Scientology Deserves Free Speech

As I have made clear, I believe that Scientology is a cult that deserves nothing but censure and ridicule. That is, Scientology deserves nothing else except to enjoy the basic rights due to every group and individual. Free speech means nothing unless we defend the right to speak by groups we detest.

I was therefore disturbed to read the following story in The Sydney Morning Herald:

Hackers declare Scientology D-day
Leo Shanahan
February 7, 2008 – 11:27AM

Anonymous internet users who have previously crashed Church of Scientology websites have named February 10 as a worldwide day of protest in a bid to “destroy” the controversial religion.

The group – called Anonymous – which includes skilled computer hackers, has posted a message on YouTube declaring war on Scientology, accusing it of trying to censor the internet and conducting “campaigns of misinformation”.

The apparent catalyst for the attack was YouTube’s decision to remove a video of Hollywood star Tom Cruise – one of Scientology’s most high-profile recruits – espousing the religion’s virtues after the church asked that it be pulled.

“Anonymous has therefore decided that your organisation should be destroyed, for the good of your followers, for the good of mankind, and for our own enjoyment,” the statement says. …

Last week several major Scientology websites crashed in the United States and Britain. The FBI was asked to investigate after envelopes of white powder were sent to 19 Scientology churches in the Los Angeles area. …

I do not know the full details of the Cruise video. However, one page that continues to host the video speculates:

Yesterday, for a few hours, the clip of Tom Cruise discussing his beliefs as a Scientologist appeared on Youtube, and was republished by Radar and Defamer. That video is no longer available, most likely after the Church of Scientology sent in a copyright infringement notice.

I do not know if the Church of Scientology in fact holds the copyright to the video. Assuming that it does, for the sake of argument, censorship does not mean enforcing copyright. However, obviously Scientology cares nothing about the profitability of the video; the church is rightly worried that the video makes the church look ridiculous. As the cited poster of the video adds, “Gawker is now hosting a copy of the video; it’s newsworthy; and we will not be removing it.” This is a complicated matter of copyright law, then, but, offhand (and I may change my opinion about this) I’d say that Scientology is within its rights to ask that the video be removed and Gawker is within its rights to host the video anyway. Hosting the Cruise video is not comparable to (for example) hosting a film that is elsewhere for sale.

Scientology can more plausibly be accused of censorship in its use of vindictive litigation to silence critics. Scientology seems little interested in respecting the rights of free speech of others. However, the solution to this problem is to reform the litigation process to curb abuses. Two wrongs do not make a right, and silencing Scientology is not the appropriate remedy for Scientology’s abuse of its critics. Scientology should be required to respect the rights of others, but beyond that the only legitimate way to counteract the organization is to criticize it in open debate.

People have the right to be Scientologists and to promote the ideology of the religion. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion demand that Scientologists be protected from those who would attempt to silence the religion. “First they came for the Scientologists…”

Free Speech and Offensive Speech

Today, Mark Wolf over at Rocky Talk Live picked up the story about how ProgressNowAction.org used the term “bitch slap” last year, before the organization went after Jon Caldara for using the same term. This morning, I also briefly appeared on Peter Boyles’s show on 630 KHOW to discuss the story. I wanted to elaborate on a few of the remarks I made to Boyles.

Free speech can only be understood in a legitimate and coherent way in the context of property rights. Let’s take some examples to clarify this point.

People have the right to say “bitch slap” all they want, within the context of individual rights. If you want, you can start a newspaper called “Bitch Slap News.” You can start a “bitch slap” blog in which you write nothing but the term. You can wander around the streets mumbling “bitch slap” to yourself. However, your right to say “bitch slap” cannot interfere with somebody else’s rights.

For example, you cannot come over to my house and spray paint the word “bitch slap” on my door. Nor can you burn the term into my grass. Nor can you barge into my home, uninvited, and start saying “bitch slap.” You cannot walk into a business and start shouting the term “bitch slap.” You cannot walk into a newspaper office and demand that the paper publish the term.

Just as you have the right to set speech policies within your own home, so businesses have the right to set speech policies within the business, subject to contractual arrangements. For example, if you work for a newspaper, you do NOT have the right to publish the term “bitch slap,” or “F*** Bush,” in violation of the paper’s policies. (Many papers have a policy against publishing the “F-word,” but no paper that I know of has a policy against publishing the term “bitch slap.” Indeed, I suspect that the term “bitch slap” has been published more frequently during the past few days than ever before in the term’s history.) My beef with J. David McSwane, the college student who published the “F*** Bush” headline in his school newspaper, was that he flagrantly violated his paper’s stated policies and then tried to claim that he had a “free speech” right to do so.

I can guarantee you that, had McSwane called Condoleezza Rice the “N-word,” he would have been gone, gone, gone. I’m not sure whether the FCC can sanction a radio station for using the “N-word;” I doubt it. Nevertheless, any radio host or DJ who called Barack Obama the “N-word” would be ejected immediately. And this is entirely proper. Even though the radio waves are today “public” — i.e., nationally controlled by the FCC — properly radio waves should be private property. And the owners of a radio station, the same as the owners of a newspaper, should have the political right to set speech policy for the station. Most stations would voluntarily and properly prohibit the use of the “F-word” and “N-word” on air. I doubt many stations would ban the use of the term “bitch slap.” However, if (for example) a Christian station wants to prohibit the use of such terms, then that is the right of the station’s owners.

Of course, if ProgressNow wishes to publicly condemn Caldara for saying “bitch slap,” that is the right of ProgressNow. They also have the right to complain to Caldara’s advertisers. However, as ProgressNow may be learning, just because you have a right to do something, doesn’t make it a good idea. You have the right to drink a quart of Vodka, but it’s a pretty stupid thing to do. You have the right to slam somebody for using a term that your own web page has used, but it’s a pretty idiotic thing to do. But if ProgressNow wants to spend its resources to destroy its own credibility, that’s fine by me. The rest of us have the right to subject the organization to the public mockery that it has so richly earned.

Taipei Times

Congratulations to Coloradan Mike Williams, whose letter appeared on December 22 in Taipei Times, a publication in English about Taiwan. Williams writes:

…US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Thomas Christensen… continues the Washington realpolitik tradition of preserving the “status quo” at all costs in warning against the dangers of Taiwan’s UN referendum.

Even as the US rightly continues to sell advanced weapons systems to Taiwan, it also follows a pragmatic course that protects its financial interests in “one China.”

However, Washington’s insistence on continuing the current stalemate in cross-strait relations only ensures temporary security for Taiwanese. Tragically, such a policy fails to deal with the long-term, and increasingly severe, consequences of delaying official US and world recognition of the reality that the Republic of China on Taiwan exists as a self-governing country and has a right to do so.

The continuing US foreign policy charade not only leads to Taiwan’s acceptance of questionable “friends” such as Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, but also allows Communist China to deploy ever more sophisticated military, economic and political threats against Taiwan, emboldening it to think that it can take such action with the acquiescence of other world powers.

A principled foreign policy would lead the US to openly ally itself with other rights-respecting governments, which would clearly include Taiwan. Of course, such a principled stance is unlikely to emerge out of Washington (or almost any other national capital) today.

In the meantime, the spectacle of Western Europe’s condemnation of Taiwan’s UN referendum should be carefully considered and not long forgotten by Taiwanese or Americans alike.

Williams recommends Taipei Times as a source of international news.

Bill of Rights Day

From the Colorado Freedom Report (originally published by Grand Junction Free Press:)

Amend your schedule to celebrate Bill of Rights Day

… Not everyone enjoys legal protections of their fundamental rights. Take, for instance, the story of Gillian Gibbons, a teacher from England who was working in Sudan. As The New York Times reported, Gibbons “was found guilty… of insulting Islam and sentenced to 15 days in jail and deportation. Under Sudanese law… Gibbons could have spent six months in jail and been lashed 40 times.” …

Unfortunately, our rights of free speech are eroding even here in the United States. The left, which often pretends to champion free speech and occasionally even does so, increasingly calls for censorship when it comes to radio broadcasts and political campaigns. Incredibly, the left calls its censorship “the Fairness Doctrine.” By “fairness,” the left means that government bureaucrats will force owners of radio stations to offer “equal time” to the left — as defined by those bureaucrats — or else. With the help of President Bush, the left has also censored select political speech prior to elections.

But the right wing is no better and very often worse. Some on the right wish to censor what it deems to be obscene or pornographic. (We’re not talking about cases involving the abuse of children, which are not instances of free speech and which should be criminally prosecuted.) The problem is that when government bureaucrats and/or judges get to decide which naked pictures constitute art and which pornography, they cannot possibly issue objective rulings. Moreover, any censorship undermines the principle of free speech. If politicians and their bureaucratic thugs can forcibly stop you from looking at dirty pictures, why should they not also stop you from looking at dirty text? …

(Read the entire article.)

Abolish the FCC

Alex Epstein recently wrote a fine article for the Ayn Rand Institute titled, “‘Open Access’ and the Tyranny of the FCC.” Epstein argues:

In today’s discussions of FCC policy, it is taken for granted that airwaves are “public.” But it shouldn’t be. As philosopher Ayn Rand argued in a landmark 1964 essay, “The Property Status of Airwaves,” airwaves should be private property. … Under the “public” airwaves regime, businesses do not own but merely “license” portions of spectrum–which the government has total authority to control in the “public interest.”

Epstein explains that the government is going to license the 700 MHz spectrum with strings attached. He argues that Americans should “demand the abolition of the FCC.”

The Rocky Mountain News recently discussed another way that the FCC violates free speech and property rights: it imposes “a dated legal prohibition on ownership of a newspaper and a television station in the same city by the same company or individual…” The News points out that the FCC is considering only trivial changes to this rule, and the rule may result in newspapers disappearing altogether in some communities.

Unfortunately, the News suggests that the rule was once valid, in the days before cable TV and the internet, but that now it should be repealed. But the rule was never valid. It was always a violation of the rights of free speech and property. The rule never should have been passed. The FCC never should have been given such power. And, by the way, how does the perverse doctrine that radio waves are public property justify the FCC’s control of newspapers? Are those public property, too?

The religious right wants to ban whatever it deems pornographic. The left wants to politically control radio, television, newspapers, the internet, and political campaigns. Sometimes the left and the right defend those aspects of free speech that they find useful, but neither the left nor the right consistently defends free speech.

Subverting Free Speech in the Name of Free Speech

A few days ago I wrote the entry, “McSwane Is No Defender of Free Speech.” J. David McSwane, editor of Colorado State University’s Rocky Mountain Collegian, published what I described as “a four-word, nonsensical, profane utterance in place of an actual editorial” — “Taser this? F– Bush,” spelling out the F-bomb. (I’ve seen the punctuation between “this” and “F—” published three ways — a question mark, ellipses, and a dash — but that’s an irrelevant detail.)

Unfortunately, various journalists and commentators continue to completely misunderstand the concept of free speech. Indeed, by setting up a false conception of “free speech,” they are actively undermining real free speech.

Free speech, as I wrote in greater detail previously, means that you are free to say and write what you want, with your own resources, without suffering any force or threat of force from the government.

Free speech implies that you are free to start a newspaper and establish policy for that newspaper. It means that you are free to hire and fire writers at your discretion. If you are forcibly prevented from hiring and firing writers at your discretion, then your rights of free speech are being violated. If you choose to fire a writer, then you are certainly NOT violating the free-speech rights of that writer, who may continue to say and write whatever he or she wishes, only not with your resources.

There are three complications.

First, generally newspapers are owned by corporations. This just means that policy is set according to the legally established governors of the corporation (the voting stock holders acting through a management team).

Second, typically newspapers hire writers according to a contract. Most assuredly, newspapers do NOT offer contracts that allow writers to write whatever they want. If writers violate the terms of their contracts, then they may be fired before the contract (otherwise) expires.

Third, college newspapers are affiliated with tax-funded institutions, a condition that, as I discussed previously, generates all sorts of intractable problems, as the tax-funded advocacy of any idea automatically violates somebody’s rights of free speech. Nevertheless, as I also discussed, this issue is irrelevant in the case of McSwane, because McSwane failed to uphold the clear, published policies of the paper that are in accordance with normal standards of professional journalism. The tax funding of colleges does not imply that all standards fly out the window.

With that context established, I’ll take a look at a new article that was brought to my attention by a reader.

UCLA’s Daily Bruin published an article on the matter today (October 8). The story is by Jessica Roy:

Since it ran, the [four-word] message has sparked a nationwide dialogue about freedom of speech and the rights of college newspapers.

“Even though I think that it was in bad taste, it’s certainly their right to go ahead and express whatever views it is that they have,” said Arthur Lechtholz-Zey, chief executive officer of L.O.G.I.C. (Liberty, Objectivity, Greed, Individualism and Capitalism), a UCLA student group associated with the Ayn Rand Institute, which promotes objectivism and the value of philosophy in general.

“Certainly I don’t think anybody should be punished for this,” he added.

The Board of Student Communications at Colorado State is an independent group that oversees the newspaper, which relies on advertising rather than student fees for its funding. …

But Ryan Dunn, a third-year law student at UCLA, said he believes the paper overstepped the boundaries of freedom of speech and the press.

“I think there’s obviously a limit (to freedom of speech). They need to be aware of what their words can cause,” Dunn said. …

Lechtholz-Zey said advertisers were well within their own freedom of speech rights to cancel any affiliation with the paper. …

What the article reveals is that these American college students have no idea what is the significance or meaning of the First Amendment or the right of free speech.

It is debatable whether the CSU paper is truly “independent” or a part of the tax-funded institution. However, if it is “independent,” then any possible First Amendment concern about firing McSwane evaporates.

I was most disappointed to read the comments of Lechtholz-Zey; Objectivists should know better. Lechtholz-Zey makes two errors. First, he confuses the paper’s right to publish what it wants with the paper’s right to fire McSwane. Second, he conflates getting fired with government-backed punishment. Only the latter actually violates First Amendment rights. At least Lechtholz-Zey gets it right when discussing the rights of advertisers.

But Dunn’s comments are far worse. Dunn first suggests that firing McSwane would have somehow violated his rights of free speech. It would not have done so. More seriously, Dunn outright endorses the limitation of free speech. The right of free speech is absolute — within its context. For example, prohibiting somebody from yelling “fire!” in a theater, when there is no fire, is no limitation of that person’s rights of free speech. The person has no such right. Instead, the prohibition protects the theater owners’ rights of property and expression. When people start talking about limiting free speech, then actual abuses of free speech are just around the corner.

What is frightening is that many of tomorrow’s journalists and lawyers — the people who should be most concerned with defending the First Amendment and the right of free speech — have no idea of what rights are.

McSwane Is No Defender of Free Speech

It would be pleasant if more journalists actually understood the concept of free speech. J. David McSwane, the editor of Colorado State University’s Rocky Mountain Collegian, obviously does not understand it.

As a late October 4 article by Erika Gonzalez in the Rocky Mountain News reviews, McSwane published an “editorial” on September 21 that stated “Taser this? F– Bush,” ” with the expletive spelled out,” Gonzalez notes. (While I reserve the right to publish swear words, I choose not to do so as a general matter of policy, which is not to say that I’ll never make an exception.) That’s it — just four words.

If the story were only about a dumb college kid or swearing about Bush, I wouldn’t care. (I’ve sworn about Bush plenty of times myself, though not in print.) But the important part of the story is much more important, as it gets to the heart of the First Amendment.

Gonzalez’s story notes that a CSU board allowed McSwane to keep his job as editor. Here are the two relevant paragraphs from the article:

Although the board said it considered the opinion expressed in the editorial protected by the First Amendment, it also acknowledged the impact the piece has had. …

“We did not do this to capture headlines,” McSwane said last week. “We did this to spark a discussion about free speech”.

Of course the editorial is protected by the First Amendment. Nobody is questioning that. But that has absolutely nothing to do with whether McSwane should have been fired for publishing it.

If McSwane cares to check, here’s what the First Amendment actually states: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” A document by Cornell further explains:

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. … Freedom of expression consists of the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and the implied rights of association and belief. The Supreme Court interprets the extent of the protection afforded to these rights. The First Amendment has been interpreted by the Court as applying to the entire federal government even though it is only expressly applicable to Congress. Furthermore, the Court has interpreted, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as protecting the rights in the First Amendment from interference by state governments.

Article II, Section 10, of Colorado’s Constitution reiterates this protection:

No law shall be passed impairing the freedom of speech; every person shall be free to speak, write or publish whatever he will on any subject, being responsible for all abuse of that liberty; and in all suits and prosecutions for libel the truth thereof may be given in evidence, and the jury, under the direction of the court, shall determine the law and the fact.

Has Congress passed a law censoring McSwane? Has any law been passed regarding the matter? Has any level of any government taken any action whatsoever regarding what McSwane can say or write?

No.

In fact, no one is trying to prevent McSwane from saying anything whatsoever. If he wants, he can start his own newspaper called Taser This? F– Bush, “with the expletive spelled out.” He can start a “F– Bush” blog. He can run off flyers proclaiming “F– Bush” and distribute them to willing takers (provided that he does not violate property rights in doing so). McSwane is perfectly free to wander the the sidewalks endlessly repeating “F– Bush” if he wishes.

But whether any particular newspaper chooses to hire McSwane is simply not a matter of free speech or the First Amendment. There’s just no connection. The fact that many professional journalists have failed to point out this simple fact does not change it.

Ayn Rand explains the matter with characteristic clarity:

Freedom of speech means freedom from interference, suppression or punitive action by the government — and nothing else. It does not mean the right to demand the financial support or the material means to express your views at the expense of other men who may not wish to support you. Freedom of speech includes the freedom not to agree, not to listen and not to support one’s own antagonists. A “right” does not include the material implementation of that right by other men; it includes only the freedom to earn that implementation by one’s own effort. Private citizens cannot [legally] use physical force or coercion; they cannot censor or suppress anyone’s views or publications. Only the government can do so. And censorship is a concept that pertains only to governmental action. (The Ayn Rand Lexicon, page 175)

For CSU’s board even to mention the First Amendment in the context of McSwane keeping his job is bizarre. Apparently that board understands the First Amendment as well as McSwane does, which is to say not very well. (I wonder whether McSwane cried “free speech!” when Imus got fired.)

There is only one way in which free speech is at issue. If the state-subsidized college’s newspaper is in any way subsidized by tax dollars, directly or indirectly, including related faculty salaries and costs of facilities, then McSwane’s editorial violated the rights of free speech of those who were forced to subsidize it against their will. But this problem is inherent in any spending of tax dollars to advocate any idea or expression whatsoever.

And, arguably, when school administrators accept tax dollars, they effectively become agents of the government. Agents of government-funded institutions are subject to Constitutional limitations. So if administrators of a tax-subsidized college try to limit a student’s expression using tax-subsidized facilities, that may indeed raise First Amendment concerns. But does that mean, for example, that a student could parade around in class screaming “F- Bush?” Obviously not. The problem with any tax-subsidized expression of ideas is that it necessarily violates somebody’s rights of free speech. Within the context of tax-subsidized speech, the problem is intractable. (An article by David Hudson illustrates the difficulties of defining rights of expression in the context of tax-subsidized institutions.) The only solution — the only way to consistently protect free speech — is to stop funding schools via the forcible redistribution of resources. A fuller examination of this particular matter would take us rather far afield. For our purposes, I need merely point out that firing McSwane for publishing a four-word, nonsensical, profane utterance in place of an actual editorial would not pose any serious First Amendment challenge. Otherwise, one might as well argue that students have the protected right not to be “censored” with low marks if they squawk like chickens in response to oral examinations. I mean, let’s get serious.

It is no coincidence that some of the same people who invoke the First Amendment in cases where it doesn’t apply also advocate laws that clearly violate the First Amendment. (I am not writing of McSwane here, as I don’t know what his views are.) The “Fairness Doctrine,” more accurately called the Censorship Doctrine, is an obvious example. Campaign laws that outlaw select political speech are another.

But let us leave the matter of free speech and consider whether McSwane should have been fired. Part of me thinks that he’s just a stupid college kid who pulled off a stupid college prank and found himself in the national spotlight, so who cares. God knows I did far stupider things while in college. But, quite obviously, if he wrote such an editorial for any real newspaper in the country, he’d be immediately kicked out the door. I frankly don’t care whether he edits a podunk paper that hardly anybody reads. But if he imagines that his treatment at CSU is remotely similar to what he’ll face in the real world, then CSU is doing McSwane quite a disservice.

Here’s a fun side-note: I went to Westword.com and searched for “f–” (“with the expletive spelled out”). I got 1,000 results. To read my own defense of the right to use the “f word,” see my article of 2003.