Civil Liberties

In support of net neutrality

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

I wrote a letter in support of net neutrality and Title II classification of Internet Service Providers to the FCC. For background on this FCC vote, you can read this Arstechnica explainer.

You can add your own comment in support of net neutrality to the FCC at the URL gofccyourself.org. To clarify some terms:

  • “net neutrality” is a term coined by Tim Wu (author of “The Master Switch” and “The Attention Merchants”) which describes a legal principle that “Internet service providers and governments regulating the Internet should treat all data on the Internet the same, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.”
  • “title II” is a part of the Communications Act of 1934 that establishes that certain forms of communication infrastructure are “common carriers”, which means that in delivering Internet service, the ISPs “cannot discriminate [content/services], that is refuse the service unless there is some compelling reason.”

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Obama: a man, or an idea?

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

I would never have thought, graduating college in 2006 with the Bush years in full swing, that we would be only two years away from Democrat control of the presidency for two full terms.

The election yesterday was important because it was a rejection of the repugnant brand of conservatism that argues government should have no ambition beyond self-immolation and individuals should have no ambition beyond themselves.

Obama is a flawed leader, but he is a deft politician. He has managed to win a national debate about a moral truth in society. One newspaper declared, “A Liberal America”, but it’s more like “A Mixed Economy America”.

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Sex offenders barred from using the Internet in NJ

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

The latest insanity: New Jersey legislators have decided that sex offenders will be barred from using the Internet. That’s not a joke: barred altogether — there is only a single exception for job searches. This is a major infringement of their civil liberties. Once a sexual offender is let out of jail, he does not get to live a normal life.

Here is a comment from Slashdot that rang true with me:

“Those who want to be soft on sex offenders are most likely not parents, and most definitely not parents of a child who has been abused.”

Wow, watch those strawmen fly!

I’m a parent, and I’m guessing that under your worldview, I want to be `soft on sex offenders’. But I don’t see it that way — instead, I want the punishment to fit the crime. If you’re 17 and have sex with your 15 year old girlfriend, you should be grounded for a week, perhaps have your cell phone taken away. Peeing on the side of a building? $50 fine. Rape a 3 year old girl to within an inch of her life? Life in prison, perhaps even the death penalty.

`Sex offender registration’ is a huge crock. All it really does is let us take some people, found guilty of certain offenses, and make them pariahs for life. I imagine the original premise was to protect society from these dangerous predators, but in many cases they’re not predators at all! And why only sex crimes? I’d be FAR more concerned if the guy next door killed his neighbor in a fight 10 years ago than if he got caught diddling the 16 year old girl next door when he was 19 — but guess which one has to register?

I might be better able to support registration as either further punishment or to protect society if it applied to all crimes of a certain level, not just `sex crimes’. But even then I can’t really support it — when you’ve paid your debt to society, that should be the end of it. And if you’re too dangerous to be let out, then you shouldn’t be let out — the sex offender registry should not be a `last ditch’ sort of thing.

And what good does the sex offender registry do? Sure, it gives people a list of names of people to harass, to run out of town, to lynch, to kill. And you can tell your kids to avoid these houses, but what good does that really do? Has anybody ever shown that knowing where the sex offenders in town were led to children (we’re worried about protecting the children, right?) who were less likely to be the victims of crime (or sex crimes, if you want to be more specific?)

And the whole banning them from the Internet thing, even worse …

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!”