When speech is violence and violence is speech

The New York Times has published op-ed pieces by Vladmir Putin and The Freaking Taliban. If staff members had a problem with that, they kept it to themselves.

But an editorial – admittedly, a really, really stupid one – by a sitting US Senator? That’s a bridge too far.

Staffers at The New York Times expressed dismay Wednesday over the newspaper’s decision to publish an op-ed written by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton that called for the U.S. military to be deployed in cities across the country to help restore order.

The op-ed was published in The Times opinion section, but staffers from both opinion and the newsroom — which operate separate from one another — publicly dissented.

A parade of Times journalists tweeted a screen shot showing the headline of Cotton’s piece, “Send In the Troops,” with the accompanying words: “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.”

They all tweeted the same mantra. Just like a religious ritual. Matt Welch, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, despairs for the future of journalism and the liberal ideal itself:

Like Defense Secretary Mark Esper, I do not think the president should invoke the Insurrection Act, now or for whatever other hare-brained schemes he may have. And like the army of journalism professors and lefty media critics busy mashing the “like” button on every new anti-Cotton tweet, I am no fan of the senator. My first piece about him, five years ago, was headlined “GOP’s New Foreign Policy Hero Is a Surveillance-Loving Interventionist Nightmare.”

But Tom Cotton is, sadly, a senator. And one of the most longstanding traditions among journals of national aspiration—the TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles TimesUSA Today, The Atlantic—is publishing advocacy essays by people in power.

For instance, then-Rep. Charlie Rangel (D–N.Y.) wrote a 2002 New York Times op-ed headlined “Bring Back the Draft” (talk about “invoking state violence” in a way that “disproportionately hurts Black and brown people”!) without stirring this sort of protest. More recently, Michael Bloomberg took to the Gray Lady to advocate banning flavored vapes. Ask the family of Eric Garner how they feel about the racial distribution of stepped-up anti-nicotine enforcement in New York. One begins to suspect that the objection to Cotton is not a principled observation that state power is disproportionately wielded against the less fortunate.

This publishing flap, which in comparative importance is a sputtering match next to the hell-inferno of spring 2020, is nonetheless symbolic of a shift bearing more tectonic heft. Our liberal institutions, not unlike our conservative intellectuals, are noisily abandoning liberalism.

While the Trump-era trolls on the right gleefully transgress the bounds of discourse (particularly concerning race, gender, and sexuality) to provoke the sensitivities of the forces they call “the Cathedral,” the solons of the institutional left expend a frightful amount of energy serving as intellectual bouncers—deciding, sometimes based on organization affiliation or even immutable characteristics, who is allowed to be in the club and dance on the “platform.” It is an ever-escalating slap-fight between two sides who have given up on the idea of don’t-categorize-me individualism.

“Should the Times publish op-eds by Hitler?” people are asking on social media, because of course Tom Cotton can’t just be an authoritarian idiot, he has to be Hitler. The answer is, they fucking did, back when it was assumed that it is not dangerous just to be exposed to what even awful people are thinking, and in fact it is inherently good to expose it.

The Times is sheepishly backing down, of course. They won’t make the mistake of challenging its readers again.

Sometimes it feels like we’re caught between left-wing ideologues who want to recreate China during the sixties and right-wing ideologues who want to recreate China in 1989, doesn’t it?

Update: This.

When someone says “it’s not about freedom of speech,” it’s definitely about freedom of speech

The Trudeau government may extend the fight against COVID-19 to limiting what you and I can say about it:

The federal government is considering introducing legislation to make it an offence to knowingly spread misinformation that could harm people, says Privy Council President Dominic LeBlanc.

LeBlanc told CBC News he is interested in British MP Damian Collins’s call for laws to punish those responsible for spreading dangerous misinformation online about the COVID-19 pandemic.

LeBlanc said he has discussed the matter already with other cabinet ministers, including Justice Minister David Lametti. If the government decides to follow through, he said, it could take a while to draft legislation.

“Legislatures and Parliaments are meeting scarcely because of the current context of the pandemic, so it’s not a quick solution, but it’s certainly something that we would be open [to] as a government,” said LeBlanc.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said he would support legislation to fight online misinformation.

“Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and it is about protecting the public,” he said.

“This is not a question of freedom of speech. This is a question of people who are actually actively working to spread disinformation, whether it’s through troll bot farms, whether [it’s] state operators or whether it’s really conspiracy theorist cranks who seem to get their kicks out of creating havoc.”

Leonard Sirota, a Canadian now teaching constitutional law in New Zealand, describes the damage this would do long after the coronavirus pandemic has passed:

It is far from clear just what these restrictions are meant to accomplish. The CBC report quotes a spokesperson from the Communications Security Establishment, an intelligence agency, as warning about “cybercriminals and fraudsters” who “encourage victims to visit fake web sites, open email attachments and click on text message links” that purport to provide health information. But fraud, for example, is already a crime; there is no need for “extraordinary measures” to prohibit it, or for broadly defined bans on “misinformation”. The report also says that “Health Canada … is sending compliance letters to companies it finds making false or questionable claims about COVID-19”. It is not quite clear what sort of compliance is in question here, but presumably ― or at least hopefully ― it’s compliance with existing laws, perhaps ones having to do with advertising, or specifically advertising of health products. If so, then why is more legislation necessary?

For his part, the NDP MP tells, darkly, of “troll bot farms, state operators or … conspiracy theorist cranks who seem to get their kicks out of creating havoc”. State actors with troll bot farms at their disposal are unlikely to be deterred by Canadian legislation. At most, then, it will be targeting conspiracy theorists… and giving them more ammunition for believing the government is hiding things. Is there any evidence at all, actually, that “conspiracy theorist cranks” ― especially ones within the reach of Canadian laws, and not the one domiciled at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC ― are having a real effect on Canada’s response to the plague?

And on the other side of the scales, there will be real costs to this proposed legislation. Even if it includes the mens rea requirements of knowledge, wilfulness, and malice ― which, if applied, would result in good faith conspiracist cranks being off the hook ― the law is likely to produce chilling effects. Worse, attempts to enforce it, even if they do not ultimately lead to convictions, will target the politically unpopular, or simply those who happen for one reason or another, to incur the displeasure of police services and prosecutors. …

[…]

Once the plague is over, it will be all too tempting to declare something else the next great public emergency, and to repurpose, instead of abolishing, the censorship mechanisms that allow government to silence those who question or undermine its response ― even if stupidly.

If there is there one thing we’ve learned from events of barely a year ago, it’s that clerks of the Privy Council are not always imbued with a great respect for constitutional propriety, or immune to the temptation to shill for their political masters. I would not trust one of them with the job of a Minister of Truth. Nor would I trust the public health authorities, which themselves at times seem quite confused about what the truth is. Indeed, this confusion only serves to underlie the fact that a government that is entitled to impose the truth on its subjects ― who can no longer be counted as citizens ― is also a government that is empowered to lie to them. No one, after, is allowed, and at length able, to tell the difference. The Canadian government needs to reverse course before it becomes a government of this sort.

Whenever I come across a political partisan promoting such restrictions on freedom of expression, I ask them if they’re prepared to trust these tools in the hands of the other team. You guys won’t be in power forever. When it’s your side being told what they can and can’t say, don’t whine about how you weren’t warned.

The Vaxxed Question

A highly controversial, heavily criticized and allegedly harmful and offensive movie is being shown in the Halifax area. But enough about Doolittle. Let’s talk about Vaxxed II: The People’s Truth:

Halifax says it will not cancel the upcoming screening of an anti-vaccination film at a municipal facility later this month.

A spokesperson for the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) said the Banquet Room in the LeBrun Recreation Centre on Jan. 31 was originally booked by an individual for $345.

“After the booking, it came to the municipality’s attention that the individual was representing an organization,” Maggie-Jane Spray said in an email.

The film, Vaxxed II: The People’s Truth, promotes the unfounded claim that vaccines cause autism or other developmental problems, which they refer to as “vaccine injuries.”

[…]

Multiple studies, including one that involved nearly every child born in Denmark over an 11-year period, have shown that there is no link between autism and vaccination.

The original study that sparked the debunked claim was published in the journal the Lancet in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield and linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism.

The publication of the study led to a widespread increase in the number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children for fear of its link to autism.

But Wakefield’s findings have since been widely rejected and the Lancet formally retracted the study in 2010, due to serious flaws and an undisclosed conflict of interest.

I don’t think the city should cancel the screening. In a free society, public spaces like libraries shouldn’t be open only to those with views acceptable to the government. That’s an open door for all kinds of abuse by the state.

These guys should be free to speak their piece about vaccines, and I in turn should be free to tell them their uneducated potatoes who apparently believe a child is better dead than autistic. Which, as the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, is something I take personally.

There is absolutely no evidence that vaccines cause autism, and Andrew Wakefield, the “doctor” who first made this conspiracy theory socially acceptable is a sociopathic con artist. And guess who’s in this movie, alongside nepotism poster child RFK Junior?

UBC caves to the mob

Berkeley 1964 vs. Berkeley 2017.

I hadn’t even had time to break all of my New Year’s resolutions before the first big university free-speech controversy of 2020 popped up:

The Post Millennial editor-at-large Andy Ngo had his speaking event cancelled at UBC after safety concerns due to potential violent protests from antifa groups. Ngo’s scheduled presentation, ironically titled “Understanding Antifa Violence,” was scheduled to take place on January 29 at UBC’s Robson Square in downtown Vancouver.

Conservative legal advocacy group, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF) has issued a press release and legal demand letter on behalf of student group The Free Speech Club demanding that UBC reinstate the event.

According to the letter, The Free Speech Club, received a phone call on December 20 from Ron Holton, Chief Risk Officer at UBC, stating “[t]he reason for the cancellation is the concern about the safety and security of our campus community.” The JCCF points out that no specific concern was mentioned.

The defining conflict of our time isn’t between left and right. It’s between those who believe speech is speech and violence is violence, and those who believe speech is violence and violence is speech.

Looks like the University of British Columbia has chosen its side.

When journalism is a crime

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A Newfoundland-based reporter faces criminal charges for apparently doing his job:

A journalist with Newfoundland online news outlet The Independent, Mr. Brake was in the midst of an intensive stint of reporting on the tensions inflamed by Muskrat Falls, the controversial Labrador-based hydroelectric project, on the day he filmed protesters cutting through a locked gate. When they flooded onto the project site in spite of an injunction blocking trespassers, Mr. Brake followed and continued to film.

While other media remained at the gate, Mr. Brake embedded himself with a largely Indigenous group of protesters (which he refers to as “land protectors”) while they occupied workers’ accommodations. He live streamed their protest for several days.

As a result of his work, Mr. Brake now finds himself at the lonely centre of a rare legal scenario thought to be unprecedented in Canada. More than a year after covering the protest, Mr. Brake is fighting both civil and criminal charges for violating the injunction that protesters ignored. He is thought to be the only journalist ever to have been charged both civilly and criminally for reporting on a matter of public interest in this country.

“To lay criminal charges against journalists is a very rare thing to do,” said Paul Schabas, a Toronto-based lawyer with expertise in media and constitutional law. “Here it strikes me as particularly extraordinary given that they are also proceeding with a civil remedy,” said Mr. Schabas, who is not involved with Mr. Brake’s case. “What’s the need to also pile on a criminal charge?”

[…]

Duncan Pike, co-director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, said Mr. Brake’s case is “incredibly dangerous for press freedom in Canada.”

“Canadians are very complacent with the state of our freedoms and think that these things don’t happen in Canada – that reporters don’t get arrested for their coverage,” Mr. Pike said, adding: “He was there as a journalist, doing his job.”

Brake was (and is) undeniably sympathetic to the protestors’ cause, but I am troubled to see him being punished for following a newsworthy event.  This is like a reporter interviewing Osama bin Laden being charged with harboring a fugitive.

Will people troubled by the state of free speech on campus speak out against this?

Professor Wrongthink

Acadia professor Rick Mehta is being investigated for publicly expressing doubleplusungood opinions about feminism and relations with First Nations:

Acadia University has launched a formal investigation into complaints against a professor over controversial comments he made on social media and in the classroom.

Heather Hemming, vice-president academic at the Wolfville, N.S., school, said in a letter to professor Rick Mehta that the university has received complaints from students, faculty and others with concerns about his views.

“These concerns relate to the manner in which you are expressing views that you are alleged to be advancing or supporting and, in some instances, time that you are spending on these issues in the classroom,” she said in a letter on Feb. 13. “The university has a legal responsibility to provide an environment free from discrimination, sexual harassment and personal harassment.”

[…]

But [UNB Professor Matthew] Sears called Mehta’s “free-speech absolutism” extreme, noting that free speech does not mean consequence-free speech. The university must weigh a professor’s right to free speech with a student’s right to be safe and supported in class, he noted.

You can have a “right to be safe and supported in class” or you can have a university.  Pick one.

You’d think the Masuma Khan fiasco would teach those on the left that the safe-space dragon will eventually eat them, too.  But I guess they’ll just have to learn the hard way.

Book review: “Freedom From Speech” by Greg Lukianoff

[originally posted at Canadian Lawyer]

It used to be that people waited until they were actually offended to take action against something that offended them, but Carleton University student Arun Smith has no time for such details. When a “free-speech wall” upon which anyone could write any opinion was erected at his school last year, Smith promptly tore it down. When the wall went back up, he did it again.
Smith was unapologetic about his actions, declaring on his Twitter feed that, “Not every opinion is valid, nor deserving of expression.” When CBC journalist Kady O’Malley argued that this isn’t his call to make, Smith responded, “just watch me.”

Greg Lukianoff’s Freedom From Speech, an entry in the “Broadside” series issued by the conservative publisher Encounter Books, shows how this attitude is depressingly common on American college campuses, with implications for the world outside of the university — including the legal system.  As the Smith case illustrates, this attitude is depressingly common in Canadian schools as well.

Lukianoff is a representative of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which monitors and takes legal action against censorship and suppression of speech in American post-secondary institutions.

Unfortunately, his organization has been particularly busy in recent years, as restrictive “speech codes” proliferate and students mobilize against speakers whose views are apparently so repugnant that no one should be allowed to hear them.

Conservative personalities initially made up most “disinvitation season” targets, but as these things are wont to do, before long more liberal (but insufficiently liberal) speakers were hounded off campus, assuming they weren’t disinvited beforehand. Off campus, meanwhile, the likes of celebrity chef Paula Deen, MSNBC host Martin Bashir, and Mozilla Firefox designer Brendan Eich saw their careers torpedoed by the outrage patrol, sometimes for incidents or comments made years beforehand.

As Lukianoff acknowledges, where governmental agencies or institutions aren’t involved, these aren’t constitutional violations as defined by the First Amendment. People do, of course, have every right to express their distaste with someone’s remarks or actions, and refuse to patronize businesses which employ that person.

But the attitude implicit in these campaigns — that people have a “right” to be protected from material that may offend them — seems to be spreading and it has serious implications for the legal system and our system of government.

In some European jurisdictions, for example, a “right to be forgotten”  — mandating the removal of information about certain people from the Internet — is being awkwardly implemented. And much of the world is seeing a revival of laws against anti-religious “blasphemy,” with potentially disastrous consequences.

Lukianoff convincingly argues that the “right” to be free from offence is a pernicious concept that universities — institutions supposedly dedicated to the pursuit of truth, freewheeling debate, and challenging of old assumptions —- should be fighting against. Instead, they’re the incubators.

Interestingly, Lukianoff also points to a “problem of comfort” largely brought about, paradoxically, by the abundance of media outlets available on the Internet and cable television. If you’re a political conservative, you can get all your news from right-leaning outlets like Fox or the Daily Caller, rarely having their fundamental beliefs challenged. (For left-wingers, replace Fox or the Daily Caller with MSNBC and Salon.com.) And when you get most of your news from one perspective, you’ll have that much harder a time handling news from another, opposed point of view.

How much of this is applicable to Canada? Well, with a handful of exceptions like the little-watched Sun News channel, our homegrown media outlets aren’t as politically polarized as those in the U.S.; on the other hand, in Canada, freedom of expression is culturally and constitutionally less sacrosanct. Either way, Arun Smith isn’t alone.

Dieudonné and hate-speech laws

From a Guardian report about a French court decision upholding a ban on performances by anti-Semitic “comedian” Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala:

Outside the Zénith hall, near the town of Nantes, where Dieudonné was to kick off his tour on Thursday, fans turned up – on the advice of the comedian – to sing La Marseillaise in support of “freedom of expression”. They also chanted “Valls resign” and “Dieudonné, Dieudonné”.

The show was reportedly a sell-out of all 6,000 tickets, costing up to €43 (£35).

[…]

Dieudonné has several convictions for inciting racial hatred through antisemitic jokes and comments, and claims to have invented the “quenelle”, a gesture that has been described as an inverted Nazi salute.

Might I suggest that this creep is selling out his shows in no small part because he has been repeatedly convicted of “inciting racial hatred”? And that this says a lot about how such laws not only fail to combat hatred, but actually make things worse?

Doug Christie’s selective free-speech activism

Christie, a B.C. lawyer known as “Counsel for the damned” because of his advocacy on behalf of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, passed away from liver cancer last week at age 66.

I strongly believe that even people whose views I find repellent should have the right to express these views, so I always had a kind of grudging respect for Christie.  But I also felt that the guy went beyond merely representing extreme right-wingers in court, and actually believed in their cause.  Tom Hawthorn, in a vicious poison-pen “obituary” in The Tyee, goes further, and notes that Christie tried to stifle free speech as often as he defended it:

On his website, Christie grandiloquently declared himself to be “Canada’s greatest free speech defender.” What nonsense. When did Christie ever defend speech with which he did not agree? He gained a national platform defending clients against hate-crimes laws and human-rights tribunals, but less well remembered was his own frequent use of the courts to stifle the speech of opponents.

In the late 1990s, Christie represented clients who sued newspaper cartoonist Josh Beutel, the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association, the author Warren Kinsella, a college professor in B.C., and a television station in Kelowna. (The latter was a case in which I was to become an unwilling figure. More about that later.) “I do believe this is a concerted effort on the part of members of the extreme right to stifle those who are dealing with hate-mongers,” Bernie Farber of the Canadian Jewish Congress said at the time.

In 1984, Christie sued Edmonton Sun columnist John Geiger for describing Christie’s Western separatist movement as “just an Alberta version of the Ku Klux Klan.” The lawyer was awarded $30,000 in damages, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The following year, Vancouver radio hotline host Gary Bannerman delivered an editorial in which he said, “Doug Christie has aligned himself so many times with these perverted monsters that he has to be viewed as one himself, in my view.” Christie sued. A jury ruled the comment to be defamatory, but fair comment.

No publication was too small, no comment too innocuous. In 1997, Christie threatened the Martlet student newspaper at the University of Victoria with a lawsuit for publishing an editorial describing members of his Canadian Free Speech League as “extremist thugs.” The students consulted a lawyer and refused Christie’s demand of a retraction. Who defended free speech in that round?

Recently, Christie told CBC’s As It Happens: “Free speech is the one thing you have to give to your worst enemy if you want to keep it for yourself.” The quotation was included in the CBC’s online obituary and, on Twitter, good people cited and retweeted the comment without knowing the hypocrisy behind it. It’s a fine sentiment, of course, but one Christie did not practice.

[…]

In 1998, I got a front-row seat to Christie’s courtroom theatrics. Eileen and Claus Pressler of Salmon Arm sued college professor David Lethbridge and Westcom TV Group for a report that aired on CHBC. The lawyer for Westcom subpoenaed me to testify about a story I’d written a few years earlier for The Province in which the Presslers were identified as local sponsors of a tour by David Irving, the notorious British author who discounts the Holocaust.

My time on the stand was a farce. I was ordered to surrender a notebook, which was then entered into evidence. It was placed in a plastic bag like a dagger from a murder scene. At one point, Christie caused a fuss because the stated number of pages on the front of the notebook did not match the number of pages he counted in the notebook. He made allegations of perfidy until a lawyer for the other defendant pointed out the notebook had lines on both sides of the page.

We were nearing the conclusion of my testimony when Christie barked, “Are you a Jew?”

The words hung in the courtroom.

I was stunned. I blinked several times in disbelief. Had I heard what I thought I’d heard? “Are you a Jew?” What the hell kind of question is that? I wondered what had sparked the question. Of course. I had made a “solemn affirmation” instead of swearing an oath on the Bible. I turned from Christie to look at the judge, who nodded his head as though I were to answer. “No,” I told the court.

In the end, Christie was for the extreme right what Lynne Stewart was for the extreme left: both crossed the line between defending the most hated members of society to the greatest extent possible, and actively supporting their clients’ radical causes.  The former is the cornerstone of our criminal justice system; the latter makes a mockery of it.