas in the manner he chooses and to reach whatever size an audience his rightly-earned wealth will allow.

A Problem with Tax-Funded Libraries

Ben Boychuk takes on the smear that Palin was a book banner in today’s Rocky Mountain News. I am taking the facts he reports at face value:

What could possibly inspire such vitriol? A 12-year-old controversy, in which Palin, the newly elected mayor of Wasilla, asked city librarian Mary Ellen Emmons at least three times how she would feel if asked to remove objectionable books from library shelves. Naturally, Emmons said she would refuse. A few months later, Palin asked for Emmons’ resignation. The new mayor said she felt Emmons, who had been appointed by Palin’s predecessor and political rival, didn’t fully support her agenda and should step aside. But Palin made no mention of book banning in her demand for the librarian’s resignation. …

Palin insisted her questions about pulling controversial books from the library shelves were “rhetorical” and had to do with clarifying city policy. … The worst one could infer is that Palin raised the censorship issue in an ill-advised effort to appease some constituents, met resistance and let the matter drop to pursue more mundane city business. Emmons and Palin’s other political enemies are free to speculate and impugn motives all they want. But results matter. And the bottom line is, Palin didn’t ban anything.

This story illustrates a problem with spending tax dollars on libraries. Of necessity libraries must be selective in their purchases. They must implement some criteria for buying books and other items. (How a copy of the horrible Catwoman movie ended up on the shelves of my local library remains a mystery.) Thus, a library is bound to conflict with the values of many funders much of the time, in both its selections and omissions. Notably, a book a library doesn’t buy can’t be removed from the shelves, so it can’t be “censored.” But whether a book is not purchased or removed, it’s still not available there.

On a free market, who makes these decisions? Presumably most libraries would be nonprofit corporations with boards of directors. People would be free to fund, or abstain from funding, the library. By sending their money voluntarily to the library, funders would agree to put certain decisions in the hands of the library’s directors. Of course, people could fund particular books or broader selections.

Tax-funded libraries obscure the distinction between a library’s legitimate selection process and government censorship. Properly, censorship is defined as the forcible restriction of speech by government. But a tax-funded library automatically employs force to select and omit books. This inherently violates the rights of those forced to fund the library who would not otherwise choose to do so. By forcing some people to fund material that they find objectionable, tax-funded libraries violate their freedom of conscience.

This illustrates a pattern among the left. They cry for political involvement in various institutions, then they whine when — surprise, surprise — politicians have control over those institutions. While Palin’s interference with the local library is questionable, the problem was created by those who insist on making libraries political institutions.