A dangerous and continuing assault on free speech is growing on our campuses and across our society. It is a threatening wave of illiberalism. Tocqueville long ago warned that a tyranny of the majority was the principle danger inherent in any democracy. Majority despotism could overwhelm public discourse, ultimately leading to the danger of a restructured and intolerant government. This despotism, he observed, is rooted within the majority’s values and mores, and pose the greatest threat to liberty.
Tocqueville’s concerns are in full display today at Middlebury College, Berkeley, Auburn and other universities. Protesters at each institution suppressed the expression of political views seen as opposed to their own. These protesters claim their actions are justified because these views offended their sense of social and personal acceptability. And further, they completely silenced these voices before words were ever uttered, deploying uncivilized tactics. In turn, each of these institutions were willing accomplices to the speech suppression. Each was unwilling to create and protect an environment of full and free political speech, a base necessity for any institution of higher learning in the United States. Continue reading “Tyranny of the Majority on Campus – An Assault on Free Speech”
What a glorious time to be Russian. Governed by a constitution that provides “freedom of ideas and speech” for everyone.1 And other wonderful freedoms, including a “freedom of conscience” and a “freedom of religion.” A Russian can’t “be forced to express his views and convictions or to reject them.” Thank God “censorship shall be banned.” A Russian “shall have the right to association” and “the freedom of activity of public association shall be guaranteed.” In fact “fundamental human rights and freedoms are inalienable and shall be enjoyed by everyone.” Yes, it’s a glorious time in Russia!
Oh sure, there’s the little matter that “the propaganda or agitation instigating social, racial, national or religious hatred and strife shall not be allowed.” Not to worry if a few of these terms aren’t defined. Actually, none of them are. But we Russians have a long history of trusting our leaders. We’re quite sure our freedom of speech and right to public association won’t be impaired by these couple of undefined tawdry little words. And yes, we know that our exercise of “the rights and freedoms of man and citizen shall not violate the rights and freedoms of other people.” But in government we trust. Continue reading “Glorious Time to Be Russian – Free Speech in the Moscow Springtime”
Government mandated censorship of speech in the United States is not dead yet. Not even in the 21st century. This time, a remarkable attack on free speech comes from Democratic New York Assemblyman David Weprin. Mr. Weprin introduced a bill in the New York State Assembly imaginatively crafted as the “Right to be Forgotten Act.” This one is too good to be true. We might all wish for a “right to be forgotten.” But let’s start right here.
Here’s what Assemblyman Weprin would command:
Within 30 days after a request from “an individual”:
[A]ll search engines, indexers, publishers and any other persons or entities that make available on or though the internet . . . information about the requester, shall remove information, articles, identifying information and other content about such individual, and links or indexes to any of the same, that is “inaccurate”, “irrelevant”, “inadequate” or excessive” . . .
It’s Hard to Craft Such Legislation – But He’s Done It
You might wonder what information qualifies as “inaccurate,” “irrelevant”, “inadequate,” or “excessive?” Wonder no more. Assemblyman Weprin dictates that these terms mean:
[C]ontent which after a significant lapse in time from its first publication, is no longer material to current public debate or discourse . . .
If that’s not clear enough in this remarkable attack on free speech, perhaps a few examples from the Assemblyman will clarify:
. . . especially when considered in light of the financial, reputational and/or demonstrable other harm that the information, article or other content is causing to the requester’s professional, financial, reputational or other interest. . .
Illustrating the thoroughness of his approach, Assemblyman Weprin, of course, excepted:
[C]ontent related to convicted felonies, legal matters relating to violence, or a matter that is or significant current public interest, and as to which the requester’s role with regard to the matter is central and substantial.
Financial penalties, including damages, apply to offenders who do not timely remove the referenced information.
A Lesson – How To Write Vague Statutes
Make no mistake, this is a full frontal attack on free speech. This bill, if enacted, crafts the vaguest of tests to prohibit speech whenever the government decides that a certain subject involving an “individual” should not be discussed. Sure, the strawman of an “individual” is used to impose the “forgotten” standards, but that’s an easy one. The “standards” listed in this monstrosity are, of course, no standards at all. They are vague and unenforceable. They would never withstand the severe scrutiny mandated by the Supreme Court under the First Amendment.
How is “relevancy” decided? What does “excessive” mean? By what measure is information determined as “inaccurate?” This is all so laughable except for the fact that it is actually contained in proposed legislation. By a Democrat, no less.
A Remarkable Attack on Free Speech – What Happened to Liberalism?
The purveyors of liberalism promote and protect free speech, don’t they? Just consider the many myriads of speech that this Democrat eliminates, as if they never occurred. For one, upon request all articles of historical interest would have to be removed if they are “no longer material to current public debate.” His censorship net ensnares books, scholarly works, newspapers, and more. It prohibits maintaining debates about our politicians, once the subject matters of the debates become stale. Perhaps the Assemblymen should consider distributing a little free BleachBit for anyone who ever published a word on the internet.
Assemblyman Weprin is surely a devoted student of the Sedition Act of 1797. Remember that noble attempt to squelch speech. It made criminal any oral or written speech that was “false, scandalous and malicious” against the government, the President and Congressmen. Mr. Weprin has outdone the Fifth Congress with his new remarkable attack on free speech.
So we should wipe our memory banks clean, is that right Assemblyman Weprin? Cultural amnesia, is that what you want? Or is it mass dementia that you prefer? Perhaps you should just mandate that. This “Right to be Forgotten” act should, itself, be forgotten. And quickly.
After another 30 days or so we will have to remove this article.
We live in interesting times. They are times of uncertainty and danger. They are times that threaten our core principles of freedom and the fabric of our society. It is time to make a defense of free thought.
Illiberalism and a Defense of Free Thought
A growing tide of illiberalism surrounds us from both sides of the political spectrum. An illiberalism that burns in our hearts, that forces us further apart. An illiberalism that seers our conscience and spreads through our communities. Some on the right lead it. They promote social inequalities and class vitriol that threaten the left. Some on the left also lead it. They repudiate tolerance and free expression and seek to muzzle and silence those with whom they disagree. Both sides seek to use government – force – to impose their views on others. Both are unwilling to lay down their arms and compete in the open marketplace of ideas. Continue reading “Defense of Free Thought in the Face of Illiberalism – The Pillars of Free Thought”
A wave of illiberalism is rolling across America. Once our great universities were the brightest beacons of free thought and free expression. They were great bulwarks against intolerance. Today, they are devolving into bastions of bombast, fanaticism, dogmatism and hatred.
We have great faith in the power of freedom of speech. Our country was founded on it. Our future depends on it. Without freedom of speech, the grand traditions of liberalism will perish. So long as we cherish and preserve free speech in the United States, wisdom will ultimately triumph.
We fear no idea in the marketplace of ideas. The American tradition welcomes them all, including offensive and even abhorrent ideas. Perhaps, especially offensive and abhorrent thoughts. Because those ideas and thoughts will not, in the end, survive the raging rapids of human turmoil. They will not prevail against the essential light of the human spirit. And it is the failures of those offensive ideas, laid bare for all to see, that push humanity ever closer to the better angels of its nature.
There may be much to be disturbed about regarding Russian hacks (allegedly) of the Democratic National Committee and the emails of persons affiliated with Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign. We presume, for the sake of this Opinion, that the hacks occurred. The theft of information bearing on an American presidential election by a foreign government is no small matter. Yet we realize that espionage is an everyday affair. The U.S. itself, regrettably, has its own sordid history in interfering in foreign elections.
But a singular focus on the thief’s identity amid loud protestations from its victims misses a more important point – truth. To date, there is no hard proof that any of the revealed information was anything other than wholly true. Unless we have missed it, the victims themselves have made no claim of falsity or manipulation of the stolen material.
Evidence that the published emails were changed or falsified would cast the current state of affairs in a different light. It would be a critical slice of information that the American people must see. That information, if it exists, should be made available at the earliest possible moment. It would be proof of an attempt to undermine the Constitution and would significantly elevate the gravity of these events.
Instead, the Russian hacks and the subsequent data publication are no more than the Pentagon Papers redux (or an Eric Snowden encore), but without the substantive impact. Even President Obama observed that the leaked information was “pretty routine stuff.” We differ. Deeds of political impropriety, though perhaps “routine” to some, bear on the virtue and integrity of the actors. Readers are well familiar with the Snowden events. But the 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers is a relevant analogy to the Russian hacks leading to publication of the emails. Both cases involve important considerations of the Constitutionally protected right of freedom of speech and it’s central place in American democracy.
The Pentagon Papers: A Brief History
In 1967, as the war raged in Vietnam, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara requested the Department of Defense to prepare a comprehensive study dating back to 1945 of the U.S. involvement in, and policy with respect to, Vietnam. In 1968, over 500,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam. The study was to be top secret. Thirty-six policy experts, historians, and military analysts participated in preparing the report.
Daniel Ellsberg joined the Defense Department in the 1960’s as a Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. Ellsberg was assigned to draft covert plans to escalate the war. He was also one of the 36 selected to work on the secret Defense Department report.
By 1971 Ellsberg had become increasingly disillusioned with the war and believed that the U.S. government was misleading the American people regarding the likelihood of victory. With access to the complete study, he covertly photocopied most of the report (now known as the Pentagon Papers), and turned the material over to both the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Times (along with the Post), over threats from the Nixon administration, published the Pentagon Papers. The published documents revealed that the U.S. government, from President Truman through President Johnson, had regularly misled the public regarding both the conduct of the War and the prospects for victory. Publication of the Pentagon Papers further solidified public opposition to the War.
Freedom of the Press Versus National Security
The Nixon administration fought hard to prevent publication of the Pentagon Papers. For the first time in American history the President claimed that the federal government had the right to restrain publication of information on the grounds of national security. The government’s claim thus pitted the First Amendment protected right of freedom of speech against claims of national security interest by the President.
An initial injunction preventing publication was obtained against the Times. However, shortly thereafter the Government failed to get a similar injunction to prevent publication by the Post. An appeal immediately followed and the matter made its way to the Supreme Court within weeks.
In New York Times v. U.S., 403 U.S. 713 (1971), the Supreme Court ruled that prior restraint of publication of the Pentagon Papers was unconstitutional. The Court stated that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” As Justice Hugo Black wrote, “in revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the founders hoped and trusted they would do.”
The Court concluded that this First Amendment right superseded the President’s claim that publication of the Pentagon Papers would jeopardize national security: “The word ‘security’ is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodies in the First Amendment.”
Two groups of Supreme Court justices led the majority opinion. The first group took an absolutist view. They believed that, regardless of the nature of any threat to national security from any published material, the courts simply do not have the power to suppress that publication. The second group believed that a restriction on the press could only be imposed to prevent “direct, immediate and irreparable damage” to the country, a standard that was not met in the case.
Theft and Publication of the Pentagon Papers vs. Russian Hacks and Publication of DNC Emails
Publication of the DNC and related emails (whether the result of Russian hacks or leaks), is indistinguishable in effect from publication of the leaked Pentagon Papers. In both cases, the published information contained evidence of deception – by public officials in the case of the Pentagon Papers, and by leaders of the Democratic Party and members of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign in the current circumstances. Mrs. Clinton sought to be President.
In each instance, the information published posed no threat of direct, immediate and irreparable damage to the United States. By revealing questionable activity by those who were intimately associated with, and involved with, one of the two leading candidates for the Presidency, the publishers of that information “nobly did precisely what the founders hoped and trusted they would do.” As to truth seeing the light of day for the American people to judge, the identity of the revealer, whether it be Daniel Ellsberg or the Russian government, is of no import.
Publication of Hacked Emails Serves the Same Purpose as the Publication of the Pentagon Papers
To those who claim that the hacked (or leaked) emails may have unfairly changed the outcome of the election we ask this. Would it have been better for the war in Vietnam to have longer continued, or for the U.S. government’s clandestine information gathering revealed by Eric Snowden to have remained unknown in the dark recesses of the cyber plans of the United States government? The American people are entitled to make their judgments based on the truth as it may best be known. Whatever consequences may follow from knowledge of the truth, so be it. Things that are made secret have a way of coming to light.
We await the presentation of any hard facts to prove the invalidity of any of the published emails.