Category Archives: Freedom of the press

Gawker, the Freedom of Expression, and the Power of Consequences

free-speech-churchill

Is Gawker violating its writers’ rights if its chief executive editor de-publishes a controversial post?

What about if a company’s CEO is forced to step down in the face of a threatened boycott over the CEO’s political positions? Is an artist being “censored” if a comic book publisher cancels his covers and suspends him? Is it an unconstitutional “ban” on speech if Amazon and Walmart remove Confederate flag memorabilia from their offerings?

Across the web confusion abounds about what freedom of expression really means.

Most recently, in the messy wake of its sex-shaming post about a private citizen’s violation of Gawker’s neo-Victorian strictures on monogamy, founder and CEO Nick Denton (who pulled the post) had this to say to his editors:

What I can’t accept is an unlimited and subjective version of editorial freedom. It is not whatever an editor thinks it is; it is not a license to write anything; it is a privilege, protected by the constitution, and carrying with it responsibilities.

Literally, every part of that last bit is wrong.

The editorial autonomy of Gawker writers is not constitutional in nature. It is a license granted by their employer—i.e. Denton. Absent a binding contract, it can be revoked at any time without running afoul of anyone’s rights, and certainly not running afoul of anyone’s constitutional rights.

The constitutionally protected freedom that Gawker writers do have (as do we all) is not to publish at Gawker. The Constitution restricts the power of Congress, not the discretion of Nick Denton.

Nor is that constitutionally protected freedom a “privilege.” It is a right.

And it does not have to be exercised responsibly.

It vexes me when people who should know better get sloppy in their framing. Messy language leads to messy thinking and, in the process, dilutes effective defense of this crucial freedom.

Perhaps a libertarian(ish) review is in order.

“FREE SPEECH” V. FREEDOM OF SPEECH

Although routinely used in Supreme Court decisions, the words “free speech” do not appear in the Constitution. In my opinion, overuse of this terminology induces people to mistakenly believe their speech should always be costless and consequence-free.

That is not how it works.

Speech requires a forum, which must be paid for by someone.

In public forums paid for by taxpayers, “time, place and manner” restrictions may be imposed to keep things orderly. But content-based discrimination is not permitted. Even the Nazis get to express themselves.

In private forums, on the other hand, the property owner gets to decide what speech he is willing to host.

There is no “free speech” right to interrupt a Muslim prayer service at the National Cathedral. The Cathedral’s owner, which is the Episcopal Church, gets to decide what sort of speech occurs there. It doesn’t have to (but may if it wants) host Muslim-haters, atheists, rude people, or morons.

Similarly, bookstores are not required to carry every book printed just because the author claims a “free speech” right. The corner market does not have to sell every conceivable magazine. Art galleries do not have to make room for every painting. Radio stations do not have to play every song.

And Gawker does not have to publish every post. (I would totally make it publish this one.)

If a speaker wants his speech to be “free” in the sense of not having to pay for the forum, he must either utilize a public forum or find a private owner willing to host the content gratis. Luckily, in this day and age, there are lots of options for that.

Gawker is not one of them.

Like other private publishers and forum owners, it exercises its right to decline hosting or publishing content it dislikes. There’s a term for that right.

…Oh yeah. Freedom of speech.

FORCE VERSUS CONSEQUENCE

It is tempting to say that Brendan Eich was “forced” to resign from Mozilla over his position on same-sex marriage. That Richard Albuquerque was “forced” to pull his Batgirl cover variant. That TLC was “forced” to cancel the Duggars.

That Nick Denton was “forced” to pull the now infamous Gawker post.

It sounds more melodramatic and provocative to phrase it that way. But to the extent it’s semantically correct, this is not the kind of “force” that runs afoul of the freedom of expression.

Wrongful force is actual physical force used to prevent or punish speech or other forms of expression.

This includes all governmental interference, because government action by definition involves force. Even civil regulations (like fines) eventually end with puppy-killing SWAT teams. Of course force exercised by private actors, in the form of violent reprisals, also suppresses freedom and therefore should be resisted with the same passion.

Preventing forceful suppression of expression is a higher order principle. When triggered, that principle transcends issues about the content of the speech being defended.

Why?

Because speech is the most powerful weapon that ever has or ever will exist.

It has the power to topple kings, eviscerate falsehoods, destroy paradigms, provoke thought, change minds and hearts, alter the course of history, and transform the world.

And it can do all that without shedding a drop of blood.

A weapon like that cannot be entrusted to the exclusive control of the few. Enlightened rulers using force to curtail speech have too often gotten it wrong. Power once ceded can rarely be retrieved, and battles not fought with words and ideas will be fought instead with violence and bloodshed.

We cannot retain the best of speech without protecting its worst. We cannot extract its power to do harm without diluting its power to do good.

EVERYTHING BUT FORCE IS FAIR GAME

That being said, everything short of physical force is fair game.

A Congressional communications director can be pressured into resigning (or fired) for making snarky comments about the President’s daughters. TLC and A&E can cancel their reality television lineup for any reason consistent with the contracts negotiated. Customers can boycott wedding photographers or bakers in retaliation for expression of disfavored opinions. Landlords can refuse to rent to people with Confederate flags in their rear windows. Employers can bypass applicants over their social media postings.

Firing. Boycotting. Refusing to hire. Pulling advertising. Cancelling subscriptions. Social media flame wars. De-publishing. Disassociating. Shaming.

All of these are fair game. All of these are themselves protected acts of expression.

They may make life unpleasant for the target. They may feel coercive or even deeply wounding.

They’re supposed to.

If speech didn’t have that power, we wouldn’t bother protecting it.

Deciding to refrain from speaking because such consequences are too unpleasant is not a response to force. It is a response to speech.

GAWKER IS GETTING SPOKEN TO, NOT SUPPRESSED

If Gawker were being threatened with forceful suppression of its speech, defending against that violation would be a higher order principle that transcended all others. Personal feelings about the content of the speech would be secondary.

But where no force is imposed or threatened, those secondary principles are the only ones at play. The whole point of the higher principle is to create a circle of freedom in which ideas, without limitation, can be explored and judged on the merits. If we never got around to the judging part, we would destroy the very reason for preserving the freedom.

Nothing happening at or to Gawker (in this specific case) poses any threat to anyone’s fundamental right to free expression. The writers are free to write. The owners of Gawker are free to choose what to publish. The editors are free to “fall on their poisoned pens” in protest. Advertisers are free to abstain. Readers are free to boycott.

None of this constitutes a violation of anyone’s freedom. It’s what freedom looks like.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Walter Scott Shooting Is Reminder of Why We Must Defend Our Right to Record

A police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina has been charged with murder in connection with the shooting death of an unarmed motorist named Walter Scott.

Patrolman Michael Slager initially claimed that following a traffic stop for a broken headlight, motorist Walter Scott tried to take Slager’s taser. The two struggled, Slager feared for his life, and shot Scott as the two fought over the taser.

Then an absolutely devastating video emerged. The video shows Slager shoot the unarmed Scott eight times in the back as Scott tries to fee. After the shooting, Slager handcuffs the dying man, leaves him lying facedown without medical attention, and retrieves an object to drop near the body.

After the video emerged, Slager, a five-year veteran with the force, was taken into custody, charged with murder and denied bond at his initial hearing. He was fired from his position with the force. The attorney who went on record with Slager’s story about the shooting occurring during a struggle over the taser is no longer representing him.

Query:

How do you think it would have played out without the video?

All over the country, our right to record is under constant assault from police who treat citizens recording them as law-breaking obstructionists. Walter Scott’s death is a stark and heartbreaking reminder of why we must vigorously defend the right to record.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Are “Safe Spaces” the New “Coloreds Only?”

Entrance 15-0325

Earlier this month, two white students at Ryerson University in Canada were dismissed from a meeting of the Racialized Students’ Collective, a university group funded through the Ryerson Students’ Union. The university’s student newspaper, The Ryersonian, reported the RSU coordinator confirmed the students were excluded for being white. Last week Aeman Ansari, a fourth year journalism student at the school posted a blog entry on HuffPo Canada defending the decision.

Ansari ably and convincingly defends her belief that safe spaces are important. Ansari’s defense falls short for failing to explain why taxpayers, the university, and other students should fund them as exclusionary campus events.

Specifically, Ansari opines that:

[T]he point to note is not that two white students were asked to leave the event, but rather that this was a safe space …

…This group and these sort of events allow people of colour to lay bare their experiences and to collectively combat this societal ailment. These spaces are rare places in the world not controlled by individuals who have power, who have privilege.

…The presence of any kind of privilege puts unnecessary pressure on the people of colour to defend any anger or frustrations they have, to fear the outcome of sharing their stories. The attendees are trying to move forward by supporting each other and they should not have to defend themselves, they should not fear the consequences of raising their voices.

Let us get out of the way that I dislike people who cannot deal with opposition, who will only defend their opinions to friendly crowds, or who must banish dissent to feel validated.Drinking Fountain

I prefer feisty tanglers to special snowflakes.

It is neither here nor there. Special snowflakes are entitled to their preferences too, and everyone deserves an occasional session in the echo chamber. I agree with Ansari that safe spaces are important.

Where I disagree with Ansari is her implicit insistence that other students and Canadian taxpayers pay for them as exclusionary campus events. She never gets around to explaining or defending this aspect of her position.

The fact is “safe spaces” already exist.

They are called “private property.” Private homes, leased apartments, backyards, and private event venues can all be used to host exclusionary events. In addition, private conversations take place every day in bars, restaurants, coffee shops, conference rooms, sidewalks and parks.

That there are insufficient opportunities for people to have private conversations seems false on its face. If certain students want to get together to talk about their experiences only with a carefully selected crowd, there is no shortage of opportunities or “spaces” to do just that.

Waiting room 15-0325The issue is why they want to use student and taxpayer funds to do it on campus. Ansari never explains that.

Private, exclusionary discussions and events should be conducted privately. Forcing other people to pay for and host them is a new form of bullying—a new incarnation of an old segregation.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Stop Calling Government Regulation of the Internet “Net Neutrality”

fcc-net-neutrality-voteImage from the FCC by way of Ars Technica

Stop using “net neutrality” to refer to government regulation of the internet.

That’s not what net neutrality is, and it’s certainly not what the government regulations promulgated by the FCC today are, in this case “Common Carrier” Rules.

People who don’t know any better are celebrating todays faux “net neutrality” FCC action as a victory for freedom and free speech on the internet, when in fact, it’s exactly the opposite.

I’ve written extensively about net neutrality and this is very much NOT it.

All the FCC has done today, is impose common carrier regulation on every ISP (oh and by the way, lots of other organizations as well who “provide internet access”. No-one has any idea how the regulations are going to be finalized, what the language will mean, who will be impacted and how… except everyone knows it’s going to cost a lot), instead of just the telephone companies it was already imposed on. Verizon for example, who was already one of the worst violators of net neutrality, even with common carrier regulation already in place for them.

Thus it makes competition and breaking of existing monopolies even harder, while not actually doing a damn thing to secure or improve neutrality… oh and it gives the FCC more control over the internet.

Absolutely none of those are good things.

Common carrier regulation is a big part of what made the current near monopolies on Internet access happen in the first place, because small independent companies, and even large regionals, couldn’t compete with the giant telcom conglomerates under those regulations. So, they all got swallowed up.

I’ve been working with telecommunications companies, and common carrier regulations, for more than 20 years. I’m an expert in governance and regulatory compliance, and I can tell you right now, NOBODY understands these regulations, because they are not capable of being understood.

These regulations and the rulings and case law associated with them go back to 1930s… and in some particulars all the way back to the 1870s. And of course, rather than replace them with something clear when they wanted to make new regulations, congress and the FCC just amended and added on and countermanded and…

I’ve flowcharted them before to try to see what applied how and where and when… the only thing I could come up with was “nobody knows for sure, it all depends what a regulator or judge says at the time”.

This wasn’t a blow for freedom and free speech… This was a giveaway to big corporate donors in the telecommunications industry.

The big telcos have been trying to get their primary competition, non-telco ISPs, burdened with the same regulatory load they labor under, for DECADES. Now, in one stroke, the FCC at the personal direction of the president, has given it to them.

Oh and guess what else common carrier regulation includes… SURVEILLANCE.

All common carriers are required to provide the government and law enforcement “reasonable access” for surveillance, as well as to give up records, usage details, and other subscriber and user data, WITHOUT A WARRANT.

What does “reasonable access” mean? Whatever the government says it means… and if you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. I’ve dealt with the FBI on this issue, and that’s a direct quote.

Yes, this is not only a massive corporate crony handout, it’s also a huge gimme to the FBI and the NSA, who have wanted all ISPs stuck under common carrier for years as well.

Stop calling government regulation of the internet “net neutrality”. Letting the liars control the language helps them lie to you.

Net neutrality is not government regulation, and these regulations are certainly not net neutrality, nor anything like it. Don’t be taken in by fraud, cronyism, and statism, masquerading as freedom.

I am a cynically romantic optimistic pessimist. I am neither liberal, nor conservative. I am a (somewhat disgruntled) muscular minarchist… something like a constructive anarchist.

Basically what that means, is that I believe, all things being equal, responsible adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want to do, so long as nobody’s getting hurt, who isn’t paying extra

No Publius in the Alabama Senate Press Room

Del MarshDel Marsh, R-Anniston, president pro tempore of the Alabama Senate, has asked the Alabama Press Association to assist Senate staff “in determining a proper definition of what constitutes a journalist meriting access to the press room.” Senator Marsh only wants real “journalists” in the press rooms. The others—“partisan political blogs and shady fly-by-night websites offering purposely skewed and inaccurate interpretations of hard news events”—can “sit in the public gallery and blog about what they see” from there.

One wonders, if the access in the gallery is commensurate with the access in the press room, what difference does it make? On the other hand, if the access is not commensurate, then why is Senator Marsh seeking to relegate some of his citizens to second class access based on a distinction even he cannot articulate?

Luckily for him—and the Alabama Press Association—the U.S. Supreme Court has already made it simple to determine who possesses the freedom of the press.

Everyone.

“The press” refers not to a group of people, but to the action of publication itself. Thus, “freedom of the press” protects not a privileged group of actors, but the action of conveying information and ideas, wherever that action is undertaken, by whatever means and whatever person. The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized as much:

The press, in its historic connotation, comprehends every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.

Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 452 (1938) (protecting Jehovah’s Witness’s right to distribute religious leaflets door-to-door without a license).

The administration of a constitutional newsman’s privilege would present practical and conceptual difficulties of a high order. Sooner or later, it would be necessary to define those categories of newsmen who qualified for the privilege, a questionable procedure in light of the traditional doctrine that liberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer who uses carbon paper or a mimeograph just as much as of the large metropolitan publisher who utilizes the latest photocomposition methods. Freedom of the press is a “fundamental personal right“… The informative function asserted by representatives of the organized press … is also performed by lecturers, political pollsters, novelists, academic researchers, and dramatists.

Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 703-05 (1972) (emphasis added, internal citations removed) (like every other citizen, a reporter can be called to answer before grand jury).

[T]he purpose of the Constitution was not to erect the press into a privileged institution, but to protect all persons in their right to print what they will as well as to utter it. “[T]he liberty of the press is no greater and no less than the liberty of every subject of the Queen,” and, in the United States, it is no greater than the liberty of every citizen of the Republic.

Pennekamp v. Florida, 328 U.S. 331, 364 (1946) (emphasis added, internal citations removed) (Frankfurter, J., concurring).

Is it too idealistic to think that something called a “press room” should be open to all the people who possess the “freedom of the press,” which is to say everyone?

Perhaps.

Surely, the general public cannot demand admission to White House press briefings. And Marsh would say he is not proposing to restrict the act of publishing, but rather the act of entering the press room. The former is a constitutional right; the latter (Marsh would argue) is a special privilege.

The distinction is not without meaning, as Doug Mataconis has comprehensively explained. Just as federal and state governments can grant special privileges for religious beliefs without running afoul of the First Amendment, so too can they grant extra-Constitutional privileges, such as testimonial shield laws, to only certain members of the media.

When expanding protection, legislatures are entitled to draw lines that might not be permissible in the case of abridgements.

*     *     *

Because press shield legislation would extend immunities to the press beyond what the First Amendment has been held to require, it probably does not violate the Constitution to confine those immunities to a subset of entities entitled to protection under the Press Clause.

Michael W. McConnell, Reconsidering Citizens United as a Press Clause Case, 123 Yale L. J. 266 (Nov. 2013).

Marsh might seek to characterize his proposal, not as an infringement upon freedom of the press, but a special perk akin to a media shield law for favored groups in their exercise of that right. That might be constitutional.

But it is also bad policy.

Its practical unworkability is evidenced by other efforts to establish criteria for the receipt of such special perks. Such criteria inevitably focus on the regularity and primacy of the journalistic activity to that individual or entity and whether that activity constitutes a business endeavor for financial gain or livelihood.

As former Circuit Judge for the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and Director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School Michael W. McConnell has observed, those standards risk excluding publications like The National Review, The Weekly Standard, Slate and Newsweek, which are sometimes kept afloat by donors rather than profits. They risk excluding the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian, and the American Bar Association, which engage in journalism as secondary to other endeavors. And they risk excluding authors, documentary filmmakers, and pamphleteers, who do not follow any predetermined cycle to their publishing.

Senator Marsh would do well to remember, also, what Doug Mataconis observed:

[I]t was a bunch of bloggers who discovered that the memos that CBS News relied upon to support its story about George W. Bush supposedly ducking out early on his National Guard commitments were forgeries. That report, you’ll recall, came out at the height of the 2004 re-election campaign and threatened to have a major impact on the election. Instead [thanks to those bloggers], it ended up having a major impact on the careers of several CBS News employees, including a man who had been anchoring the CBS Evening News for more than 20 years. For reasons like that, it’s important that we make sure that shield laws don’t end up being something that only cover members of what essentially amounts to a protected cartel while bloggers and free-lancers are left out.

Under Senator Marsh’s approach, “real” journalists like Dan Rather would no doubt gain admission to the Alabama legislature’s press rooms. What about the bloggers who uncovered the problems with Rather’s documents?

PubliusIt is not always clear, based on mainstream status, who is the partisan, shady, fly-by-night imposter “offering purposely skewed and inaccurate interpretations of hard news events” and who is engaged in real journalism. Senator Marsh should reconsider his efforts to impose press credentialing standards that Thomas Paine, Publius, and the Federal Farmer would be unable to satisfy.

 

 

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Lady Liberty image via The Montgomery Advertiser. Publius image from FeedBooks.com.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.
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