Monday, February 6, 2017

Down The Free Speech Rabbit Hole

So, late last week, Conservative new media darling/icon of the alt-right/professional Internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to give a speech at the University of California Berkeley. Which in and of itself is no big deal, I would have thought. Except that it turned out to be a gigantic deal with riot police, destruction of property and fires and stuff. Needless to say, Milo didn't get to give his speech and the kids at Berkeley fucked up a whole bunch of their campus because they were so upset about what he was going to say.

This, naturally, has lead to the usual re-eruption of free speech vs. hate speech and blah blah blah blah blah...  this cartoon from XKCD is making the rounds again. And while XKCD has thrown down some good stuff over the years there's something not quite right about their take on free speech that's been bugging me all day- it's just not quite right. Not when applied to what happened at Berkeley. 

Don't get me wrong: there have been plenty of other instances where it fit better, but in general, it sums up a Progressive/Leftist view of Free Speech that should be concerning- namely, that people have the right to suppress speech they don't agree with- and say that it's okay to do that, because after all, it's not the government doing it, so it's just people letting you know what an asshole you are- it's essentially undermining the notion of a individual's right to free speech or free expression. In one sense, it's not wrong: you can't shout 'fire' in a crowded theater and not expect to have some consequences brought down on your head. So yes, exercising your right- as with every other right we have can carry a cost. But the somewhat insidious unspoken suggestion here is that if enough people think you're an asshole, they can prevent you from exercising your rights. Individuals can and must accept costs and responsibilities for exercising their rights. They should not have undue costs and burden imposed upon them by society at large. That, to me, is a square this position cannot circle.

More importantly, it takes a remarkably reactionary view about the rights enshrined in the Constitution...  but let's stick with the 'originalist' view of the First Amendment and accept the notion that it doesn't apply to individuals, it only protects individuals from the government, I, and every other American should have grave misgivings about that, but happily, the 9th Amendment seems to provide a counter-argument to that idea. Namely:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
In other words: just because the 1st Amendment doesn't explicitly extend to individuals doesn't mean that the right doesn't exist. For the record:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assembled, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
On the face of it, the XKCD position isn't wrong- at least from a 'plain text reading' of the amendment itself. But while if the amendment doesn't protect individuals from the consequences of being an asshole- it just prevents the government from imposing those consequences, it doesn't give people the right to shout assholes down and prevent them from being assholes either. (And the Tinker decision- which I think has been superseded somewhere along the way, seems to extend freedom of expression to individuals.)

Shit like this is why I think about going to law school, by the way. Because I'm pretty sure I've gotten some aspects of this wrong- dead wrong, probably. I just wish law school didn't cost so god damn much, because I could probably spend hours pouring over case law and learning all this shit. In fact, I'd probably want to focus on the 1st Amendment if I ever did that. (Which, I'm sure is probably not lucrative at all, because that's how my brain works. It never goes for the things that you know, make money.)

The answer to hate speech, bad speech, or speech you don't like isn't shouting down the other person. It's more speech. The savage irony of the aftermath of what happened at Berkeley isn't the fact that it happened at the birthplace of 'the Free Speech movement' but the fact that it represented a huge missed opportunity for the Left. Rioting and protesting can be expressive of a community's anger. In this case, it doesn't help the cause. How many people are going to buy Milo's book now? How many people are going to go to one of his speeches- not because they know a damn thing about him or what he stands for, but just because they want to see what all the fuss is about. Watch this interview Milo gave with Tucker Carlson after the riots. This isn't an ideologue or a frothing at the mouth crazy man here. This is a man who knows that he's already won and is going to bathe in obscene amounts of money as a result of the overreach of the idiotic and imbecilic left.

There are no justifications for this violence. Had someone at Berkeley been thinking, they would have organized a teach-in instead. The answer is never to shout down speech. It's to exercise your own right to speech. That's how this should work.

*FIRE had an op-ed which correctly and gently rebuked the President for his reaction to the protests- there are bigger fish to fry when it comes to Free Speech on campus.

**This is a refreshing Q & A I found...  political violence of the Left or the Right makes it harder for us to talk to each other and understand each other. We have to better for our fellow citizens,

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