Even the bad people have rights

If you’re going to encourage people to punch Nazis, at least give us a definition of “Nazis.”  We can all agree the guy walking around with a swastika flag is the genuine article, but many people on twitter hold to a definition much more…expansive than that.

Example: people are seriously making the argument that the American Civil Liberties Union is a pro-Nazi organization because of its free-speech activism:

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I don’t agree with Glenn Greenwald very often, but he is absolutely right to note that the same people who believe the United States government is racist and fascist should also have the power to decide what speech shall be allowed:

Let’s begin with one critical fact: the ACLU has always defended, and still does defend, the free speech rights of the most marginalized left-wing activists, from Communists and atheists, to hard-core war opponents and pacifists, and has taken up numerous free speech causes supported by many on the left and loathed by the right, including defending the rights of Muslim extremists and even NAMBLA. That’s true of any consistent civil liberties advocate: we defend the rights of those with views we hate in order to strengthen our defense of the rights of those who are most marginalizedand vulnerable in society.

The ACLU is primarily a legal organization. That means they defend people’s rights in court, under principles of law. One of the governing tools of courts is precedent: the application of prior rulings to current cases. If the ACLU allows the state to suppress the free speech rights of white nationalists or neo-Nazi groups – by refusing to defend such groups when the state tries to censor them or by allowing them to have inadequate representation – then the ACLU’s ability to defend the free speech rights of groups and people that you like will be severely compromised.

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Beyond that, the contradiction embedded in this anti-free-speech advocacy is so glaring. For many of those attacking the ACLU here, it is a staple of their worldview that the U.S. is a racist and fascist country and that those who control the government are right-wing authoritarians. There is substantial validity to that view.

Why, then, would people who believe that simultaneously want to vest in these same fascism-supporting authorities the power to ban and outlaw ideas they dislike? Why would you possibly think that the List of Prohibited Ideas will end up including the views you hate rather than the views you support? Most levers of state power are now controlled by the Republican Party, while many Democrats have also advocated the criminalization of left-wing views. Why would you trust those officials to suppress free speech in ways that you find just and noble, rather than oppressive?

As I wrote in my comprehensive 2013 defense of free speech at the Guardian, this overflowing naïveté is what I’ve always found most confounding about the left-wing case against universal free speech: this belief that state authorities will exercise this power of censorship magnanimously and responsibly: “At any given point, any speech that subverts state authority can be deemed – legitimately so – to be hateful and even tending to incite violence.”

At best, this position is naive.  At worst, on the way-out-there fringes of the far left, it’s about someday seizing power and using it against the rest of us.

Like many American ideals, unfortunately, the right to freedom of expression is not equally protected in practice.  The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer, in a thoughtful twitter essay, notes that predominantly African-American demonstrators in Ferguson were allowed far less leeway than the white supremacists of Charlottesville.

That’s why the principled liberal position – that of the ACLU – is that freedom of expression is for everyone.  Those damning the ACLU as Nazi collaborators, whatever they may be, are not remotely liberal.

 

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The Nazis know

I’m often skeptical when those on the left accuse conservative politicians of using “dog whistle” rhetoric to appeal to racist, extreme-right supporters.  It can be, and often is, a non-falsifiable smear.

But President Trump’s disgraceful, amoral, mealy-mouthed “condemnation” of yesterday’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, leaves no room for doubt when you read the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer’s grateful response:

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I despise the “Antifa” movement, which promotes – often violently – its own brand of authoritarianism.  But the radical right actually has connections to the most powerful person on Earth.  Right now, that should be everyone’s top priority.

The founder of The Daily Stormer, interestingly, is bravely running away from a lawsuit launched by woman he encouraged his followers to harass:

Now Gersh is taking on the man who started it all. In a federal lawsuit filed in April, Gersh accuses Andrew Anglin, who publishes the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, of invading her privacy, intentionally inflicting emotional distress and violating Montana’s Anti-Intimidation Act by organizing more than 700 instances of harassment since December 2016. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, is representing Gersh.

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How the case will turn out remains to be seen, in part because SPLC lawyers can’t find Anglin. Dinielli, Gersh’s lawyer, said his team hasn’t been able to serve Anglin and he hasn’t stepped forward to receive the complaint. A November 2016 article in HuffPost said Anglin “appeared” to be in Berlin, while other reports have placed him in Russia and Ohio. This week, CNN reported that Anglin said he now lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

Instead of staying, fighting and litigating the potentially important freedom-of-expression issues raised by this lawsuit, the brave neo-Nazi hero scampers away and hides like a cockroach.  It’s so, so perfect.

Satire is a crime in Germany

The Germans have been making fun of foreign leaders – especially American Presidents – for as long as I can remember, so I strongly suspect its law against “insulting foreign leaders” is only enforced if said foreign leader is humorless, self-righteous and thin-skinned enough to officially complain about it.

Why, hello, Mr. Erdogan, we were just talking about you:

The German government has approved a criminal inquiry into a comic who mocked the Turkish president, Chancellor Angel Merkel announced.

By law, the government must approve any use of an article of the criminal code on insulting foreign leaders.

Mrs Merkel stressed that the courts would have the final word.

And she added that her government would move to repeal the article. Turkey sought the prosecution after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was mocked.

Prosecutors will have to decide whether to proceed against comedian Jan Boehmermann, who crudely mocked Mr Erdogan in a poem. If convicted he could face a fine or a prison sentence.

Some experts say he has a strong defence because his poem could be seen as part of a wider piece of satire about free speech, rather than a deliberate insult, the BBC’s Damien McGuinness reports from Berlin.

[…]

The poem was broadcast by ZDF television two weeks ago. The public TV channel has decided not to broadcast his weekly satire programme this week because of the furore surrounding Boehmermann.

You’d think the Germans, of all people, would appreciate the value of satirizing foreign leaders:

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Blasphemy is a crime in Canada

Not because we’re living under the Stephen Harper Christofascist dictatorship, though. (Sorry, Michael Harris.)  It’s actually a law that hasn’t been enforced successfully since 1935, but remains part of the Criminal Code of Canada:

Section 296 of the Criminal Code makes “blasphemous libel” punishable by up to two years in jail in Canada.

No one been prosecuted under the law since 1935. As late as 1980, the law was used to charge the Canadian distributor of Monty Python’s film Life of Brian; the charges were later dropped.

Only last month, the heads of Humanist Canada and the Centre for Inquiry, a national organization that promotes “skeptical, secular rational and humanistic inquiry,” met with Ambassador Andrew Bennett, head of the federal government’s Office of Religious Freedom, to note the law’s inconsistency with Canada’s policy of supporting religious freedom abroad.

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Derek From, a lawyer for the Calgary-based Canadian Constitution Foundation warns that while the law may be dormant, it is not dead. Britain’s blasphemy law, for example, was considered “dead” until it resurfaced in 1977 when a pornographic magazine was charged with the offence for publishing gay poetry about Jesus.

“It is an open question whether the Charter’s guarantee of freedom of expression will offer any protection,” Mr. From wrote in a 2013 letter to Calgary-area MP and Minister of State for Finance Kevin Sorenson. “This is a constitutional question that has never been tested.”

“The conservative right gets bents out of shape about hate speech provisions because they see it as an unconstitutional restriction of their freedom of expression. But that’s exactly what people who are [irreligious] would say about the blasphemy prohibitions — that they cannot say what they want without freedom of prosecution,” Mr. From said.

There’s no way the offence of “blasphemous libel” is compatible with a modern, democratic society, or constitutional under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  That said, if threats of violence will keep people and media outlets from publishing material some people find blasphemous, what difference does it really make?

(Note: needless to say, an image of “Piss-Christ” was easily found on the CBC website.)

Mark Steyn’s self-destructive streak

As a longtime fan of Steyn’s writing, I’m disappointed to see him doing pretty much everything you should never do when you’re the defendant in a defamation suit:

In 2012—after writers for National Review and a prominent conservative think tank accused him of fraud and compared him to serial child molester Jerry Sandusky—climate scientist Michael Mann took the bold step of filing a defamation suit. The defendants moved to have the case thrown out, citing a Washington, DC, law that shields journalists from frivolous litigation. But on Wednesday, DC Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisberg rejected the motion, opening the way for a trial.

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Weisberg’s order is just the latest in a string of setbacks that have left the climate change skeptics’ case in disarray. Earlier this month, Steptoe & Johnson, the law firm representing National Review and its writer, Mark Steyn, withdrew as Steyn’s counsel. According to two sources with inside knowledge, it also plans to drop National Review as a client.

The lawyers’ withdrawal came shortly after Steyn—a prominent conservative pundit who regularly fills in as host of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show—publicly attacked the former judge in the case, Natalia Combs Greene, accusing her of “stupidity” and “staggering” incompetence. Mann’s attorney, John B. Williams, suspects this is no coincidence. “Any lawyer would be taken aback if their client said such things about the judge,” he says. “That may well be why Steptoe withdrew.”

Steyn’s manager, Melissa Howes, acknowledged that his commentary “did not go over well.”But Steyn maintains it was his decision to part ways with his attorneys.

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…on Christmas Eve, Steyn published his blog post, railing against Combs Greene and her ruling, which contained typographical errors and mixed up the defendants:

Among her many staggering incompetences, DC Superior Court judge Natalia Combs-Greene…denied NR’s motion to dismiss the fraudulent complaint while simultaneously permitting Mann’s lawyers to file an amended complaint.

The appellate judges have now tossed out anything relating to Mann’s original fraudulent complaint, including Judge Combs-Greene’s unbelievably careless ruling in which the obtuse jurist managed to confuse the defendants, and her subsequent ruling in which she chose to double-down on her own stupidity. Anything with Combs-Greene’s name on it has now been flushed down the toilet of history.

When asked about these comments, Steyn made no apologies. “I spent the first months attempting to conceal my contempt for Judge Combs Greene’s court,” he said in an email to Mother Jones. “But really, it’s not worth the effort.” Wednesday’s ruling affirms the thrust of Combs Greene’s order, however. It also concludes that “a reasonable jury is likely to find the statement that Dr. Mann ‘molested and tortured data’ was false, and published with knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard for whether it was false or not.”

Steyn, meanwhile, appears to be paying a price for his brazenness. He still has no legal representation. (“My check from the Koch brothers seems to have been lost in the mail or intercepted by the NSA,” he wrote. “So for the moment I am representing myself.”) And since his Christmas Eve diatribe, the conservative pundit—who had been writing near-daily posts for National Review Online—hasn’t written a single item. Neither he nor the magazine’s publisher, Jack Fowler, would say why. But Steyn hinted at the reasons in a post on his website: “As readers may have deduced from my absence at National Review Online and my termination of our joint representation, there have been a few differences between me and the rest of the team.”

The future of National Review itself could now be in jeopardy because of this lawsuit.  There appear to be conflicting stories about whether Steyn fired his lawyers or whether they withdrew from the case, but I know that if my client insisted on talking about the case at all – much less writing a blog post insulting the judge – I’d be advising him to seek other legal counsel immediately.

I wish Steyn and his (former?) magazine well, but it’s almost like he’s determined to lose.  What a pity.

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).

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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?