Category Archives: Liberty

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Free Speech Aside, Why We Must Defend Those Who Draw Muhammad

Callimachi free speech aside

Free speech aside, why would anyone do something as provocative as hosting a ‘Muhammad drawing contest’?”

New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi asked that question on Twitter at 8:08 p.m. on May 3, within hours of gunmen opening fire at a “draw Muhammad” event in Garland, Texas.

It is tempting to answer Callimachi’s question dismissively. Speech needs no why. Freedom of expression is its own raison d’être.

That is in fact what I believe.

I am a freedom fetishist.

But perhaps we have strayed so far from our classically liberal tradition, become so complacent inside the bounds of our own civility, that we must deign again to explain the why of it.

Free speech aside, why depict Jesus Christ floating in urine? Why paint the Virgin Mary splattered by dung and surrounded by hovering vaginas? Why fake an interview wherein Jerry Falwell confesses to losing his virginity with his mother? Why produce the musical The Book of Mormon?

Free speech aside, why does anyone, ever, do or say or think or draw or write anything profane or blasphemous or provocative or controversial or impolite or mean-spirited or harsh or unkind?

Do only certain answers to that question justify the exercise of such freedom? Insulting to Christianity 15-0505

I sit as I write this in a crowded coffee shop. The tables are small and closely spaced. There are men seated at the two tables on either side of me. All three of us have matching disposable cups of overpriced coffee sitting precariously on the edges of our small tables crowded beside our silver laptops.

There is no way for me to turn my laptop to prevent them both from seeing the screen. After reading the Wikipedia entries for the artwork I mentioned above, I peruse galleries of Charlie Hebdo covers looking for examples of images targeting Christian and Judaic ideas.

Ideas. Not people.

CircumcisionI wonder to myself, what do these men sitting so closely beside me think of these images? By now, they have surely glanced over and seen them on my screen. What meaning have they ascribed to them, to my perusing of them here inside the narrow confines of this crowded coffee shop?

I find my mind flowing back through the years to another table in another time. It is more than a decade and a half ago. The table is bigger, square instead of round. In a lunch deli, not a coffee shop, and not at all crowded. I am having lunch with a friend. It is before the days of smartphones. We are reading different sections of a shared newspaper.

An article captures my attention. I summarize it aloud for my friend. A couple struggling with fertility sought help from a fertility clinic. Ultimately the wife was implanted with embryos that were successfully fertilized using her eggs and donor sperm. A baby was born.

Only there had been a mix-up with the donor sperm used by the clinic. The baby does not have the right look to her parents’ way of thinking.

Her skin is too dark. Her hair is too kinky.

The parents are suing. The article closes with a quote in which they insist they are not racist.

“Right. We aren’t racist,” I mimic, sarcastically. “We just don’t want this baby. For entirely nonracist reasons.”

My friend snickers. We both get it. We are young and smug and sure of ourselves, signaling our mutual membership in the best of all possible tribes. We start riffing off each other, back and forth, mimicking all the things we imagine people blissfully unaware of their own contrivances say in such circumstances.

We’re not racist. We just don’t think the races should mix.

We’re not racist. This is about the children.

We’re not racist. We have black friends.

A man at a corner table looks up from behind his own newspaper and frowns at us.

Jerk. I immediately assign him to one of those other, less desirable tribes. One whose members remain fatuously assured of their enlightened values right up until the moment they are handed that baby. The swaddled bundle of Other that forces them to confront the things they had until that point been able to deny existed inside their own minds.




Does he think we are the—?

Did he misunderstand? We were only…

What? I struggled to think of the right words to describe what we were doing.

Making fun.



I am fifteen years away from knowing what Charlie Hebdo is.

Poe’s Law is not yet a thing.

All of sudden I see how the view might look from his table. I am no longer sure which of us belongs in which tribe. Which of us is blinded by our own contrivances.

It is not always obvious.

It is not always possible to find a single objective truth in satire, in mockery, in fiction, in art. It is not always easy to define the line between the thing mocked and the mockery itself. Between racism and the illustration of racism. Between targeting ideas and targeting people. To avoid the place where laughter collides with conscience. To know if we are punching up or down.

To avoid the inherent limitations of the views from our own tables.

But it is in those moments when self-doubt obliterates contrivance that paradigms shift. It is in the moments when we finally sense the chinks in our own armor of righteousness that we fully appreciate the limitations of our perspectives. It is where we straddle those lines that cannot be drawn that real debate occurs and social change is worked.

There is inherent value in the speech that drives us to the place where the curtain is pulled back.

And that is why.

As Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors, writes on his Steam Thing blog:

It’s possible, of course, to see the antiracist message of one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as no more than a cover for an underhanded relishing of the racist imagery deployed in it. Parody usually does participate to some extent in the energy of what it parodies; that is one of the risks it runs. Humor is not pure. It speaks to us through our flaws, as well as speaking to us about them—envies and hates, as well as greeds and lusts—and it can’t exist without the license to work with dark materials.

Last year at the University of Iowa, a visiting professor created a sculpture of a Ku Klux Klansman papered with articles about racial tension and violence over the last 100 years. Some people complained that it was racist, and the sculpture was removed. Its creator, Serhat Tanyolacar, intended the sculpture to confront the comfortable assumption that our racial frictions are all safely in the past.

Can one of these interpretations be pronounced objectively correct to the exclusion of the other? They are like conjoined twins—one good, one evil—and you cannot kill one without killing the other.

And that is why.

If the message cannot always be nailed down, neither can the direction of the punch, though that was a criteria for meritorious satire recently advocated by cartoonist Gary Trudeau. An LGBT couple denied photography, floral or catering services will undoubtedly perceive the balance of power differently than the Christian business owner bankrupted for expressing religious values that amount in others’ eyes to politically incorrect discrimination.

Which side controls the narrative about campus “rape culture?”

Does Paul Nungesser have more or less power than Emma Sulkowicz?

Are the targets of Charlie Hebdo’s satirical barbs victims, as Trudeau suggests, or are they oppressors, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others might argue?

[T]o portray an institution that mocks any religion’s sacred cows as villainously “punching down” ignores that religious institutions are very much part of the power structure and have been throughout history.

When you’re challenging the gods, and those who claim to speak for the gods, you are always punching up.

Can we say with certainty that Charlie Hebdo’s (alleged) punching down in France does not help people like Raif Badawi punch up in Saudi Arabia?

Like shifting sands, our perceptions of the balance of power change from setting to setting, issue to issue, moment to moment, always influenced by the view from our table. If we refrain from swinging except in the clear cut cases, satire is sidelined precisely at those moments when we stand on the brink, when social upheavals make the scores too close to call.

And that is why.

But it is not all.

Circumscribing speech based on the sensibilities of out-groups marginalizes and infantilizes the members of those groups. It treats them as children who must be shielded from the harsh confrontations that members of other, more superior groups might be expected to handle. As David Frum noted in responding to Trudeau:

It’s almost as if he thinks of underdogs as literal dogs. If a dog bites a person who touches its dinner, we don’t blame the dog. The dog can’t help itself. The person should have known better.

In this manner, Trudeau and his cohorts would return fierce debate to the exclusive province of those—white, male and Judeo-Christian—who by dint of their power and privilege can be expected to handle such heady and taxing matters responsibly.

Out-groups are not comprised of children. Nor are they homogenous. Among their many victims, extremists who call themselves Muslims kill moderates who also call themselves Muslims. Is Charlie Hebdo punching down against the latter—or punching up on their behalf?

People of good faith can reach different answers.

And that is why.

Finally, and here is the crux of it, we cannot make the world safe for the people who would punch up unless we find it our hearts to defend those who will use the same freedom to punch down.

I used to differentiate between government censorship and private consequences for unpopular speech. It was the wrong distinction. The meaningful difference is between non-forceful responses to speech—firing, boycotting, bankrupting, and shunning, all of which are fair game—versus forceful responses, which never, ever are.

It is not functionally different whether the thugs suppressing expression are the official ones we call “government” or a renegade band of religious zealots. If we give in to the latter on the theory that they are somehow exempted from the resistance we would put up against the former, the zealots simply become a shadow government of censors.

We are no less unfree.

Bosch Fawstin's  winning entry in the Garland, Texas "Draw Muhammad" contest.

Bosch Fawstin’s winning entry in the Garland, Texas “Draw Muhammad” contest.

If we want freedom to exist for the Raif Badawis of the world, we must defend its exercise by the Pam Gellars.

The peaceful way to do that, to render violence counterproductive to its own ends, is by mirroring the speech that would be suppressed. Even when it is offensive. Even when it is blasphemous. Even when it is rude, childish, stupid, unpopular, pointless or unnecessarily provocative.

Even when we don’t agree. Especially then.

And that is why.

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

Misunderstanding Law, Government, and Society

GovernmentIsForceMost people… At least most people in modern western democracies… Seem to have a fundamental and unconscious assumption about the nature of law and government, that goes something like this:




Law and government, are or should be, the expression of the will of the majority, for the purpose of making collective decisions, taking collective actions, fixing problems and righting wrongs.

If I gave that definition to most people as what government “should” be, or even what it is, I’d guess they would agree.

But that’s not what law and government are at all. In fact, that notion of the nature of law and government, is not only wrong, it is extremely harmful.

What are law and government?

Government, is the instrument of collective delegation of the legitimate initiation and use of force against others.

Law, is the body of rules by which that force is administered and applied.

The only legitimate purpose for which, is to secure and protect the rights of individuals governed by them.

So, what’s the other thing, and why is this a problem?

The other definition, is more properly that of society (as distinct from culture).

Government is NOT Society, and Society, is NOT Government

This conflation of government, and society, is a very serious social and political problem because those who hold it… and I firmly believe it’s a large majority… believe that law and government, should be used for “doing what’s good, and stopping what’s bad”.

They naturally wish to see government do what they think is right, or best, and stop that which they think is wrong, harmful, or wasteful… And not just in areas where force should be applied.

They conflate “legal” with “good” and “illegal” with “bad”, and try to make laws against things which they think are bad, or mandating things which they think are good.

They often even conflate “legal” or “attempting to make legal” with “approving and supporting”, and “dissapproving and opposing” with “illegal” or “attempting to make illegal”.

This is incredibly harmful

We have allowed… even encouraged people… to deeply hold the fundamental notion, that they get to vote on other peoples opinions, choices, and behavior; and if their “side” wins the vote, that it is legitimate to make those things legal or illegal.

It also means that these people automatically and reflexively try to solve personal, moral, social, or societal problems, with government and law, when it is entirely inappropriate, even harmful, to attempt to do so. Most of those problems cannot be solved by the use of force;, or at best can only be solved inefficiently, ineffectively, and while violating the rights of others.

In encouraging this misapprehension, we have in fact made the personal, the political, and the political, the personal.

How do we stop the harm?

We must correct this critical error in peoples fundamental apprehension of law and government.

People need to understand, at the most fundamental level, that government is force, and that law is how that force is directed and administered. No more, no less.

If we don’t correct this misapprehension, then we will continue to simply seesaw back and forth between majoritarian tyrannies, as social changes dictate.

Rights will continue to be violated and abrogated as the opinions of society fluctuate.

The favored, will continue to be privileged over the disfavored at the expense of the disfavored’s rights, until the pendulum swings again and the roles are reversed.

Yes, I realize, that is largely how it has always been… But never has law and government had such a depth and breath, had so great a reach into our personal lives, as it does today, and this unfortunately shows no sign of receding.

The absurdity of this reach… and overreach… is finally becoming apparent to many people, on all ideological “sides”; be it the “war on drugs”, the “war on terror”, privacy and surveillance, or gay marriage and wedding cakes.

So, we have to take action, now

Use this growing awareness of the overreach, to help people understand.

We have to show people these aren’t just outlying excesses. That they result from the way we think of, look at, and attempt to use, government.

We have to get people to understand, that if they can say “there ought to be a law”, and then get a law made banning something that they don’t like; then their worst enemy, can get a law made banning something they love.

We have to return to the notion that fundamental rights matter, and that the only legitimate purpose of law, and government, is to protect those fundamental rights.

Everything else?

That’s up to individuals, and to society as a whole, NOT GOVERNMENT.

Voluntary collective action. If it’s really what people want, then they’ll work for it, without the threat of force. If it’s not really what they want, then we shouldn’t be forcing people to do it.

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

Yes, There Really Are Two Americas. Look At How Different The South Is


This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the War Between the States. The Northern states, fighting to preserve the Union and (later) to end slavery, defeated the Southern states in a war that resulted in over 600,000 dead.

The war all but ended the concept of state soverignty as the question of secession was decided on the battlefield. The war also gave birth to concept of American nationalism as Americans began to consider themselves as American before being a citizen of their state.

However, America is probably now divided more than it has been in decades. The nation seems to be hopelessly gridlocked politically. Meanwhile, the culture wars are in full swing with social justice warriors going to war against traditionalists and libertarians. There really are two Americas.

What explains the division? I argue that culture and region probably provide the best clues to the division of America.

The Economist had an excellent article earlier this month describing how the South is still culturally different from the rest of the country. Why is that the case?


The dividing line is actually religion.

Religion is a better explanation of southern exceptionalism. The civil war divided most of America’s Protestant sects, says Mark Noll of the University of Notre Dame. Both the Presbyterian and Methodist churches split into northern branches, which opposed slavery, and southern branches, which did not. Even after slavery ended, theological divisions persisted. In the north, which saw mass immigration from all over the world in the decades after the war, Protestant churches had to find some accommodation with Jews, Catholics and, eventually, non-believers.



In the South the share of those born outside America (which was low to begin with) actually fell after the civil war. New migrants moved west or north but rarely south. Because of this, southern churches could hold more traditional views without challenge. Those tented revival meetings that were such a feature of southern Protestantism were not intended to win converts so much as to purify and strengthen beliefs that were already there.



The Southern Baptist movement, which is strongly associated with the “values voters” who favour the Republicans, has its origins in support for slavery. Southern Baptists have long since updated their views on race, as the many black Southern Baptist pastors attest, but the movement’s social conservatism endures. And southerners are unusually observant: Utah is the only non-southern state where church attendance is as high as in Dixie.



Southerners are also known for being fiercely individualistic. As the rest of America becomes more secular, it should be no surprise that the region still strongly believes in the Protestant work ethic and tends to be more supportive of limited government. They’re also willing to forgo a large portion of the safety net because religious charities will largely step up and fill the role.

Another interesting thing about Southern culture is how it tends to leave its mark on surrounding cultures. There are reasons why in particular heavily Catholic south Louisiana, pre-dominately Catholic Hispanics in Texas, and the Catholic Cuban-American community in Miami are more conservative than Catholics in New England and the Midwest. Those Southern values of individualism, hard work, personal responsibility and family values have rubbed off on those communities.

Here’s an interesting map from The Economist article.

Courtesy: The Economist

Courtesy: The Economist

A lot of the orange on the map corresponds to the red state/ blue state maps on presidential elections. The more secular states tend to vote Democratic while the more religious states vote Republican. The views on abortion and gay marriage also tend to align with religious viewpoints.

As you can see, America is deeply divided between a more religious and ironically more individualistic South and Midwest and the more secular coasts. Could the differences between these two Americas lead to secession and civil war? Who knows.

Now, I don’t believe you have to be religious to be moral and that all religious people are moral. But I do believe that a free society only survives when it’s populated by a moral people. The purpose of this post is not to pass judgement on anyone’s religious beliefs.

Let me close with something. We have quite a few non-religious and atheist contributors here who believe in free markets and secular values. I value them all and I’m proud to call them friends. I also know they’re the exception, rather than the rule among secularists. Most atheists generally lean to the left and conservative and libertarian atheists tend to be the exception than the norm.

Here’s an exit question: do you think many secularists replace religion with a belief in the state and social justice and that’s why they’re hostile to limited government? Let us know in the comments.

I’m one of the original co-founders of The Liberty Papers all the way back in 2005. Since then, I wound up doing this blogging thing professionally. Now I’m running the site now. You can find my other work at The and Rare. You can also find me over at the R Street Institute.
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