September 2007

Did I miss the nuances of free speech?

Friday, September 21st, 2007

This taken from the comments section of an article written by Joe Conason on the tasering incident.

The most distressing thing about this incident to me is that commentators like Mr. Conason, with whom I agree most of the rest of the time, insist on viewing this whole thing as some kind of free speech issue. It was not. On this point, the letter previously submitted by FinFangFoom had it exactly right:

“You don’t have the right to violate an organization’s rules, burst into their meeting, grab a microphone from another student, and begin rambling about your conspiracy theory. The University of Florida had every right to remove the student, and every [right] to get rough with him when he VIOLENTLY resisted arrest.”

If there’s any First Amendment issue here, it’s that Mr. Meyer infringed upon the First Amendment rights of everyone else in that room who hoped to ask Senator Kerry a question. He had his time to speak, he went over his time, and clearly his only purpose in being there was to cause a ruckus. Let’s be blunt: the kid behaved like a spoiled asshole. Why is he now being celebrated, defended, held up as a First Amendment martyr?


There are plenty of people in the U.S. who are legitimate victims of suppression of First Amendment rights. Go champion their causes — don’t waste your time defending this idiot who didn’t know when to stand down, and who was only there because he wanted to promote himself.

Is this commenter right?

It would be impossible to dispute that there are people whose First Amendment rights have been more egregiously violated than Mr. Meyers’. But, you could say that about any First Amendment violation, however large or small. So that is something of a non-issue. I won’t apologize for the fact that this kid was white, possibly rich, possibly had a sense of entitlement. In fact, from the video he looked like something of a jerk. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t entitled to his rights.

I’ll repeat it again — free speech is only free speech if it’s a right even given to people you hate.

The commenter writes, “If there’s any First Amendment issue here, it’s that Mr. Meyer infringed upon the First Amendment rights of everyone else in that room who hoped to ask Senator Kerry a question.” I have seen a similar sentiment expressed elsewhere on the web. The first thing that comes to mind for me is that the First Amendment protects your free speech from government infringement. It doesn’t say anything about the courtesy to speak among my peers, in any fair or equal share or measure. In other words, free speech (at least as defined by the First Amendment) is about allowing a soap box in the public square, but it says nothing about who gets to stand on it, and for how long. The key thing the First Amendment says is that the government has no right restricting the use of the soap box.

Did I miss the nuance here? I don’t think so. Police officers comprise an arm of the executive branch of government. They are law enforcement. When someone acting on behalf of the government restricts my speech, especially in a political context, that’s a First Amendment violation. Plain and simple.

In conclusion, Meyers was taser’ed for standing on the soap box too long, and for saying things too disagreeable to the general audience, especially the police officers. Like it or not, standing on the soap box too long is protected by the First Amendment.

If you want him off the soap box, it’s simple: ask him off, boo him off, or simply stop listening. You don’t get to ask the government to remove him, because the government doesn’t get to pick how long is too long, and what speech is worthy of being heard. Let me repeat that again: the government doesn’t get to pick what speech is worthy of being heard.

I think it is only intellectually honest to separate the free speech issue from the police brutality issue. But at the same time, I have a hard time doing so. Meyers was removed from the forum by force — initially, the police just grabbed him, and told him he had to go. This was a First Amendment violation in itself. But then, they handcuffed him. This made him think he was under arrest (and in fact, he was). So now, not only was his First Amendment right being trampled upon, but he was also being charged as a criminal. I, in the same situation, would not have simply gone quietly in the night. I would have done exactly what he did — shouted out, “They are arresting me! Do you see this!?” I would have squirmed. I would have asked for the police to reason with me. And, I would have been taser’ed.

So, although it seems intellectually honest to separate the speech from the brutality, the two seem vitally, essentially connected. More generally, if you have your rights violated, and then resist that violation, the punishment for your resistance still relates to the rights which were originally violated.

On a side note, I think Conason is right to relate this incident to the “Free Speech Zones” used by Bush during his speeches. Here’s another post from the comments section:

I live and work in a University community. Two years ago, I was among a group of about 70 people who quietly marched towards the campus, where President Bush was speaking, to protest the war in Iraq. We held signs, all of them within the bounds of good taste, and we did not chant or shout or create any disturbance, just marched quietly through town and to the campus, where we were prevented, by campus security, from getting anywhere near the central commons where the president was to speak. Only those who had been vetted in advance were allowed there, most of them wearing red, white and blue and carrying pro-Bush and pro-war signs and banners. We were shunted to an area — shade and grass there so we were not uncomfortable — well out of sight and earshot of the actual event. That was disturbing, in a free country on a public university campus. But more disturbing was the fact that there were armed guards carrying large, visible weapons, patrolling the rooftops of the buildings surrounding us, and keeping an eye on us. And most disturbing was the fact that, when the event — which we could not hear except for the cheering of the carefully assembled crowd — was over, the attendees departed the event by a route that took them right past our area. They threw things at us, shouted obscenities, and had a bullhorn through which they shouted “Traitors!” and other things far more offensive. No one made any effort to restrain their rage or hatred. But I am quite sure, had any one of us made a move, or started shouting, or in any way appeared to be trying to break free from our “free speech zone”, we would have been “handled” by the guys on the rooftops. It is alarming to me that this kind of thing has happened again and again and the media never mentions it in the coverage of these staged events. I believe that is how dictatorships operate; it is not how I was taught that people live and behave in a democracy.

I feel this is also related to the recent incident in New York with regard to President Ahmadinejad of Iran visiting Columbia University for a public forum. Here is a post and a clever response by someone named “ann” on NYTimes City Room:

“As some of the other people here have already said, what in the world could this guy have to say that we need to hear? Yes, I believe in freedom of speech, but, Iranians are NOT our allies…If you really want to hear what this man has to say, why don’t you go visit him in Iran, and, see if you get the same liberal freedoms that you want to grant him here…and, honestly, anything that comes out of his mouth will only be a lie, conjured up to make himself and his country look more like an ally than an enemy…and, as far as visiting Ground Zero, if we did let him, we would probably see a picture of him at the site (smiling) on the Al Jazeera website soon after…” — Posted by ron

I wouldn’t want to hear him speak in Iran because no one would have the freedom to question him there. In America, we will be able to hear him express his opinions, and we will be able to hear someone openly question them, debate them, and discuss them. It’s a beautiful thing. — Posted by ann

Let’s just hope Ahmadinejad doesn’t get taser’ed for speaking too long. Might make follow-up diplomatic relations difficult. (I hope Cheney isn’t reading this…)

Responding again to the above, I don’t think it’s alarmist to point to these currents in our culture and say, “This smells like fascism.” We may still be the greatest country on Earth with regard to free speech, but it isn’t a given. Everything can change, and everything does. We must defend this essential right now as fiercely as two centuries ago.

Fascism Rising: Suppressing Speech with Tasers

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

I hate to alienate readers by starting with a Noam Chomsky quote, but oh well. Chomsky once said, “If you are in favor of freedom of speech, that means you are in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise – otherwise you’re not in favor of freedom of speech.”

I am sure by now you’ve heard the story of Andrew Meyers, a 21-year-old student who was arrested and taser’ed by four or five University of Florida police officers because he was loud and rude at a political Q-and-A session with John Kerry.

When he was being dragged off the podium, the audience applauded. To be fair, that was probably because Meyers was impassioned, and probably was asking questions that made people uncomfortable. Possible voter fraud in the 2004 election, impeaching Bush for war crimes: neither of these are things the average Floridian probably finds to be in alignment with their own view of the world.

I don’t think police should have the right to escort me away from the podium when I’m speaking to an elected representative of government. This is a democracy. Sometimes it’s loud, sometimes it’s rude, things don’t always go according to plan. Questions aren’t always easy ones, and questions can make people uncomfortable. But that’s democracy. It’s messy, but through the chaos, our voices get heard.

Fascists were very good at making sure Q-and-A sessions were orderly. No one went over their time limit, and no one asked a question a politician didn’t like.

If Meyers had only been escorted out of the building, I would find that to be a violation of his First Amendment rights and I’d want the State to force those police officers to take some training courses. The first course would force every one of them to read the U.S. Constitution, before they go around supposedly protecting the rights it describes.

But it didn’t stop there. They didn’t just escort him out of the building, or practice good old-fashioned diplomacy. They didn’t even grab him — 4 vs. 1 — and drag him out of there.

Despite the fact that he posed no physical threat to the numerous officers around him — he had no weapons, he was throwing no punches, he was just a little squirmy because he had his 1st amendment right trampled upon — the police officers decided it was a good time to try out their new toy. They taser’ed Meyers, and left him writhing in pain in an auditorium full of his peers. A Senator of the US Government stood by and told everyone to “calm down”.

If you haven’t yet, you can see the full video here, and also from another angle (though warning, the latter one is a bit gut-wrenching).

I saw a blog post about the event and Kerry’s response, but what really got to me was the following comment from a reader named “Roman B.” on that blog:

I’ve done my sint as a questioner at political functions in college. Whenever I had my mike turned-off & asked to leave the podium (always at conservative functions, go figure), that’s what I did. I didn’t wait for security to ask me to leave, escort me, argue with them, or get myself in a position where I could get myself in trouble.

This has nothing to do with Andrew Meyer’s freedom of speech, Kerry, Bush, homeland security, 04 elections, left, right, or anything of the sort.

Andrew went up there to the podium with the intent of instigating trouble & he got it. He was dumb enough to get himself into trouble, but smart enough to know he would get the notariety he was looking for.

Why else would he make sure the camera was on?”

I’ve decided to rewrite Roman B’s post, with a few key words changed:

I’ve done my stint as a questioner at political functions in college. Whenever I had my microphone turned off and was asked to leave the podium (always at Nazi rallies, go figure), that’s what I did. I didn’t wait for the SS to ask me to leave, escort me, argue with them, or get myself in a position where I could get myself in trouble.

This has nothing to do with Andrew Meyer’s freedom of speech, or any of the other political issues of Germany’s Third Reich.

Andrew went up there to the podium with the intent of instigating trouble, and he got it. He was dumb enough to get himself into trouble, but smart enough to know the notoriety he was looking for.

He may have died at the hands of the SS, or perhaps he’s working in a concentration camp somewhere (we’ll never know). But this is exactly what he wanted — why else would he have had all his journalist friends of the German Resistance there, taking notes for tomorrow’s paper?

For those of you who do care about the freedom of speech, I urge you to write a letter to the University of Florida Police Department, to the ACLU of Florida, and to the USDOJ. For those of you who think Meyers deserved to get taser’ed (and there are quite a few of you out there), I’ll remind you of the following parable:

They say that if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will leap out right away to escape the danger. But, if you put a frog in a kettle that is filled with water that is cool and pleasant, and then you gradually heat the kettle until it starts boiling, the frog will not become aware of the threat until it is too late. The frog will die without even realizing it.

Or, as Huey Long once said, “Of course we will have fascism in America, but we will call it democracy!”

What is Libertarianism?

Sunday, September 2nd, 2007

From an interesting thread on /.

My definition of “libertarianism” stands from a firm principle of “live and let live”. That is, everyone is free to do what they want as long as they are not doing any direct harm to others against their will.

I put in the phrase “direct harm” because it is all to easy to declare anything you want as an “indirect harm” without any justification. When I say “direct harm”, there has to be actual clearly identifiable victims of that harm, and also clear, identifiable harm. Alas, much of what in politics and the law today that is declared “harm” isn’t really.

So, in essence, unless you see me actually doing something that is clearly harming someone else, you are to leave me alone. And I, of course, will do likewise.

I have lost count of how many times in my own life, for instance, someone has phoned the police on me simply because they *thought* I was dangerous, regardless of the fact that I had not done anything wrong nor had any intentions of doing so. And that has caused much damage — much harm — to me and my family, and yet no one learns from this. Police still encourages the public to phone everything in at the drop of a hat. Then they go out and harass innocent individuals, doing harm to them.

If I were libertarian-leaning before, such experiences have firmly pushed me into that camp.

My response:

You’re conflating social libertarianism and economic libertarianism. Not your fault, so is everyone else on this forum.

“Live and let live” is social libertarianism. You’re saying, “personal / private freedoms must not be infringed”. Economic libertarianism says, “there should not be ANY government regulation on the ‘free’ market”. Someone who buys into both of these ideas (or, more commonly, conflates them) is a social/economic libertarian. In other words, a modern libertarian.

Most American-style liberals (i.e., people who believe in the power of government to help society) are also social libertarians, just not economic ones. An example of a policy offensive to an economic libertarian but not a liberal is the minimum wage, or the 40-hour work-week. Interestingly, most American-style conservatives are economic libertarians, but NOT social ones. They don’t mind eliminating the minimum wage, but they do want to tell you what you can and can’t do in your bedroom with your consenting adult partner.

You would think that modern libertarians would hate both parties, and some do, but you find many more of them supporting Republicans than Democrats.

The reason? Modern-day libertarianism really has more to do with Milton Friedman than it does with the ACLU. Many are just brainwashed Chicago school amateur economists. They think that the “invisible hand of the market” will fix everything, while they benefit from the fruits of a century of progressive policies that are only recently being dismantled.

They conflate social and economic libertarianism because it is convenient to do so; the latter is so vulgar that if presented alone to most compassionate human beings, it would seem completely insane. No 40-hour work week? No controls on foods and substances? No safety labels on medicines? No nutrition labels on food? No seatbelts in cars? No environmental regulations on dumping and pollution? Yep — that’s economic libertarianism. The “market” will sort things out. Just let the invisible hand do its work, and all these things will magically be taken care of. [You often hear economic libertarians making the mistake of applying Darwin's principle of natural selection to the market -- those with the most money and skills are "selected", and the rest should be left in the dust.]

Social libertarianism, on the other hand, jives with American sensibilities and our Constitution. And so, through the sheep’s clothing of social and personal freedoms, comes the wolf of the business-run “free” market.

Update: A Wikipedia article on the Nolan Chart, as well as the chart itself, elaborates this distinction. If I were producing the chart today, instead of making the x-axis “economic freedom,” I’d label it “opposition to government regulation of the market.” Certainly less succinct, but more accurate.

Another Update: I was revisiting the /. thread, and found a particularly good description of the difference between economic liberals and economic libertarians:

[...] the question fundamentally comes down to, “What do you fear the most?”

1. An inefficient government running roughshod over you (taxation, interference in property rights, tyranny of the majority, etc).
2. Powerful, unaccountable private entities running roughshod over you (monopolies, externalities, inequity of power, etc).

Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification (as is the notion that most people fit into these little political boxes), but it mostly suffices. I find that most libertarian and most liberal points of view come down to concerns that their favorite bogeyman will ruin everything if left unchecked and powerless. More nuanced views come from realizing that they both are pretty bad and that you have to make a choice how to balance them (even if you tend to throw the balance almost entirely one way or the other). The crazy ideologues you see here on Slashdot and elsewhere are the people who seem to never acknowledge that the other side’s feared enemy is a problem too.

I love this explanation. My personal belief, as elaborated in earlier posts in this blog, is that careful government regulation of business is a good thing. But the modern US administrations strip away regulation of businesses, while growing the government in its ability to censor, to control social and personal behavior, to use the national purse for foreign wars, etc. In other words, the worst of both worlds!