Friday, April 24, 2009

Define Irony: Applauding the arrest of protesters...

... and then championing free speech in the next sentence.

This amusing tidbit of counter-intuitive thinking from someone calling themselves 'Confederate Yankee' challenges even the inane reasoning of Robert Stacy McCain:

"6 people, presumably students, have been arrested protesting Virgil Goode's speech against illegal immigration at UNC-Chapel Hill. They seem to be every bit as tolerant as the Carolina blue fascists that violently ended Tom Tancredo's attempted speech last week.

The Daily Tarheel covered the speech via Twitter, and described juvenile protesters that simply don't understand that the freedom of speech hinges on the free exchange of ideas, not drowning out those that oppose your own.

It's a sad commentary on the state of education and intellectual discourse at Chapel Hill, but sadly a kind of intellectual bullying that has become a favored tactic on the political left.

A protestor at the Tancredo event sums up the thuggish behavior with daring honesty when she admitted, "I don't believe a lot of change in this country have come through debating and being happy and talking to people."

Presumably one day in the future this protestor or another one like her will brag about having the university with the cleanest-burning ovens."


See, the opposition to free speech is expressed by the protesters exercising their right to dispute the views with which they disagree and not by the arrest of said protesters. The writer comes to the dubious conclusion that exercising free speech is anathema to free speech, while arresting protesters practicing their constitutional rights to free speech and free assembly is defending free speech. Think about that for a long moment. The best way to defend our constitutional rights, according to Confederate Yankee, is to lock up people who exercise their constitutional rights. He then goes so far as to compare the exercise of one's rights of free expression to the Holocaust.

We should all have a serious problem with this kind of Orwellian thinking regardless of our political views about illegal immigration. True free speech means that the speaker has the right to speak his mind and those who disagree with him have the right to express their disagreement. All views have the equal right to be heard, protesters and speakers alike. To pretend that anything less than this is free speech is either genuine ignorance or egregious intellectual dishonesty. In this specific case I will not speculate which of the two it may be.

I will say that it is a core conservative trait to defend the rights of protesters they like (the Minutemen, pro-life groups, and gay bashers) even when those protesters explicitly break the law, while condemning law abiding protesters exercising their natural rights as 'fascists' when they disagree with said protesters. The double standard is hardly subtle.

Personally, I believe that free expression is something to be enjoyed on the left and the right. That even means Confederate Yankee is entirely free to blog as he chooses.

The problem is, this time, it kind of makes him look silly. At best.

8 comments:

Jenn Q. Public said...

Confederate whatshisname has got to know better than to try to drag a Holocaust analogy into, well, pretty much any argument. He forfeits the debate right there.

This analysis is spot on:

"True free speech means that the speaker has the right to speak his mind and those who disagree with him have the right to express their disagreement. All views have the equal right to be heard, protesters and speakers alike."

That's why I find it so vile when protests escalate into de facto censorship. I don't know if these particular protesters did anything to merit arrest, but let's be honest: far more often than not, protesters who attempt to disrupt an event do so in an effort to suppress speech with which they disagree. A chilling effect is the primary goal, and everyone is worse off when opinions are stifled by self-appointed arbiters of what we should see and hear.

America is great in large part because of our ability to express dissenting opinions. But is it a fair interpretation of the First Amendment that the noisiest, most boisterous among us can silence individual speakers any time, anywhere? Those with the fanciest bullhorns win?

Using one's First Amendment rights to silence opposing opinions is a striking perversion of the right to free speech. And you can bet that these protesters would shriek like banshees about violations of their rights if the same was done to a speaker they invited.

Chris Richards said...

"America is great in large part because of our ability to express dissenting opinions. But is it a fair interpretation of the First Amendment that the noisiest, most boisterous among us can silence individual speakers any time, anywhere? Those with the fanciest bullhorns win?"

At least some among the founding fathers would say so. They were as much engaged in shouting one another down and sliming each other behind their backs as they were in high minded debate for the best of purposes. Everyone believes in the nobility of their purpose whether engaging in debate or engaging in more strong-arm forms of expression. One of the sad facts of free speech is that freedom of expression gives us the right to try to shout one another down as much as it gives us the right to engage in truly consciousness-raising debates of our philosophy. I prefer the latter, but admit that I have taken my turn at the former as well when I felt it was justified or necessary. The right to assemble and protest speech with one disagreed was fundamental to the process of the American Revolution. The Sons of Liberty were not engaging in high minded debate. So yes, I believe that freedom of speech often does mean that one must be willing and able to stand up, speak in a loud voice, and pound one's hand on the table.

One of my biggest problems with right wing attacks on protesting, like this one, is that they are specifically attacks on protesters with whom the complainant disagrees. If pro-life protesters or gay-bashers were shouting Gavin Newsome down in San Francisco, the quote would be entirely different.

Do I like that free speech sometimes means the people willing to yell the loudest will be heard the clearest? No, but one has to take the good with the bad because every natural human right, when applied properly, will piss someone else off at some point in time. Free speech includes the right to bitch. This is why I yell myself, when I think it is truly warranted.

"Using one's First Amendment rights to silence opposing opinions is a striking perversion of the right to free speech. And you can bet that these protesters would shriek like banshees about violations of their rights if the same was done to a speaker they invited."

I do not believe the protest of a speech IS silencing of opposing opinions. I believe it to be making sure one's own voice is raised in dissent. I believe many of today's protesters are quite stupid about the way they do it, but I would like to see them get better at it. I don't want to see protests stop.

My personal opinion is that this is just the way such a situation SHOULD unfold: The institution allows the speaker to speak regardless of dissent, the protesters voice their dissent from the speaker on the spot. This, to me, is the process in action. Voicing dissent in a loud voice is not stifling opinion, it is engaging it directly.

The proper response is to produce a bullhorn of one's own, not to arrest those who voice their dissent. THAT is stifling opinion.

Jenn Q. Public said...

Chris, of course loud vocalizations and fist pounding shouldn't be criminalized, and yes, the right to bitch is part and parcel of the First Amendment. But the SCOTUS has upheld that colleges, even public universities, are permitted to make rules concerning the time, manner, and place of protests as long as those restrictions are reasonable, viewpoint-neutral, and content-neutral.

I think it's only human nature that attacks on protesting happen most often when the speech is distasteful. That's not something that is more pronounced on the right as far as I can tell. Certainly all decent people wish there was a way to spare mourning families from Fred Phelps and his ilk. But most of us acknowledge that Phelps must be allowed to picket funerals if we want the ability to speak freely too.

Now, should Phelps and company be able to block a funeral procession or shout down a funeral sermon? Would it be a suppression of their rights if their protests were limited to a certain decibel level or distance from a funeral? Or would those be reasonable regulations designed to protect one group's rights without preventing another group from exercising their own?

The protesters at UNC violated reasonable restrictions and were removed because they were disrupting an academic event. Would I have arrested them? Not if I could help it. Certainly I would have reminded them of the established regulations and given them the option of adhering to the rules. But my guess is that they wouldn't have listened because their intent was not exercise of free speech; their goal was to muzzle a speaker whose words they deemed unfit for consumption by others. They decided that their opinion was of greater import than the speaker's, and they wanted it heard to the exclusion of his speech. That's censorship, not a protected form of expression.

Chris Richards said...

"But the SCOTUS has upheld that colleges, even public universities, are permitted to make rules concerning the time, manner, and place of protests as long as those restrictions are reasonable, viewpoint-neutral, and content-neutral."

Yes, I am aware of this. I am not entirely certain the court made the correct decision. Not being a legal expert, of course, my grasp of constitutional law is perhaps not at a professional level, yet giving the school administrators control of the rules for student protests is right up there in the stupidity department with giving corporate human resources departments control of unionization votes. The fact that law or court precedent does so in both cases does not make either decision intelligent nor the law or precedent correct.

"Would it be a suppression of their rights if their protests were limited to a certain decibel level or distance from a funeral?"

Yes, as distasteful as their activities may be, it would be a suppression of their rights. Regulatory control of the protest process serves the purpose of suppressing free speech. There may be times when everyone of us sympathizes more with the targets of a protest than with the protesters, but regulating the protest process serves the deliberate purpose of minimizing the effect of all protests. This is nothing but suppression of free speech rights.

If protesters commit acts of violence, violate safety regulations, or commit criminal acts, then arrests and criminal charges may be warranted. I won't deny that. I admit to believing that throwing fake blood on a person wearing a fur coat is assault and not speech, as one example. Yet the same people have every right to scream and wave signs at a fashion show.

"But my guess is that they wouldn't have listened because their intent was not exercise of free speech; their goal was to muzzle a speaker whose words they deemed unfit for consumption by others. They decided that their opinion was of greater import than the speaker's, and they wanted it heard to the exclusion of his speech."

I'm not going to argue against this statement directly, because I don't know what the protesters were thinking. I have a personal assumption, but it is an assumption, pure and simple. Just like your own statement is an assumption.

Speculation aside, protests will always be disruptive. The whole reason most protests at universities happen is because one viewpoint is presented in a manner that gives it the appearance of official approval without the existence of a forum to air the opposing view. Therefore the opposing view is aired by protesters. This makes it impossible to protest effectively without disruption. Regulations to limit the disruptive effects of protests are regulations to limit protests. There is no way around that fact.

"They decided that their opinion was of greater import than the speaker's, and they wanted it heard to the exclusion of his speech. That's censorship, not a protected form of expression."

I simply can't agree with this. First, it is once again speculating to intent not evident. They disagreed with the speaker and they voiced their dissent. Likely (though I have to admit this is speculation as well) they were also specifically protesting the university giving a speaker an /official/ forum to air controversial views on a controversial political topic. One can believe a speaker has the right to his opinion and to speak his mind on it and still believe it is wrong for him to be given an /official/ forum in an academic setting. One can protest this decision without any intent to censor anyone's free expression.

Our nation is built on protest, much of it far more violent and far more heavy-handed in its squelching of dissent than what the right attacks as 'thuggery' and 'intimidation' today. Do I support mob violence or public lynchings? No. Do I believe that you, me, Fred Phelps, or students at UNC have a constitutionally protected right to be obnoxious? Yes, I do.

The First Amendment, in guaranteeing rights of free speech or assembly, does not qualify those freedoms with the caveat 'unless a disruption is caused.'

I am entirely willing to draw a line at violence, reckless endangerment, or other criminal behavior. I am entirely unwilling to draw a line short of genuine criminality. Speculation on the intent of the protesters or the misuse of the word 'censorship' (which specifically means /official/ use of /authority/ to squelch dissent)does not change my views.

I despise Fred Phelps and his views as much and admit to some agreement with the views of the UNC protesters, but they all have the right to be disruptive and offensive under the constitution.

Jenn Q. Public said...

"The fact that law or court precedent does so in both cases does not make either decision intelligent nor the law or precedent correct."

Court precedent certainly doesn't make something right - the historical record has made that abundantly clear - but I happen to find this particular decision reasonable. I should add that I find the so-called "free speech zones" that have appeared on college campuses completely unnecessary and over the line.

As for other time/place/manner restrictions, I don't think we'll see eye to eye on that in this lifetime. You're "entirely willing to draw a line at violence, reckless endangerment, or other criminal behavior" even though the First Amendment doesn't include those qualifications. I'm willing to qualify a bit more to ensure that a strong set of lungs (or the technological equivalent) isn't a prerequisite for voicing one's opinion.

"I'm not going to argue against this statement directly, because I don't know what the protesters were thinking. I have a personal assumption, but it is an assumption, pure and simple. Just like your own statement is an assumption."

Yes, neither one of us was inside the heads of the protesters and can't know their intent with any certainty. But just so you know where my speculation is coming from, I've read more than one account indicating that the protesters showed up specifically to air their belief that hate speech shouldn't be protected, and that Virgil Goode didn't have the right to speak out against illegal immigration and affirmative action. I don't want to be taken to task (again) for speculating so I'll just ask: what are your thoughts on "hate speech"?

"misuse of the word 'censorship' (which specifically means /official/ use of /authority/ to squelch dissent)does not change my views."

In OED I trust:

censorship: the office or function of a censor

censor: one who exercises official or officious supervision over morals and conduct

We are both correct in our respective uses of the term "censorship." Your usage refers to "official" supervision and mine to "officious" supervision (officious, of course, indicating unsolicited, unofficial, and meddlesome.)

Chris Richards said...

I disagree with the protesters on the issue of 'hate speech.' I think far too much could be parsed as 'hate speech' in order to deny someone their rights of expression. I've let at least one truly foully prejudiced comment stand without deletion (though not without response) on this blog because of my feelings about free expression. At the same time, I don't believe a public university should give official, academic avowal to Know-Nothing-ism either. So I have to fully admit thinking that Virgil Goode should not have been speaking unchallenged at the University of North Carolina anymore than the protesters do. I suppose it should come as no surprise that I disagree with Virgil Goode pretty strongly on most issues.

I'm sure you're right about us never seeing completely eye to eye on this issue. When it comes to certain kinds of political rights, I'd rather err on the side of too much respect for those rights than too little. Maybe I am a little too anti-authority by nature, but I have a hard time seeing the one with the venue and the microphone as the oppressed party.

And, of course, I'm trying to protest in my own way. :)

Jenn Q. Public said...

"I've let at least one truly foully prejudiced comment stand without deletion (though not without response) on this blog because of my feelings about free expression."

I've done that too. There are few better ways to demonstrate the absurdity of prejudice than by allowing it to be seen alongside rational thought.

"I suppose it should come as no surprise that I disagree with Virgil Goode pretty strongly on most issues."

This is where we'll come closest to agreeing in this discussion. Virgil Goode is a douchebag.

Chris Richards said...

Hey, as areas of agreement go, that's a pretty good one in my book. ;)