Obama’s Legacy: The Trashing of Free Speech

No administration in memory has more thoroughly undermined freedom of speech and of the press than that of President Obama.  From the White House itself, as well as the independent and executive branch agencies, have come a steady stream of policies, initiatives, and pronunciamentos that have threatened or compromised both of these constitutional rights.

Indeed, the Administration’s example has inspired like-minded actions outside of the White House.  For example, those Democratic members of Congress who actively encouraged IRS action against conservative nonprofit organizations before Lois Lerner turned to the task.

And the 16 state attorneys general, Democrats all, who have recently embarked on a campaign designed to silence people who are skeptical of the evidence of anthropogenic global warming and/or its effects and remediation.

But it’s the example of the Administration itself that is most notable.  Who could forget the performance of then-UN ambassador Susan Rice who, five days after the Benghazi attack that took the life of the American ambassador, went on national TV and blamed the attacks on an anti-Islam video shown on YouTube?

This followed by two days Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s similar claim, and all of it despite the fact that senior Administration officials knew at the time that Benghazi was a premeditated attack that had nothing to do with the video.  >>Read More

Maines is president of The Media Institute.  The opinions expressed are his alone and not those of The Media Institute, its board, advisory councils, or contributors.  The full version of this article appeared in The Hill on July 13, 2016.

The Overblown Backlash Against Peter Thiel for Destroying Gawker

The news that pro wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker has been financed by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel has sparked many opinions, some of them erroneous, some duplicitous, and some deeply shameful.

Before providing examples of each, a little background.  In 2007, Valleywag, a now-defunct blog site then owned by Gawker Media, outed Thiel, against his express wishes, as a homosexual.  Though he is in fact gay, Thiel was angry about this, and angry too about what he saw, and sees, as Gawker’s bullying journalism in its coverage of Silicon Valley’s tech industry.

For some apparent combination of these reasons, Thiel subsequently offered to covertly pay for Hogan’s legal fees in connection with the wrestler’s invasion of privacy suit against Gawker.  The gravamen of Hogan’s suit is that Gawker published online a secretly taped video of Hogan having sex with the wife of a friend of his.  At trial the jury awarded Hogan $140 million.

So right off the bat a couple of things are clear: Neither Hogan’s lawsuit nor Thiel’s payment of his legal fees are First Amendment issues, despite allegations to that effect in stories published by such as the New York Times>> Read More

Maines is president of The Media Institute.  The opinions expressed are his alone and not those of The Media Institute, its board, advisory councils, or contributors.  The full version of this article appeared in The Daily Caller on June 9, 2016.

Campus Protests and Blatant Attacks on Free Speech

The blatant attacks on free speech seen recently on college campuses pose a special challenge to Democrats and liberals.  This, because the illiberalism inherent in the conjuring up by campus progressives of things like “trigger warnings,” “microaggressions,” and “safe spaces” is an outgrowth of the identity politics and victim culture that have been promoted by Democrats and liberals generally.

Take, for instance, immigration and our changing racial demographics.  In a demonstration of the most corrosive kind of stereotyping, Democratic strategists like Stanley Greenberg triumphantly wave the “demographics is destiny” meme like a sword.  Whether there is any predictive value in Greenberg’s recent claim that racial minorities are “supporting Hillary Clinton by more than 2 to 1 in today’s polls,” how is it helpful to profile them as bloc voters, politically defined by their ethnicity?

Are not Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans interested in having for themselves and their families secure middle-class lives?  And if so, might not some, perhaps many of them, come to see the governmental nostrums promoted by Democrats as being inimical to their ambitions?

The demographics-is-destiny meme crosses into the preposterous in the hands of people like the dyed-in-the-wool Democrat Chris Matthews….  >> Read More

                                   

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  The full version of this article appeared in The Hill on Nov. 25, 2015.

Free Speech Week: Time To Celebrate, Time To Reflect

As Free Speech Week gets underway today, it’s a good time to celebrate this fundamental freedom (as the week is intended to do) – but it’s also a good time to reflect on the state of free speech in America today.  Even the most cursory reflection, however, is sure to give one pause.

Freedom of speech remains under assault on many fronts.  And most people, when they think of free speech, think of the First Amendment. But it’s important to draw a distinction here.  The First Amendment only protects speech that is threatened by government control, and thus laws and regulations seeking to limit speech can be subjected to First Amendment challenges in the courts.

Paradoxically, however, the gravest threats to free speech today aren’t coming from government lawmakers and regulators, but from non-government groups and individuals who want to stifle the speech of others.  That type of speech suppression is, in its own way, even more insidious because there is no fail-safe defense against it like the First Amendment.

Media Institute President Patrick Maines has written numerous columns in this space decrying all manner of attempts to suppress free expression.  One of the most onerous threats is the political correctness (or “PC”) movement, whereby the “politically correct” try to stifle the speech of those with whom they disagree.  Nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses, which should be the ultimate marketplaces of ideas.

Examples abound of campus activist groups pushing to “disinvite” guest lecturers or even commencement speakers whose views they dislike – often with the tacit or overt support of university officials.  High-profile incidents at Fordham, Brown, and Brandeis universities have captured media attention, but they were hardly isolated occurrences.  In fact, an organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) exists solely to fight these and other types of PC attacks on campus.

Speech suppression beyond the reach of the First Amendment takes other forms as well.  Activist groups and their “speech police” routinely try to intimidate speakers, especially through social media.  And even some journalists and editors in the mainstream media are prone to political correctness, though here the approach might be more subtle – a story presenting a PC point of view uncritically, or a story about a contrarian viewpoint never written at all.

Free Speech Week, then, offers the chance to celebrate the First Amendment as the protector of our speech (or the vast majority of it) from government interference.  The week also invites us to celebrate free expression in the broader sense.  Yet as we applaud freedom of speech generally, we need to be aware of the threats that continue to render this a fragile freedom.  There is a vocal opposition to these threats out there, including The Media Institute, FIRE, and others – but the voices challenging these threats and supporting truly free speech need to be more widespread.  We can indeed celebrate during Free Speech Week – but we can’t afford to be complacent.

Free Speech Week (FSW) is taking place Oct. 19 to Oct. 25.  You can learn more about how to get involved here: www.freespeechweek.org.

The First Amendment and Free Speech Under Assault

If you’re not alarmed by the assault on the First Amendment and free speech generally, you’re not paying attention.

Consider the list of offenses committed by the government.  They range, in recent times, from the Department of Justice’s spying on the phone records of reporters at the Associated Press, to the National Security Administration’s domestic call tracking, and from the IRS’s targeting of conservative nonprofit organizations, to the suggestion by the ranking Democrat on the Federal Elections Commission that political speech on the Internet should be regulated.

Other examples include the Obama Administration’s resistance to Freedom of Information Act requests, as documented in a study by the AP, and the issuance, by the CIA, of a subpoena to James Risen of the New York Times, demanding the identity of one of his confidential sources.

The party-line passage, by the Federal Communications Commission, of its so-called “Net Neutrality” regulations is another example.  In addition to inaugurating the regulation of the formerly unregulated Internet, the Title II approach adopted is certain, as FCC Commissioner Pai has warned, to open the door to attempts to use this regulation for purposes that, both intended and unintended, undermine free speech.

The most recent example of governmental speech suppression is the subpoena served on the online version of Reason magazine by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.  The subpoena, which for a time came with a gag order, demanded to know the identity of a handful of commenters that, angry about the life sentence handed down to the founder of the drug trading site, Silk Road, wrote denunciations of the judge who presided over the trial.

An example of one of the comments that occasioned the U.S. Attorney’s subpoena for the identification of that commenter: “I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman.”

So there it is.  Your taxpayer dollars at work!  And not just by a few bureaucrats, but by a veritable army of them: DOJ, NSA, CIA, IRS, FEC, FCC.  As Everett Dirksen might have put it, an agency here and an agency there, and pretty soon you’re talking about some real government.

Making matters worse and infinitely more depressing is the assault on free speech being committed by people wielding the bludgeon of political correctness, a concept that from the beginning symbolized the very opposite of free speech.

The venues of choice for the PC speech police are mainly the media (social media especially) and college campuses, and 2014 was a banner year for such stuff.

Take, for instance, the petition generated by two “climate change” groups in February of last year.  Having collected 110,000 names, the groups demanded that the Washington Post stop publishing “editorial content denying climate change.”  The Post refused, but the Los Angeles Times happily adopted a policy that was similar to what the groups were demanding.

And then, of course, there are the campuses.  Last year’s examples of campus “disinvitation” campaigns against speakers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Condoleeza Rice, and Christine Lagarde have been widely chronicled, but the beat goes on.

In its 2015 Spotlight on Speech Codes, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that 54 percent of some 400 public colleges and universities it sampled maintain speech codes that violate the First Amendment.

FIRE’s response to this state of affairs has been to create a free speech litigation program that threatens offending colleges and universities with legal action, and the organization has had some notable successes.  But it’s doubtful that legal action alone will put the brakes on a concept that’s never depended on the law for its foundational principles or propagation.

Incubated on campus by activists and ideologues, and disseminated through the media, half-baked theories like “white privilege” and “microaggressions” and practices like “trigger warnings” and “speech codes” need to be challenged in those same venues by arguments based on logic, history, and science.

Absent this, and without congressional action to rein in the out-of-control federal agencies, free speech in the United States is at risk of becoming a dead letter; extant in the Constitution but without force or meaning.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils. 

Is This What Net Neutrality Is Really About?

Recent congressional hearings held in the wake of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) net neutrality ruling provide a glimpse into what is so deeply wrong with this regulation, and why so many activist groups were behind it.

It’s an aspect of this matter of which you were perhaps unaware while the FCC was considering its regulatory strategy. Perhaps you thought net neutrality meant what was said of it: that it was intended to prevent the blocking or throttling of websites, or of “paid prioritization.”

Silly you.  Actually, those were the interests of those companies — like Google and Netflix — that saw in governmental sway over the Internet commercial benefits for themselves.  But what about those groups and individuals who had political or ideological interests, and who played such outsized roles in the deal?

You know, groups like Free Press, Media Matters, Public Knowledge and New America’s Open Technology Institute?  Or what about the large grant-giving foundations, like Ford, MacArthur, Knight, and George Soros’s Open Society Institute that, in addition to munificently funding third-party net neutrality activists, directly lobbied the FCC themselves?

It should now be clear, even to those who weren’t paying attention earlier, that the primary interest these groups had, and have, in net neutrality is their desire to insinuate government in the regulation of speech on the Internet.  >> Read More

 

‘Forbearing’ the Constitution: Net Neutrality and the FCC

So the latest word is that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a branch of government that, amusingly, is still referred to as an “independent” agency, is about to enact so-called net neutrality regulations under Title II of the Communications Act.

This, because according to its fans at the Commission, such regulations are needed in order to ensure a “fair and open” Internet.  Because, however, even the most passionate among them understand the many problems this would otherwise cause, the majority Democratic commissioners are said to be poised to enact regulations that forbear the full imposition of Title ll rules.

Meantime, Congress is considering enacting a law that would itself aim to protect net neutrality, but would do so in such a way as to deprive the FCC of its ability to regulate Internet service providers as a utility under Title II.

If (you’ll forgive the expression) one googles the word “forbearance,” the first definition that comes up reads: “The action of refraining from exercising a legal right…. ” — and there’s the rub!

With every passing day it becomes clearer that the Internet is the future of the press, and the plain language of the First Amendment bars the government from abridging freedom of speech or of the press.  >>Read More

We Are Not Charlie. We Are Weak.

The worst aspect of the Charlie Hebdo affair is that human beings were murdered for practicing free speech.  A distant second is the way this affair, and the earlier hacking of the Sony Pictures studio, has exposed the pieties and inadequacies of so much of the media.

Speaking the other day at the Consumer Electronics Show, Kazuo Hirai, CEO of Sony Corp., is reported to have said that he was proud “of all of the employees of Sony Pictures for standing up against the extortionist efforts of those criminals that attacked” the company.

Really?  No acknowledgment that the studio belatedly moved to release the film only after being criticized by virtually everyone in the country up to and including the president?

And despite the happy profusion of “Je Suis Charlie” displays, what has been the response of American media companies to that monstrous act?  As reported in Politico on Jan. 7, CNN senior editorial director, Richard Griffiths, sent a message to CNN staff saying, among other things, that “Video or stills of street protests showing Parisians holding up copies of the offensive cartoons, if shot wide, are OK.  Avoid close-ups of the cartoons that make them clearly legible.”

And here, according to a piece in Rolling Stone, is the way the Associated Press described its decision regarding the Hebdo cartoons: “We’ve taken the view that we don’t want to publish hate speech or spectacles that offend, provoke or intimidate, or anything that desecrates religious symbols or angers people along religious or ethnic lines. …  We don’t feel that’s useful.”

Even the Hollywood bible, Variety magazine, adds to the general alarm:

A brutal attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo over cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed has jolted Hollywood, escalating concerns by artists and producers that major studios and networks may avoid greenlighting movies and TV shows with potentially inflammatory content….

Freedom of speech is under attack, but, given Sony’s initial decision to pull the release of The Interview and its subsequent about-face, it’s not clear how rousing a defense the entertainment business is willing to mount in the midst of financial pressures, political dangers, and the threat of violence.

Making matters incalculably worse is the fact that the most immediate threats to free speech in this country don’t come from abroad, but from here at home.  As described three years ago by Jonathan Turley in the Washington Post, we are witnessing the censoring of speech under one of four rationales: Speech is blasphemous; Speech is hateful; Speech is discriminatory; Speech is deceitful.

Shortly after the Sony affair broke open, Ross Douthat, the loneliest and bravest journalist at the New York Times, wrote one of the most powerful paragraphs about that, and related, matters:

Of course it had to escalate this way.  We live in a time of consistent gutlessness on the part of institutions notionally committed to free speech and intellectual diversity, a time of canceled commencement invitations and CEOs defenestrated for their political donations, a time of Twitter mobs, trigger warnings and cringing public apologies.  A time when journalists and publishers tiptoe around Islamic fundamentalism, when free speech is under increasing pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, when a hypersensitive political correctness has the whip hand on many college campuses.

So why should anyone be remotely surprised when Kim Jong-un decided to get in on the “don’t offend me” act?

So what to do?  Enforcement of the First Amendment won’t suffice because it only proscribes governmental abridgement of free speech, and only, of course, in the United States.

Here are a couple suggestions.  The next time you read or hear something that you think is truly awful, moronic, hateful, or false, send a comment by email, text, or social media stating your objections but also saying that you respect the right of the offending party to speak his or her piece.

And when you hear of some group or individual threatening advertisers with boycotts for advertising on programs they don’t like, contact those same advertisers yourself and let them know that you have a different view.

In the end, free speech can be guaranteed, if at all, not by the press or government, but only by the people.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  This article was originally published here in the online edition of USA Today on Jan. 15, 2015.

Free Speech Week: Not a Moment Too Soon

With two and a half months still to go, 2014 has been one of the toughest years on record for freedom of speech in the USA.

In February, for instance, two “climate change” groups collected 110,000 names on a petition they then sent to the Washington Post.  The petition demanded that the Post stop publishing “editorial content denying climate change.”  In a press release issued by one of the groups, columnists George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and the Volokh Conspiracy blog were singled out by name as “climate change deniers.” Happily, the petition went nowhere, though the Los Angeles Times has adopted an editorial stance similar to what the petitioners demanded of the Post.

In March, Kickstarter, the crowd-funding site, demanded that the producers of an anti-abortion film about convicted abortionist Kermit Gosnell remove from their proposal vivid language about the way Gosnell went about his work. Kickstarter said the language in the proposal went against its “Community Guidelines.”  One day after the producers refused, and loudly took their proposal to another crowd-funding site, Kickstarter said it would allow the proposal, and later said it was amending its guidelines.  Too late.  To date the film has raised over $2 million on the competing crowd-funding site, Indiegogo.

April was an especially busy month for the nation’s speech police.  On April 3, Brendan Eich resigned his position as CEO of Mozilla Corporation.  Eich had been roundly attacked on social media, and by LGBT activists, for a contribution he made six years earlier to California Proposition 8, which sought to establish that only a marriage between a man and a woman could be recognized as valid in that state.

Five days later, on April 8, Brandeis University reversed its decision to award an honorary degree to women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, following heated criticism of the award to her by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Arab American Institute.  As a young Muslim woman, Hirsi Ali endured genital cutting and later wrote the screenplay for the film “Submission,” which was critical of the way Muslim women are treated. Defending the decision, the president of Brandeis said that Hirsi Ali was free to come to the campus “to engage in dialogue” but that there is a difference between having a provocative speaker on campus and awarding an honorary degree.

Things proceeded apace in May, with Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde being targets of opportunity for local censors.  The former secretary of state withdrew from a commencement address at Rutgers after student and faculty protesters criticized her role in the Iraq war.  (We can only wonder if, a few years from now, the same students and faculty will protest campus addresses by members of the Obama Administration for their role in the bombing of ISIS.)

And Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew as commencement speaker at Smith College following the appearance of an online petition objecting to her role, at the IMF, in strengthening “imperialist and patriarchal systems.”

The media’s own PC patrols were out in June, as the struggling St. Louis Post-Dispatch used its mischaracterization of a George Will column as an excuse to drop the columnist altogether.  Will had argued, in a piece titled “Colleges become the victims of progressivism,” that colleges were opening themselves up to litigation in cases where allegations of sexual assault deny due process to those accused.  The paper’s editorial page editor, no friend of conservatives, averred that Will’s column caused hurt among people in the social media and some female friends of his … or that Will was past his prime, take your pick.

The months of July and August were relatively free of such fireworks, presumably because the PC too need a vacation, but the current month has already been marked by more of the same.  On Oct. 6, for instance, Scripps College, a women’s liberal arts institution and one of the five undergraduate colleges that comprise Claremont Colleges, disinvited George Will from delivering an address as part of a program that was designed to bring prominent conservatives to the Scripps campus.

Will’s offense?  The same column he wrote last summer about sexual assault on campus.  In the inscrutable words of the Scripps president: “Sexual assault is not a conservative or liberal issue.  And it is too important to be trivialized in a political debate or wrapped into a celebrity controversy.”  One assumes, on reading such stuff, that the Scripps president was engaging in some kind of liberal arts equivalent of speaking in tongues.

Interestingly, the Scripps president doesn’t appear to honor the distinction made by the Brandeis president – that there’s a difference between allowing someone to speak on the one hand, and giving that person an award on the other – but who’s to question disagreements between such giants?

Ensuring that October will not go out like a lamb, no matter what happens from now until the end of the month, comes the latest brouhaha, an attempt by the City of Houston to subpoena sermons delivered in five area churches by pastors who oppose passage by the Houston City Council of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO).

After the city disqualified a petition by opponents to put HERO to a referendum, some of the petition organizers filed a suit against the city; in response Houston and its pro bono attorneys subpoenaed the sermons and other information from the five churches, though none of the five was among the groups suing the city.

It is (or was) the city’s position that the subpoenas are a legitimate tactic in the discovery process, but since the mayor and the city attorney have now reversed themselves and say that they think the subpoenas are overbroad, it’s not at all clear where this matter will end, most likely in the withdrawal or quashing of the subpoenas.

October 20 begins the start of the annual celebration called Free Speech Week.  As demonstrated by events to date this year, one hopes it will grow and gain traction.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

‘Freedom From Speech’

Evidence that the human race is not yet won, as a former colleague used to say, is coming in the windows.  From murder in the name of religion, to widespread crime, greed, and violence, to the bottoming of popular culture, it’s pretty clear that this is not mankind’s finest hour.  But enough about mankind, generally speaking.

The subject of today’s tutorial is that little slice of homo erectus living in the USA, and practicing the politics of proto-fascism.  And who are such people, you wonder?  Well, they’re to be found among  activists, journalists, college professors; wherever, in other words, “progressives” congregate in especially large numbers.

It is these worthies who have foisted upon us the deeply undemocratic and freedom-busting protocols of political correctness.  Think about it: We have now arrived as a nation at a time when people who say anything that gives (or could give) offense to any minority – with the exception of white, Christian, heterosexual and Republican men, about whom no amount of criticism or ridicule is sufficient – may find themselves expelled or unemployed, if not under arrest, the constitutional guarantee of free speech notwithstanding.

It is a time when certain taxpayer-funded colleges and universities allow free speech on campus only within designated “free speech zones,” and sometimes not even there.  A time when textbooks must come with “trigger warnings,” lest a reader feel threatened or uncomfortable with the contents therein.

It’s a time when colleges are routinely the site of “disinvitation” campaigns aimed at preventing speakers from appearing on campuses, and when colleges formulate so-called campus speech codes.

It’s because of his concern with this cultural void that Greg Lukianoff, head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has written a new book titled Freedom from Speech.  Published just recently by Encounter Books, this slim volume is must reading for anyone who senses that things are going badly wrong on campuses and beyond, and wants to know what to do about it.

What Lukianoff is doing, in addition to writing books, is challenging colleges with litigation, aided by Bob Corn-Revere, the terrific First Amendment lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine.  (It should be noted, in the interest of full disclosure and a measure of chest-thumping, that both Lukianoff and Corn-Revere are members of The Media Institute’s First Amendment Advisory Council.)

A justly flattering review of Lukianoff’s book, written by Ronald Collins in Concurring Opinions, provides this telling quote: “This is a surreal time for freedom of speech.  While the legal protections of the First Amendment remain strong, the culture is obsessed with punishing individuals for allegedly offensive speech utterances.”

And it’s this dichotomy: strong legal protections, undermined by weak and/or contradictory applications of the law in the culture generally, that goes to the heart of the problem, and its seeming intractability.

If this situation is to improve, two things need to come to pass: First, some of the colleges being challenged with lawsuits need to defend their positions in court (rather than just buckling under at the threat of litigation) and then lose decisively and painfully; and second, there needs to be some measure of genuine opprobrium attached to the practices, on campuses and everywhere else, of the speech police.

In the meantime, there are a few things people troubled by all this can do.  They can (1) buy Lukianoff’s book; (2) make a tax-deductible contribution to FIRE; and (3) contact Bob Corn-Revere whenever you think you’ve spotted an actionable offense in this area.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.