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Under Discussion: Weeds Grow in Light and Open Air, Too

photograph of plants growing between sidewalk cracks

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: The Harper’s Letter.

The quickly (in)famous open letter published in Harper’s Magazine forecasts a dire future for free thought and speech. Like a portentous specter, the letter’s signatories point with their veiled hand to a tombstone: “HERE LIES LIBERAL SOCIETY. CANCELED.” But they assure their readers, whom they assume have asked the miser’s question, that if the course be departed from, the end will change.

What are we doing wrong, and what should we be doing instead? We should not, say the signatories of the Harper’s letter (henceforth, simply “Harpers”), “silence or wish … away” bad ideas. Instead we are told, “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion.” This mantra, simple and appealing as it might be, immediately runs into problems. First there is a question about what they mean by “bad” ideas — or “good” ones. The second problem is that even if we’ve identified a substantive and independent notion of good and bad for ideas, there’s not much reason to believe that exposure, argument, and persuasion elevate the good and sweep away the bad.

What is a good idea? The letter itself pitches democratic inclusiveness and participation as the central pillar of a liberal society, as set against illiberal intolerance and silencing. We could reasonably conclude that the Harpers would rank as good ideas those that are conducive to and constitutive of inclusiveness and participation. Bad ideas would then be those that hamper or are inconsistent with inclusiveness and participation. Cancel culture — the presumed target of the Harper letter — is presented as a paradigmatic bad idea. The phenomenon of cancellation is painted as authoritarian: there is an official “party” line, and those who either criticize it or fail to provide it a full-throated endorsement suffer professional and social consequences.

Is there anything more to being a good or bad idea than this? Likely, the signatories collectively hold some constellation of views that claim, at bottom, being true is what makes an idea good. This is the traditional justification of free speech within classical liberalism: let everyone express their ideas, and the true ones will eventually win out. Does it matter that the concept of truth is itself not agreed upon? Accounts of what truth is — if indeed it is anything at all — vary significantly. Certain kinds of relativism about truth make the claims of the letter’s signatories simply incommensurable with their opponents’ claims. What is true-for-Harpers may be false-for-cancellers, without any whiff of contradiction. It is open to the Harpers, however, to include theories of truth in their claim: the true theory of truth will also reveal itself through open debate.

The Harpers’ hope isn’t, however, pinned on the outcome of some theoretical debate about the nature of truth and goodness of ideas. We can concede whatever view of truth and good ideas they prefer. There remains the empirical matter of whether exposure, argument, and persuasion is the best way to sort good ideas from bad ones. There are two resounding “No” answers we can offer: a historical one and an empirical one.

Assuming that the United States, Western civilization, or whatever was at least at one time a paradise of free speech — or at least closer to it than the Harpers opine we are now — it’s at the least puzzling why we are so plagued by bad ideas. We can look around the US today and see ravenous resistance to what seems like the simplest of good ideas: stay home as much as possible and wear a mask in public to help suppress the COVID-19 pandemic. This proposition has received as much open debate as seems possible. Ludicrous conspiracy theories, evidence-based medical advice, and all things in between have circulated at every level of society. However in the US, at least, the bad idea that wearing a mask is a sign of sheepish obedience to authority is far from dead. Similar debate swirled around wearing seatbelts in the 1950s and 1960s. Seatbelts, which had been around since the 1930s, were not mandated by law in the US until 1968.

The persistence of racist, misogynist, and nationalist ideology also contributes to a historical case against the effectiveness of exposure, argument, and persuasion. Activists for the rights of sexually and racially marginalized people continue to make many of the same arguments today that they did more than 100 years ago. Voter suppression, economic exclusion, de facto segregation, and general discrimination are alive and well. Some argue, as Ezra Klein does in his recent book Why We Are Polarized, that ideological inflexibility is worse now than it has been at almost any time is US history. Given these phenomena, the Harpers’ insistence that we should retreat from the precipice of authoritarianism represented by cancel culture to what came before it amounts to saying, “Let us abandon evil ways and return to dark, old ones.”

This historical argument may be met with the rejoinder that sufficiently unfettered free speech has never really been practiced. The forces of identity politics and government overreach have never been sufficiently banished for us to witness the full glory of liberalism. (The defense of free market economic policy, to which the Harpers’ concept of free speech is related, is voiced in similar terms.) If we were to adopt a thoroughgoing liberalism, stopping both popular identity-motivated sniping and government censorship, progress would steadily occur. The truth would set us free.

But now comes the empirical argument to rain on our parade. People are generally bad at thinking. Once we come to believe something, whether for good or bad reasons, we do not tend to change our views in the face of even strong contrary evidence. This is especially true of beliefs that we incorporate into our sense of who we are as a person. When we are presented with evidence against a belief that we take to define who we are, we react defensively rather than dispassionately. In a rock-paper-scissors game among the three classical modes of persuasionlogos, ethos, and pathos — argument based on truth and facts is wet tissue paper to the sharp scissors and blunt rock of appeals to authority, character, and emotion.

Humans are not omniscient, dispassionate, or otherwise unburdened by cognitive, social, and moral particularity. Any dominant ideas of society, including the Harpers’ view of how free speech should work, exert not merely passive inertia against change but also active resistance to usurpation. Ironically, despite bemoaning “the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty,” the Harpers letter does just that. It says our only alternatives are authoritarian intolerance of difference, or suffering “caustic counter speech” of all varieties. The letter’s title evinces a concern for justice, but doesn’t spare a single word for how injustice can be carried out under the protection of free speech. We do not need, and should not want, social or political thought police; but we can avoid this while still encouraging thoughtfulness and accountability for speech.

Under Discussion: Five Arguments Against the Harper’s Letter

photograph of computer screen displaying Harper's Letter

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: The Harper’s Letter.

On July 7, 2020, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter warning that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted” by a set of “moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” The letter obliquely refers to several incidents in which, in the eyes of the letter writers, individuals have been subjected to disproportionate or inappropriate social sanction for perceived transgressions against left-wing norms of thought and speech. “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class….” Signed by some 150 prominent educators, intellectuals, writers, and artists, the letter provoked a swift backlash by the left-leaning press. That reaction has crystallized around a set of arguments against the letter’s position that I propose to assess in this column.

The first argument, best articulated by The New Republic’s Otisa Nwanevu, is that the moral (and legal) right of free association gives private organizations, including newspapers and private colleges or universities, the right to decide what ideas they are and aren’t interested in promoting and what people they believe will or will not be an asset to them. Hence, no individual has the right to use such an organization as a platform for expressing their ideas, and these organizations, in turn, have no duty to be maximally permissive of ideas with which they disagree. The argument is surely correct that, for example, Tom Cotton had no right to be published in The New York Times, and The New York Times had no duty to publish him. Yet the wrongs that worry the signatories of the Harper’s letter are not, it seems, grounded in these alleged rights or duties. Instead, they are at least in part grounded in the conception of certain types of organization as aiming at certain morally worthy ends. For example, it can be plausibly argued that the role of private colleges and universities, just as much as public ones, is to generate knowledge and serve as forums for debate about pressing political issues. But these commitments seem to ground an obligation to promote debate and discussion. And while this obligation does not require giving a platform to any particular individual or group, it does require giving a platform to some individuals or groups that represent relevant, if ideologically heterodox views. Similarly, in cases of wrongful termination, the idea is not that the organization had a duty to provide a platform for any idea, no matter how offensive; rather, it is that termination of individuals who are not guilty of the offenses of which they are accused is wrongful.

The second argument is that the signatories overplay the importance of a handful of relatively isolated controversies, even if the latter do, in fact, involve wrongdoing on the part of left-wing activists or Twitter mobs. It is undeniable that most critical discussions of progressive identity politics focus on a handful of anecdotes, perhaps mainly because there is no central database of incidents from which to draw. However, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) does compile large databases of free speech-related incidents and policies on college campuses, including disinvitations, free-speech codes, and so on. Whether these databases, together with the anecdotes, amount to a troubling cultural trend is for the reader to decide.

The third argument, which is even more dismissive than the second, is that the consequences faced by victims of so-called “cancellation” are relatively minor, particularly given the signatories’ elite status; moreover, they are usually deserved. As Jessica Valenti put it in a article, the signatories “want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence and paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them.” The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis agrees, writing that “facing widespread criticism on Twitter, undergoing an internal workplace review, or having one’s book panned does not, in fact, erode one’s constitutional rights or endanger a liberal society.” However, the anecdotes that seem to prompt worries about left-wing censoriousness feature consequences to individuals that go far beyond mere criticism, as the stories of wrongful termination referenced above attest. These individuals are usually not members of the cultural elite. Moreover, undergoing an internal workplace review, which is the outcome of so many of these cases, is very different from facing public criticism; it represents a potential threat to one’s livelihood. To have one’s livelihood threatened because of one’s personal speech is bound to have a chilling effect. Finally, there is a distinction between legitimate criticism of one’s ideas and attacks on one’s reputation or threats to one’s safety, tactics often wielded by social media users on both the left and right. These are serious and often disproportionate forms of social sanction, even when directed at powerful members of society.

The fourth argument is that there are much more pressing threats to free speech upon which the writers of the Harper’s letter ought to have focused their attention, such as violence against journalists, economic threats to journalism and academia, and so on. Logically speaking, this is not really an argument against concern about threats to free speech from the left. To see this, consider the argument that charity X ought to focus more attention on tropical disease Y rather than tropical disease Z, since the former kills five times the number of people. This is not an argument against addressing tropical disease Z, but an argument for proportioning attention and resources appropriately. Furthermore, it does not seem fair to claim that the letter itself does not acknowledge the threat from the right, or that those behind it have ignored that threat. At a number of points the letter alludes to the right-wing threat to free speech, although clearly the issue it squarely addresses is the threat from the left. Thomas Chatterton Williams, who spearheaded the letter, recently called President Trump the “Canceler in Chief”; and Yascha Mounk, a prominent signatory, has written that the primary threat posed to liberal democracy is from the populist right.

The final argument is similar to the last: it is that there are much more pressing political issues than the threat to free speech from the left. As Tom Scocca of Slate puts it, referring to Tom Cotton’s op-ed, “[i]n the world of the Harper’s letter, the threat that mattered was the one to the careers of veteran editors—not the threat that had bullets and bayonets behind it…” Again, this is not an argument against concern about the threat to free speech from the left, and it seems uncharitable to claim that simply because the letter concerns this issue, it is therefore the only issue that matters to its signatories.

The fourth and fifth arguments can also be interpreted as attacks upon the signatories’ motives. Giorgis writes that “it’s telling that the censoriousness they identify as a national plague isn’t the racism that keeps Black journalists from reporting on political issues, or the transphobia that threatens colleagues’ lives.” On Giorgis’s view, what this tells us is that the signatories don’t care, or at least don’t care enough, about the issues she identifies. But arguments about the motives of one’s interlocutor have no bearing on the merits of their position: if they don’t care about these issues that may make them morally bad people, but it does not mean that there is no threat to free speech from the left. In any case, it again seems uncharitable to conclude that they don’t care about some other issues simply because they’ve chosen to focus a certain amount of attention upon this one.

To conclude, my view is that among the arguments in the popular press against the Harper’s letter, the most difficult to answer is that worries about the threat to free speech from the left are overblown. It is simply difficult to tell when a series of incidents becomes a trend, and how concerned we should be about that trend. Beyond this, the arguments miss the mark for the most part. Of course, this does not mean that the letter’s claims are valid, and I have not defended them in this column.

Parler and the Problems of a “Free Speech” Social Network

Image of many blank speech bubbles forming a cloud

Twitter is something of a mess. It has been criticized by individuals from both ends of the political spectrum for either not doing enough to stem the tide of misinformation and hateful content, or of doing too much, and restricting what some see as their right to free expression. Recently, some of those who have chastised the platform for restricting free speech have called for a move to a different social media platform, one where opinions – particularly conservative opinions – could be expressed without fear of censorship. A Twitter-alternative that has seen substantial growth recently is called Parler: calling itself the “Free Speech Social Network,” its userbase gained almost half a million users in a single week, partially because of a backlash to Twitter’s recent fact-checking of a Tweet made by Donald Trump. Although the CEO of Parler stated that he wanted the platform to be a space in which anyone on the political spectrum could participate in discussions without fear of censorship, there is no question that it has become dominated by those on the political right.

It is perhaps easy to understand the appeal of such a platform: if one is worried about censorship, or if one wants to engage with those who have divergent political opinions, one might think that a forum in which there are fewer restrictions on what can be expressed would be beneficial for productive debate. After all, some have expressed concern about online censorship, specifically in terms of what is seen as an overreactive “cancel culture,” in which individuals are punished (some say disproportionately) for expressing their opinions. For example consider the following from a recent article in Harper’s Magazine, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”:

“The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

So, what better way to defeat bad ideas than to provide a platform in which they can be brought out into the open, carefully considered, and argued away? Isn’t a “Free Speech Social Network” a good idea?

Not really. An assumption for the argument in favor of a platform that allows uncensored expressions of opinions is that while it may see an increase in the number of hateful or uninformed views, the benefits of having those ideas in the open to analyze and argue against will outweigh the costs. Indeed, the hope is that a lack of censorship or fact-checking will make debate more productive, and that by allowing the expression of “bad ideas” we can, in fact, “defeat” them. In reality, the platform is awash with dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories, and while contrarian views are occasionally presented, there is little in the way of productive debate to be found.

Here’s an example. With over 400 thousand followers on Parler, libertarian politician Ron Paul’s videos from the “Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity” receive thousands of positive votes and comments. Many of these videos have recently expressed skepticism about the dangers of coronavirus: specifically, they call into question the efficacy of tests for the virus, claiming that reports of numbers of cases have been inflated or fabricated, and argue that being made to wear facemasks is a violation of personal liberties. These views fall squarely into the camp of “bad ideas.” One might hope, though, that the community would respond with good reasons and rational debate.

Instead, we get a slew of even worse misinformation. For example, here is a representative sample of some recent comments on Paul’s video titled “Should We Trust The Covid Tests?”:

“My friends husband is world renown doctor. He is getting calls from doctors all over USA and World that tell him CV-19 Numbers are being forged.”

“Nurse all over are saying they are testing the same persons over and over and just building up the numbers not counting them as the same case, but seperate cases. Am against shut down period.”

“No. Plain and simple. COVID tests are increasingly being proven to be lies. Unless you believe the worthless MSM liberal sheep lie pushers.”

The kinds of comments are prevalent, and, as can be seen, are not defeating bad ideas, but rather reinforcing them.

Herein lies the problem: productive debate will not just magically happen once we unleash all the bad ideas into a forum. While some may be examined and defeated, others will receive support and become stronger for having been given the room to grow. Without putting any kind of restriction on the expression of misleading and false information we then risk emboldening those looking to spread politically-motivated misinformation and conspiracy theories. The result is that these bad ideas become more difficult to defeat, not easier.

If one is concerned that potential censorship on social media networks like Twitter will stifle debate, what Parler has shown so far is that a “free speech” social network is good for little other than expressing views that one would be banned for expressing elsewhere. Contrary to Parler’s stated motivations and the concerns expressed in the Harper’s letter, mere exposure is not a panacea for the problem of the bad ideas being expressed on the internet.

Regulating Companies to Free People’s Speech

photograph of ipad with Trump's twitter profile sitting atop various blurred newspaper front pages feating him

US President Donald Trump has signed an executive order instructing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to review legislation that shields social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, from liability for content posted by their users. This move appears to be a retaliatory gesture against Twitter for linking fact-checking sites to President Trump’s tweets opining the vulnerability to fraud of mail-in ballots for upcoming elections. This is the second time President Trump has drafted an executive order to review this kind of legislation. The first time was in August 2019. But this isn’t simply (another) Trump temper tantrum. Rather it is the latest push in a concerted and bipartisan effort to bring so-called “Big Tech” companies to heel. These efforts in general face a long road of legal and philosophical challenges, and Trump’s effort in particular is likely doomed to failure.

The relevant legislation is the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and more specifically the “Good Samaritan” clause of Section 230 therein. This clause states that no “provider or user” of an “interactive computer service” can be sued for civil harm because of “good faith efforts”  to restrict access to “objectionable” material posted by other users of their service. Other portions of Section 230 give providers and users of interactive computer services immunity against being sued for any civil harm caused by content posted by other users. Essentially, companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google are given broad discretion to handle the content posted on their sites as they see fit.

Conservative and Republicans complain that Big Tech companies harbor anti-conservative political bias, which they enforce through their platforms’ outsized influence on the dissemination of news and opinion. Texas’ Senator Ted Cruz has argued that Facebook has censored and suppressed conservative expression on its platform. President Trump’s frequent screeds against CNN, The Washington Post, and Twitter echo the same sentiment. In 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai was grilled by Republican lawmakers about alleged anti-conservative bias in his company’s handling of search results. Missouri’s Senator Josh Hawley in 2019 introduced a bill to amend Section 230 to remove its broad protections from liability. Hawley’s bill was specifically geared toward addressing alleged anti-conservative bias and offered reinstatement of Section 230’s protection only to companies who submitted themselves to an audit showing that they pursued “politically neutral” practices.

Liberal and Democratic concerns focus largely on the spread of harmful misinformation and disinformation by foreign actors aimed at influencing US elections. But there are two points of bipartisan agreement. The first concerns the scope and magnitude of Big Tech’s influence on the public exchange of information. Agreement here manifests itself in the what criteria lawmakers have put forward as triggering expanded liability, namely size. Senator Josh Hawley’s 2019 bill targeted companies with, “30 million monthly active users in the US, more than 300 million active monthly users worldwide, or more than $500 million in global annual revenue.” The other is point of agreement concerns posted content related to human trafficking for sex work. Legislation amending the Telecommunications Act of 1996 pursuant to curtailing human trafficking was passed with bipartisan support in 2017.

All of this bears on the right to freedom of speech, interpretation of which is a perpetually contentious issue. Conservatives complaining about censorship and suppression allege that their freedom of speech is being infringed by the actions of Big Tech. However a recent judicial decision made short work of one such complaint. The US Court of Appeals dismissed a suit claiming that Twitter, Facebook, Apple, and Google had conspired to suppress conservative speech. In their ruling the judges noted that the First Amendment only protects free speech from interference by government action. This illustrates an important point about the nature of rights that is often missed.

Rights can be thought of as comprising three elements: a right-holder, an obligation, and an obliged party. With the right to freedom of speech the right-holder is any legal person (which includes corporations), the obligation is to refrain from suppression/censorship, and the obligated party is the US government. Constitutional rights tend to follow this pattern. Other rights oblige parties other than just the government. A family can sue someone for killing their mother, or the state may sue on the murder victim’s behalf, because a right to life is both understood to exist at common law and is also enshrined by legislation in statutes against homicide. Here the right holder is any individual person, the obligation is to refrain from killing the right-holder, and the obligated party is every other individual person. (Incidentally, both of these are examples of negative rights: rights which entitle the bearers to protection from specific harmful treatment. There are also positive rights, which entitle the bears to the provision of specific goods, services, or treatment.)

As a matter of principle there is no general legal basis for complaints against Big Tech for suppressing or censoring expression. They are not government actors and so are not obviously bound by the right to free speech as expressed in the first amendment. The US Court of Appeals decision mentioned above says as much. Further these companies are themselves legal persons with respect to political speech under US law. This was one the bases of the US Supreme Courts’ (in)famous Citizens United decision. Because corporations are people too, their political speech is protected. Twitter flagging President Trump’s posts with fact-checking tags is just them exercising their speech in competition with President Trump’s speech. This is the much vaunted “marketplace of ideas” of which conservatives are usually enamored.

As a matter of law Trump’s draft executive order is largely toothless because the text of Section 230’s Good Samaritan clause allows Big Tech companies to take “good faith” actions to “restrict access to … material” even when “such material is constitutionally protected.” Despite the opinion of legislators, there is not even a whiff of a political neutrality requirement. While such a requirement used to exist, it ceased being enforced in 1987 and was fully obliterated in 2011. The decision to cease enforcing this requirement was made by US President Ronald Reagan’s FCC Commissioner, Mark Fowler, because it was seen as violating first amendment protections.

Infringement by the government on freedom of speech is held in court to strict scrutiny. Part of the strict scrutiny standard is that the infringement promotes a “compelling government interest.” If the government exercises its authority over private individuals or groups under the auspices of protecting freedom of speech, what standards will the government ask be met? The entire point of rights like the freedom of speech is to permit persons acting in a private capacity to determine things for themselves. As many critics and advocacy groups have pointed out, allowing the government to set these standards is harmful to free speech rather than protective of it. Legislators appear to remember this only as it suits their political needs.

When It Comes to Privacy, We Shouldn’t Have to “EARN-IT”

photograph of laptop with a lock with keys on it

At the moment, the subject on everyone’s minds is COVID-19, and for good reason: the number of infected and dying in the United States and around the world is growing every day.  But as Kenneth Boyd has pointed out, there are a number of subjects that are getting ignored. There is a massive locust swarm devastating crops in East Africa. There is an ongoing oil war driving gas prices down and decimating financial markets. And, in the United States, Congress is considering passing a bill that would have significant negative impacts on privacy and free speech on the internet. The bill in question is the EARN-IT Act, and the reason it is not capturing popular attention is obvious: viruses are scary, fast-moving, and make their ways into people’s homes. This bill is complex and understanding its ramifications for people’s rights to privacy and free speech requires a good deal of legal context.

But first, what is the EARN-IT Act? Legislators are clearly not marketing it as an attack on privacy and free speech since such a bill would be widely unpopular. The EARN-IT Act is really intended as a necessary measure to combat the widespread issue of child pornography, or, as the act would admirably rename it, “child sexual abuse materials” on the internet. This is a big problem. Right now, a ring of child abusers using the encrypted messaging app Telegram are being uncovered in South Korea. Proponents of the bill view the encryption that Telegram and other apps like WhatsApp, and soon Facebook, use as a tool for child abusers to evade government detection and prosecution. They see the owners of these apps as neglecting their responsibility to monitor the content going through their servers by encrypting said content so even they cannot see it. Essentially, these companies seem to know that child abuse is a problem on their platforms and instead of putting in the effort to find and report it, they simply blindfold themselves with encryption for their users.

So how will the EARN-IT Act resolve this seemingly willful ignorance and bring child abusers to justice? Well, here is where the issue gets complex and requires legal context. The act itself creates a government committee which would create a recommendation of “best practices” for companies to follow to minimize the spread of child sexual abuse materials on their websites. This recommendation would also be binding. If companies were to fail to follow the recommendations of the committee, they might lose something called “Section 230 immunity” which ordinarily keeps them from being prosecuted when child sexual abuse materials are found on their websites. Right now, if the government finds these materials on a hard drive belonging to you or me, we would go to jail for at least 5 years. But, if those same materials are found on Facebook or Telegram’s hard drives, the site owners will not go to jail, all due to that Section 230 immunity. Understanding why such a difference makes any sense requires understanding the history behind it and the distinction between speakers (the ones who create and share child sexual abuse materials) and distributors (sites like Facebook or Telegram that child abusers may use to share the evidence of their abuse).

In legislation prior to the internet, the legal burden for illegal speech (which, though it sounds weird when you say it, includes images) fell only on publishers and speakers, not distributors. If a book containing illegal content was sold in a bookstore (a “distributor”), the bookstore would not be responsible; only the author (“speaker”) of the content and the publisher would be. Obviously the author would know he broke the law and presumably his publisher should have had the sense to check what they were publishing. But the store that sold the book could not have this responsibility since they might sell thousands upon thousands of titles and could not spend the time checking each one. If the government put that responsibility on the bookstore, bookstore owners might be afraid to sell more titles than they could reasonably read through and check themselves. Fewer ordinary writers would be able to get their works to their audiences. So, many authors would not bother writing, knowing their books would never be sold. While the government would never directly force them to stop speaking, authors would be indirectly silenced. As Supreme Court Justice William Brennan put it in the Court’s unanimous opinion in Smith v. California, the law cannot “have the collateral effect of inhibiting the freedom of expression, by making the individual the more reluctant to exercise it.”

The question, then, is whether Facebook or Telegram should count as distributors or publishers. In 1996, Congress decided the issue with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. In this section was the following provision: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Let’s break this down. An “interactive computer service” would be any website or app people share content on (like Facebook or Telegram). The “provider” would be the owner, and “user[s],” would be, of course, anyone who used the site. Any other “information content provider” would be another person sharing information on the “interactive computer service.” If someone (the “information content provider”) posts illegal content on Facebook (the “interactive computer service”), that means that neither the owners of Facebook (the “provider”) nor someone who retweets that content (a “user”) is legally responsible for it. They are not legally responsible because they are not “treated as publisher or speaker” of that content. So, when child sexual abuse materials are shared using Facebook or Telegram’s servers, they have immunity.

The problem is that this immunity does not incentivize sites to find and remove these materials. There is no penalty for allowing them to spread, so long as the site owners never see them. And, with encryption, they can’t see them. One binding “recommendation” the committee created by the EARN-IT Act might make is to require sites to create a “backdoor” to their encryption that would allow the government to bypass it. One of the bill’s main sponsors, Senator Lindsey Graham, has said that he intends for it to end encryption like this for all websites. He has said that “We’re not going to go blind and let this abuse go forward in the name of any other freedom,” in reference to Facebook’s plans to institute end-to-end encryption of their messaging app.

Essentially, if two people on Telegram are texting, it is as though they are both going into a locked house to talk where only they have the keys. These keys would be unique to this particular house. A “backdoor” would be an unlocked entrance to every house that anyone who knew about it could get through and listen to the conversations people are having. There are two serious problems with this proposal: first, the government will be able to see, without any warrant and without checking with the site owners, any information from users; second, since there is no way to guarantee that only the government ever finds out about such a backdoor, it would be possible for anyone who finds the backdoor to access all of your personal information online. Privacy on the internet would quickly disappear.

Now it is important to remember that this recommendation to build backdoors in all websites is not a necessary condition of the EARN-IT Act. Perhaps the principle of it being possible for the government to take away our privacy on the internet is objectionable but it is not necessary that anyone actually lose their free speech. Such an abridgment of our right to privacy would occur only if the committee ultimately decided to include backdoors in its recommendations. One of the bill’s other sponsors, Senator Richard Blumenthal, has said this would not be the case. But, there is not anything stopping the committee from making such a recommendation either, which is where the trouble lies. If the committee acts in good faith, doing what is right, respecting our right to privacy, there will be no problem.

But, of course, politicians and governmental committees do not always act in good faith. The PATRIOT Act was enacted in the wake of 9/11 ostensibly to fight terrorism. As we all know, there was a darker side to this act, including the creation of a number of programs that allowed widespread wiretapping of ordinary citizens, among other violations of people’s rights. None of these harms were actual until they were. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is such a common quotation as to become proverbial. All the committee of the EARN-IT Act has to do to end privacy on the internet is to make a simple recommendation and to threaten companies with the loss of Section 230 immunity. And, since without Section 230 immunity site owners could face serious jail time, sites would either have to manually check every post, every text, every image going through their servers (a virtual impossibility with the scale of internet content sharing) or would have to end encryption as instructed.

The internet is a wonderful and horrible thing, much like the human beings who compose it. The ability to communicate with anyone, around the world is an amazing thing. And to be able to do so privately is even more amazing. But, this amazing technology can, like every technology, be used for both good and for evil. Are we willing to sacrifice our ability to communicate privately online to wholly eliminate child sexual abuse on the internet? What value does privacy really have? The proposal and passage of bills like the EARN-IT Act threaten some of our most fundamental rights, both to speech and to privacy. Like the PATRIOT Act before it, it coats this dangerous abridgement of our rights in a veneer of justice, telling us that the cost to our freedom is worth it to right some wrong. As Graham would have it, we cannot “let this abuse go forward in the name of any other freedom.” But we can, and we must. If privacy is to be a true right, then it cannot be “earned.” The EARN-IT Act would have our right to privacy reduced in this way and so cannot be supported unless the powers of the proposed committee are harshly limited. Our rights are unalienable. The right for the government to limit our rights is not. If one of us, the citizens or the government, needs to “earn” their rights, it is them, not us.

Freedom of Speech and Sexist Tweets

photograph of Indiana University campus

On November 7th, 2019, Indiana University Bloomington economics professor Eric Rasmusen tweeted a link to an article titled, “Are Women Destroying Academia? Probably.” In his tweet, Rasmusen pulled out one quote in particular as worthy of special emphasis, “geniuses are overwhelmingly male because they combine outlier high IQ with moderately low Agreeableness and moderately low Conscientiousness.” Among other things, the article claims that 1) the inclusion of women as students in universities has led to the deterioration of rigor in those institutions because emotion has replaced the cold, unemotional evaluation of facts and arguments, 2) women are highly prone to “Neuroticism,” precluding them from logical thought, 3) the presence of women in academia reduces the production of the “genius type,” a type which is overwhelmingly male, and 4) female academics are too high in agreeableness but low in I.Q. to adequately nurture the mind of the male genius. Thus, the article claims, the inclusion of females in academia both as students and as professors, is harmful to male education and has a chilling effect on the number of geniuses produced by universities.

This isn’t the first time that this professor has made headlines for his tweets. In 2003, Rasmusen came under fire for his comments on the fitness of male homosexuals to serve as teachers. In a response to this ongoing controversy, he re-affirms that position,

“I am on record as saying that homosexuals should not teach grade and high school. I don’t think they should be Catholic priests or Boy Scout leaders either. Back in that kerfuffle when I was widely attacked for saying that, I was careful to say that academia was different. Professors prey on students too, so there is a danger, but the students are older and better able to protect themselves, and there is more reason to accept the risk of a brilliant but immoral teacher.”

In response to the most recent tweet, people immediately began to call on the university to terminate Rasmusen’s employment. Lauren Robel, Executive Vice President and Provost of Indiana University Bloomington issued a statement condemning Rasmusen’s actions as “stunningly ignorant, more consistent with someone who lived in the 18th century than the 21st.” She also makes it perfectly clear that the university cannot fire Rasmusen for his comments because the First Amendment protects them.

The university did take some corrective action in response to Rasmusen’s behavior. In her statement, Robel provided the details of the steps the university is taking. First, no class offered by Rasmusen will be mandatory. In this way, students can avoid taking classes from him entirely. Second, grading of students in Rasmusen’s classes will be blind to avoid the bias that might be present. This means that assignments will be set up in such a way that Rasmusen will not know which student’s paper he is grading when he is grading it. If the nature of certain assignments is such that they cannot be graded in this way, a different faculty member will grade those assignments. With these measures in place, students can avoid any potential bias that they might expect from someone who has expressed the kinds of ideas that Rasmusen has expressed.

The public response to the incident involves some confusion about why exactly it is that Rasmusen can’t be fired. Some people view this incident as an indictment of the tenure system. It is not Rasmusen’s tenured status that makes it the case that he can’t be fired over this issue. Indiana University Bloomington is a public, state institution, funded by taxpayer dollars. As such, they cannot fire a professor for the content of the speech he or she engages in as a private citizen, and on his twitter account, Rasmusen was speaking as a private citizen.

Legal protections aside, there are compelling moral reasons that speak in favor of this position. It is valuable, both as a matter of personal liberty and for the good of society, for ideas to be expressed and evaluated. It is important to the aims of democracy that people can speak truth to power. In some cases, the speech involved will be very ugly, but the general practice is so important that we must be committed to it come what may. Punishing speech on the basis of content may seem to make good sense under certain conditions, but good, well-intentioned people don’t always have the final say in what “makes good sense.” To protect our basic liberties, we might sometimes have to be content with procedural justice, even when it seems to fly in the face of substantive justice.

Even if Rasmusen were not speaking as a private citizen, it is possible that his claims should still be protected because of the value of academic freedom. Courts have consistently ruled that academic speech—speech related to teaching and scholarship—is deserving of special protections. There are compelling moral reasons for this position as well. The practice of putting forward ideas that are then critically evaluated by peers is essential to the pursuit of truth and justice. When only the dominant view can be expressed without consequences, that dominant view becomes dogma. Its adherents believe it, not as the result of patient and diligent investigation, but because they would be punished for pursuing alternatives.

On the other hand, there are some real moral costs associated with keeping Rasmusen on the faculty. He seems to be sympathetic to the idea that the presence of women diminishes the quality of a college education. In light of this, it would probably be rather difficult to feel comfortable as a female student in Rasmusen’s classes. His female colleagues are also likely to find the climate he has created very unpleasant. In addition, to treat the ideas expressed by Rasmusen as if they are just as likely to be true as any other competing idea ignores the fact that we have made significant progress on these issues in recent decades. It encourages the conclusion that there is no such thing as a settled moral issue. The crusade for women’s rights was predicated on the idea that, to borrow a phrase from Jean Paul Sartre, “existence precedes essence.” The attitudes that other people have about a woman’s “function,” shouldn’t construct limitations on who she can become. Autonomy is generally viewed as tremendously valuable, in part because of the role that it plays in self-creation. When views like Rasmusen’s are treated as if they are deserving of protection, the result is discouraging (to say the least) for women, particularly young college women who are just beginning to craft their own lives.

Finally, there is the issue of moral character. Rasmusen’s behavior on social media demonstrates either a misunderstanding of or disrespect for the role that he plays as an educator. The article focuses on the role that universities play in creating “geniuses.” Geniuses are rare, and genius isn’t obviously valuable for its own sake, its value depends on how it is used. This isn’t even close to the primary role of a public university. The role of a professor at such a university is to assist in developing a well-rounded, educated citizenry. Ideally, professors should be preparing students to live productive and meaningful lives. Good teaching requires empathy for students, and a genuine desire to understand the conditions under which they are apt to learn. Professors should remember that they are public figures. This means that before posting on social media, professors should reflect on the question of whether what they are posting will contribute to a negative classroom environment that might make it more difficult for certain students to learn.

Morality is a social enterprise, and young people look to adults in positions of authority to determine how they ought to behave. It may seem unfair that public figures carry more of a burden than others to conduct themselves reasonably and with dignity on social media platforms. Ideally, a person who has achieved a certain high level of influence values virtue and has worked hard to develop a strong moral character. People who care about character are the kinds of people who deserve to be in these positions in the first place. On social media and elsewhere, public figures should think carefully about the implications of their messages.

MAGA, Morality, and the Paradox of Tolerance

photograph of "Coexist" bumper sticker in back window of a BMW

In the last week, three incidents across the country highlight the central tension in the structure of the principle of tolerance. A crucial aspect of liberal society — societies that aspire to allow for a plurality of perspectives on what constitutes a good life — is that these perspectives must respect one another’s right to pursue their different visions of a good life. For a society to permit many valid ways of living, some form of toleration of those different lives must be a basic principle. When one value system considers a good life to include a restriction (such as in diet, type of relationship, clothing, or career options), those who disagree can live without the restriction while still acknowledging the restriction within that group. If another value system prioritizes a certain sort of pursuit (such as ritual, career, relationship goals, etc.), value systems that disagree can passively allow them to get on with their valued pursuit and simply not join in. Liberal societies assume that many different views on such matters are reasonable (and inevitable), and the need for tolerance will naturally arise. However, some particular conflicts between value systems don’t allow for passive acknowledgement and coexistence.

There are two potential reasons for these limitations: first, one could claim from a purportedly objective perspective that a value system was unreasonable and therefore didn’t qualify for respect or tolerance (say, it caused undue harm to its members or was based on certain empirical understanding the consensus rejected). Second, and of particular relevance this past week, society could be concerned that the value systems of some threaten either the possible pursuit of others’ good lives, or the continuation of society itself. This second form of concern with tolerance leads us to the Paradox of Tolerance, and three recent events highlight how such concern arises.

On October 9th, a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, put up signs on windows outside the College Republican club’s meeting room. The student used painters tape to label Trump an ignorant sexist, racist homophobe, and bigot. She calmly continued to put up the signs after a university employee approached and seemed to say, “Yeah, I’m sorry, you can’t do that.” The G.O.P. Badgers posted a video of the exchange on twitter calling the protesting student an example of the “intolerance from the left.” The student attempting to highlight Trump’s intolerance of women, non-cis people, non-straight people, and non-white people itself was labeled as morally problematic for being intolerant towards those supporting Trump. (The College Republicans made a statement standing behind the president in response to the protest). UW tweeted regarding the incident, noting that policies ban the posting of unapproved signs, and saying both that the university supports students’ right to free speech and civil discourse around political issues, and that the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards is reviewing the incident and will follow up as appropriate.

After a Trump rally in Minneapolis on the 11th of October, protesters removed the red MAGA hats from attendees’ heads and burned them. Groups supporting anti-war policies as well and women’s and immigrant’s rights had been protesting since the afternoon. At around 9:30pm, there are videos of the MAGA hats burning in a small fire, and at around 10pm, some protestors were seen chasing an identified Nazi. These acts of protest against the positions represented by Trump supporters have made some people hesitant to purchase or wear the hats in public. A city employee in Madison, WI, was asked not to wear a MAGA hat to work in May. These protesters are actively attempting to make it uncomfortable to be publicly associated with positions like Trump’s or his supporters. They are not tolerating a political position.

Last week, Ellen DeGeneres attended a Cowboys NFL game seated next to former President George W. Bush, and later defended her friendly demeanor throughout the game despite their differing political views. Bush not only advocated for the PATRIOT Act, which eroded civil rights in the US, he began wars that led to human rights abuses that now the majority acknowledge were unjustified. On top of his war crimes and his actions that led to thousands of deaths and countless instances of torture, Bush was an outspoken advocate for curtailing LGBT+ rights. Ellen defended her friendly interaction with the former president on her show, saying,

“Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them. When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean, ‘Be kind to everyone, it doesn’t matter.’”

This unqualified call to kindness is in line with the principle of tolerance and the value of public civility. However, it doesn’t acknowledge that there might be any constraint on those values. We could consider the constraints to take three forms:

First, DeGeneres’ tolerance of Bush’s repeated denial of LGBT+ folks like her the human rights straight folks like him have enjoyed brings to mind the famous James Baldwin quote: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” This standard for the limit of tolerance is rooted in justice and human rights. A value system should not be tolerated if it doesn’t equally respect the humanity of all. Tolerance here has a substantive constraint: in order to qualify for tolerance, a value system must respect the right of humans to exist. (Some of Bush’s policies failed to do this, as do some of Trump supporters’ positions now.)

The second constraint on tolerance is perhaps the most well-known in philosophical circles. Karl Popper coined the Paradox of Tolerance: “In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.” A society, according to Popper, that tolerated intolerance would end up destroyed by the intolerant party. Therefore, acting against intolerance is a collective act of self-preservation. The intolerance of Trump supporters, Bush, and Trump, according to this standard, is potentially society-destroying and cannot be tolerated.

John Rawls has a less strong view of intolerant groups, not believing they necessarily threatened the existence of society. Therefore, it is only when intolerant groups do reach this threshold of threat to the preservation of society that there is justification for not tolerating the intolerant. The principle of tolerance must be upheld, according to Rawls, in more scenarios than for Popper. Each value system or group would be judged based on its actual impact on the health of the society overall. If tolerating the presence or activity of a group or individual didn’t suitably threaten society, then we should tolerate it. In the case of the UW Madison protester and the MAGA hat burners, some have judged it is dangerous for Trump supporters to feel comfortable in our society. Whether Rawls would agree is unclear.

What is most clear, perhaps, is that the object of the Madison and Minneapolis protests, as well as the object of DeGeneres’ kindness, are themselves intolerant. The possibility of having a purely tolerant society is off the table. When the discourse becomes about whether or the extent to tolerate these intolerant views or groups, it is important to note that we are debating the application of our paradox, not simply worrying about having an intolerant view ourselves.

American Social Media Support of the Hong Kong Protests

photograph of protest in NYC with many participants streaming on iphones

Since March of this year, there have been protests in Hong Kong which have gained mainstream media attention and regular coverage since they began. The protests began over a bill proposed by the Hong Kong government that would have allowed for the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China if China’s government found them guilty of some crime.

Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, has a long history of more liberal and democratic governance than the mainland. When returned to China by the British in 1997, Hong Kongers were promised a policy of “two systems, one country.” However, many believed that this law would erode the independence of the Hong Kong government and the freedoms of its citizens. Mainland China is known for not being friendly to antagonistic voices, jailing those who dissent and censoring speech generally. While free speech is technically guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution, people can be arrested for endangering vaguely defined “state secrets” which allows for mass censorship. If a Hong Konger, used to the free speech protections afforded to a citizen of Hong Kong, dissented against the mainland government to such an extent that the Chinese government wished to arrest him for endangering state secrets, this proposed bill would allow him to be extradited to China. Essentially, the free speech of Hong Kong would become the “free speech” of China.

As these protests and confrontations between protestors and police grow more violent, Hong Kong is getting more attention from Western media and from Western social media. Many people on social media are calling for boycotts of the NBA and of Blizzard, a video game production company, for bowing to China in silencing employees supporting the Hong Kong protests. Far more are simply expressing support for the Hong Kong protests, a fact being taken advantage of by Hong Kong protestors. During the protestors’ occupation of the Hong Kong airport in August, signs like this one saying “Sorry for the inconvenience. We are fighting for the future of our home” made the rounds on social media. Importantly, the message on the sign was written in English, as are many of the signs used in the protests. While English was the official language until the 1970s, far more people know the local dialect of Chinese, Cantonese, than know English.

Clearly, the purpose of these signs being written on in English is for people to take photos of them and to spread them around on English-speaking social media rather than for other Hong Kongers or even mainland Chinese to read them. English-speaking nations and their people are typically very supportive of the sorts of liberal democratic values for which Hong Kongers are fighting. However, one has to wonder to what extent English-speakers, particularly Americans, should be spreading these Hong Kongers’ messages around.

The United States has a long history of intervention in the affairs of foreign nations. Some people believe that this period of intervention should end, that Americans and the American government should focus on domestic affairs instead of sticking their noses into the affairs of others. People point to the chaos in the Middle East, or the historic meddling of the US in Latin America to demonstrate the common proverb that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

As China would have people see it, the Hong Kong protests are an internal affair (for discussion see Tucker Sechrest’s “The Hong Kong Protests and International Obligation”). Rather than fighting for freedom, mainland Chinese people and a portion of Hong Kongers see protestors as damaging social stability. Indeed, in response to the Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of the protests, the Chinese consulate in Houston said that “anybody with conscience would support the efforts made by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to safeguard Hong Kong’s social stability.” If Americans have anything to say about the protests, China says, it should be in support of normal governmental processes working to resolve the conflict and maintain stability. Supporting the protestors, no matter one’s personal beliefs on the issue, clearly is disrupting the social order. Roads are sparse and hotel rooms are cheap as tourists decline to visit. Fights between protestors and police are regular. Typically, when the US destabilizes another country’s governmental authority, collapse and chaos follow.

At the same time, while there are clear examples of US intervention going wrong, especially when it is militaristic and government-backed, it is not clear that a bunch of Americans tweeting in support of the protests will cause the same damage. For a long time, people’s social media posts in support of this or that social issue, especially with regards to protests, were labeled examples of “slacktivism” and “virtue-signalling.” The idea is that the posts people make on social media do not foment any real social change but are selfish attempts for people to make themselves look like good people. In essence, some claim that people posting about the protests do not care enough to actually support the protestors, but are simply “making it about themselves.”

Ultimately, however, this analysis falls apart when social networks are analyzed. Research out of NYU and University of Pennsylvania shows that “occasional contributors,” that is, people who are not political activists, posting about this sort of thing constantly, are vital for information about the protests to spread. Importantly, this pattern, dependent on occasional contributors, was not found in other large scale social media discussions, such as about the Oscars or the minimum wage. Hong Kong protestors recognize this fact as, again, demonstrated by their use of English in their protests. To get real change, even a ton of protestors on a small island off the coast of China cannot act alone. Rather, Hong Kong protestors, if they want their government to be pressured need to get the attention of the powerful English-speaking nations of the world. Social media posts bubble upward with even world leaders eventually taking heed of them. Donald Trump has even suggested talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping as a result of this social media attention, he himself tweeting about it.

Whether the United States, its government or its people, should be commenting on or intervening in the domestic affairs of other nations is an open question. However, it is undeniable that the Hong Kong protestors, if they are to maintain their liberal democratic society, need the support of other nations. And, that support is greatly influenced, in nations with free speech, by the most common avenue of political speech today, social media. As is often said “the revolution will not be televised,” but, as we see today, it might be tweeted.

When Is Comedy Over the Line? The Departure of Shane Gillis from SNL

photograph of Radio City Music Hall

Earlier this month, the famous sketch comedy program Saturday Night Live announced that Shane Gillis would be joining the troupe. The comedian was allegedly cast in an attempt to appeal to more conservative potential viewers. In recent years, the show has been perceived by many to have a liberal bias, and its creators wanted to draw more politically diverse viewership. Several days later, however, SNL announced that Gillis would not be joining the cast after all. The show’s representatives acknowledged that they cast Gillis on the basis of the strength of his audition, but failed to adequately vet him before offering him the job. In the days immediately following the casting announcement, comedic material surfaced that many found appalling. A good number of the offensive remarks came from a podcast co-hosted by Gillis in which he makes unambiguously racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic remarks. There are also recordings of Gillis making rape jokes and mocking people with disabilities.

This is not the first time a comedic institution has decided to part ways with Gillis over the nature of his comedy. The Good Good Comedy Theater, a prominent Philadelphia Comedy Club, tweeted the following,

We, like many, were very quickly disgusted by Shane Gillis’ overt racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia – expressed both on and off stage – upon working with him years ago. We’ve deliberately chosen not to work with him in the years since.

This event had an impact on the national stage more broadly. On one of his podcasts, Gillis referred to presidential candidate Andrew Yang using a series of racial slurs.

Yang replied to Gillis on Twitter, saying:

Shane — I prefer comedy that makes people think and doesn’t take cheap shots. But I’m happy to sit down and talk with you if you’d like. For the record, I do not think he should lose his job. We would benefit from being more forgiving rather than punitive. We are all human.

It appears that Yang opted to take a measured and forgiving approach during a politically challenging time. Not everyone agrees with his strategy, but plenty of people also disagree with the choice made by SNL.

Some support for Gillis was grounded in concerns about free speech. To the extent that these are concerns about Gillis’ constitutional rights, they are misguided. Our first amendment rights to freedom of speech are rights we have against governmental restrictions of or punishment for speech, not rights we have against private individuals or institutions. SNL is not constitutionally obligated to retain any particular cast member, especially if they believe that cast member will damage their product.

Charitably, however, even if the concern is not a constitutional matter, one may still think that there are moral issues dealing with freedom of speech more broadly. Some of these considerations have to do with comedy specifically. Comedy plays a special role in society. Comedians shine a light on power dynamics within cultures, challenge our existing paradigms, and provide us with a cathartic outlet for dealing with our frustrations.

A third set of free speech concerns has to do with call out culture. Contemporary generations live in a world that is far removed from the one occupied by their ancestors. Our past speech is no longer lost to memory—if we say something online, it’s there forever. Some argue that we should have some freedom to make mistakes, especially in youth, that won’t spell ruin for our careers later in life. We are all human, after all, and forgiveness is a virtue. That said, it’s worth noting that many of the problematic comments made by Gillis were made earlier this year.

Others argue that SNL did the right thing. It is certainly true that we all make mistakes, and that all of us have said things that we later wish that we hadn’t. Nevertheless, Gillis’ behavior does not seem to be behavior of that type. The offensive jokes he made were not aberrations that it would be appropriate to view as juvenile mistakes. These behaviors were routine, habitual, part of his comedy style. What’s more, Gillis only appeared to demonstrate remorse for the content of these jokes when he was in the national spotlight, called out in public space to do so. Many viewed his apology as insincere.

Many critics of Gillis would agree that comedy serves an important social function. But, they might argue, there is a difference between being pushing the comedic envelope and being the equivalent of a schoolyard bully. If your child started a YouTube channel dedicated to mercilessly mocking his peers, you’d be likely to punish him and/or get him counseling rather than praising his creativity.

Critics may argue further that SNL tends to be a collection of the best comedic talent this country has to offer. People work for years to develop a background that makes them qualified to be a cast member. If a person wants a job with a high level of prestige and public attention, that person needs to be attentive to their character development generally. Impressive opportunities should be reserved for impressive people. Or, at the very least, genuinely apologetic people.

What’s more, inclusion of Gillis in the program doesn’t do conservatives any favors, and it doesn’t honor the viewership that SNL is attempting to generate. Reasonable, ethical republicans will certainly object to the characterization of Gillis’ brand of humor as “conservative.”

A further controversy has to do with the way in which presidential candidate Andrew Yang handled this issue. Yang has attempted to brand himself as a candidate from outside of traditional politics, stressing a message of civil discourse intended to have broad appeal. Some view his engagement with Gillis to be tone deaf when it comes to race. Many feel that the message that should be sent to Gillis is that his comedy isn’t funny, it’s offensive. No one is trying to censor or stifle his speech. Gillis is free to work in the kinds of venues for which such behavior is not a deal breaker. He can say what he wants, but if what he wants to say is cruel, perhaps society will not be willing to pay him lots of money in support of those kinds of messages.

The Free-Speech Defense and a Defense of Free Speech

Image of two human stick-figures arguing

Of the things about which people across the political spectrum deeply care, morally and politically, freedom of speech is very highly valued – even if there are disagreements about exactly what it licenses you to say and what, if any, caveats should be placed upon it. In recent years free speech has emerged as a hot topic for conservatives – often taking the form of pushback against ‘political correctness.’ The view that ‘liberal’ or ‘left-wing elites’ are trying to silence those who do not gel with a progressive social agenda is a particular flashpoint. 

Yet, in these quarters, one detects a pattern which suggests that the principle itself is not quite what is at stake: those calling for freedom of speech or decrying its endangerment are often simply defending a desire (viewed by them as a right) to say certain things against others for whom those things are offensive or harmful (for examples see my “Separating the Freedom of Religion from the Right to Discriminate” or Kenneth Boyd’s “Online Discourse and the Demand for Civility” also on this site). In many such scenarios there is a legitimate question over whether certain brands of archconservative really are staunch supporters of the principle of free speech ‘all the way down,’ or whether there is a tendency to use the concept as a way of crying foul when someone calls out the noxious content of their views.       

Something like this seems to be the case in a political stoush that has erupted in Australia over the inaugural Australian Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC to be held in Sydney this week. The conference is backed by the powerful American Conservative Union (ACU), and speakers include Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, former Australian prime minister, climate change denier and staunch opponent of marriage equality Tony Abbott, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, Raheem Kassam, editor-in-chief of Breitbart and an especially noxious misogynistic loudmouth, One Nation politician Mark Latham

The caliber of speakers and the conference agenda has many people worried about the echo-chamber of right-wing ideology, as well as the growing influence of American-style firebrand conservatism on Australia. The ACU’s executive director Dan Schneider and ACU chairman Matt Schlapp have joined forces with the Australian right-wing think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the conservative campaign group Advance Australia – two of the event’s major sponsors.

High-profile opposition Labor senator Kristina Keneally criticized the conference, labeling it as a “talkfest of hate,” and called on the government to deny a visa to Raheem Kassam, citing Kassam’s suggestion that Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s mouth and legs should be taped shut “so she can’t reproduce.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended several of his government’s MP’s speaking at the event on the grounds of “the principles of freedom of thought, speech, expression and association.” Daniel Wild, the IPA’s director of research and a speaker at the event, called Keneally’s criticisms “yet another example of how Labor wants to stifle free speech, open discussion and dialogue in Australia. This is a threat to democracy.” Donald Trump Jr. weighed in tweeting: “one of the major political parties in Australia is trying to silence Raheen Kassam because of his conservative views. The insanity needs to stop!”

Free speech is, according to all these defenses, under attack. Luckily, the conference agenda will have this important topic covered. The conference organizer Andrew Cooper said that “It will include a lot of discussion on free speech, and what I would call the authoritarian left’s opposition to it.” 

Freedom of speech is a core tenet of old school political liberalism. The best-known formulation of the argument for freedom of speech is still to be found in John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty, published in 1859. Mill may be regarded as the father of political liberalism and the book is still one of its central texts. 

A central concern for Mill was the limitation of the coercive power of the state on the freedom of the individual. Mill’s argument for the freedom of thought and discussion is given in chapter 2 of On Liberty, and in it he aims to show that there should be no attempt “to control the expression of opinion.” He argues that truth or falsity of an opinion cannot be a deciding factor in whether that opinion is disseminated, because such a judgment cannot always be made in advance – and if such a judgment cannot always be made with certainty, then it should never be made at all – just in case the judgment turns out to be wrong. In other words, it is better to let some falsehoods roam free than to imprison a truth. 

Mill also thinks that exposure to all views, however erroneous or harebrained, will actually help people’s capacity to discern between truth and falsehood: whether an opinion is true or false, its being aired will, in either case, be useful for discovering and maintaining the truth — and as such should be welcome. To assume that because one thinks a view is false it should be suppressed, Mill argues, is to assume infallibility of one’s beliefs. Yet, he thinks, all of our beliefs must remain open to revision in possible light of further observation. As such, discussion must remain free – even on issues that we think are established with certainty. Mill argues that people are rarely in the position to see the “whole truth” for themselves, and the only way for it to emerge is by “the reconciling and combining of opposites.”

The point, for Mill, is that a liberal democratic society cannot afford to compromise on the principle of absolute freedom of speech because every which way lies the possible suppression of truth, inflated assumptions about one’s own possession of it, and the possibility of the fallibility of one’s views. 

But also, fundamental to Mill’s view is that the truth, or the ‘right’ opinions will ultimately win out; and that prevails upon a particular view of the public’s engagement with political life, commitment to rational and critical thinking, and capacity to detect and then ostracize false opinions. 

Mill’s liberalism puts a lot of faith in individuals as the best judges of whether a viewpoint is truthful and whether it deserves attention and assent. That Mill puts such faith in individuals is one of his philosophy’s merits, and also one of its pitfalls. It is arguable that recent political events in Australia, the USA, and Britain (not to mention many other countries) suggest this expectation may be too optimistic. It is also possible to point to other reasons for such developments which Mill may not have accounted for, such as dangerous forms of populism and demagoguery. 

Nevertheless, support for Mill’s argument for freedom of speech remains solid, and one of its consequences, or costs, is certainly the airing of opinions and views we may not agree with or may not like. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison makes a defense of the CPAC conference almost worthy of Mill in arguing that the way to defeat “unacceptable views is through debate.” 

Two further points are worth noting, as some evocations of freedom of speech as a defense for the airing of certain views don’t quite fit the picture of free speech Mill envisaged. 

First, Mill argues that offensive, incendiary or harmful opinions are not likely to fulfill the role of helping to bring truth to light, and thus do not deserve an equal hearing and do not constitute the kind of ‘debate’ that Morrison apparently wants to defend. 

The second point is that defending the principle of free speech is one thing, and it is generally a good thing, but it does not justify the content expressed. To defend offensive views through reference to the principle of free speech is disingenuous. A leader does not have to hide behind freedom of speech – but is perfectly free to defend the right while also disavowing the message.

Pastor Fritts, the First Amendment, and Public and Private Reason

photograph of Knox County Sheriff's seal

On June 19th, a restaurant in Tennessee declined to host an event sponsored by a local church group after the church’s pastor made headlines calling for the state-sponsored execution of LGBTQ individuals. All Scripture Baptist Church, an independent congregation in Knoxville led by pastor (and former deputy of the Knox County Sheriff’s office) Grayson Fritts, had planned to hold a ‘Small Town Soul Winning’ event at a Cracker Barrel in Cleveland, TN, but a campaign sparked by the Tennessee Democratic Party quickly led to the popular southern-comfort restaurant chain issuing a statement citing their “zero-tolerance policy for discriminatory treatment or harassment of any sort” as well as their strict prohibition of “any type of protest or public demonstration” on company property. They have advised Fritts and his group that they will not be welcome at any of their locations.

In addition to his hateful comments (which likened LGBTQ people to “freaks” who were “infesting the nation,” called homosexuality a “capital crime” that should be punished with death, and named diseases like HIV and AIDS “their reward for engaging in this kind of behavior”), Pastor Fritts attracted national attention because of his bivocational position as a Knox County sheriff’s deputy. Though Fritts was asked to take a buyout offer for his position and has been placed on leave until it takes effect next month, he has been a government employee for nearly twenty years.

A case like this presents several interesting conflicts: for example, a private citizen publicly calling for violence against a marginalized group is something which clearly violates both ethical and legal norms. Particularly if Fritts’ words incited physical violence, we might rightfully expect him to be held accountable for them. However, Fritts as citizen has not (evidently) engaged in physical violence, and has expressed his homophobic preferences under the guise of his religious faith a category we often take to allow for unusual exceptions for what’s allowed in the realm of speech (if not of other forms of action). If Mr. Fritts thinks that his spirituality entails his anti-LGBTQ position, then he might well expect the freedoms of the First Amendment (including the freedom of speech and religious practice) to protect his expressions from governmental oversight, however unpopular they might be (and provided they do not inspire anyone to action).

However, in addition to his pastoral position, Fritts had (until placed on leave as a consequence of his comments) served as a deputy in the Knox County sheriff’s department. His suggestion that the state should prosecute members of the LGBTQ community, leads to immediate questions about Fritts’ capability to fairly serve as an officer of the law. If the homophobia in his sermon evidenced his true convictions about social policy, then it seems unlikely he would be able to protect and serve the citizens whom he thought deserving of moral punishment. Following the public outcry over his inability to perform his duties in light of his sermon’s content, Fritts was removed from active duty and will soon leave the department.

Western philosophers frequently discuss the importance of free speech, often treating it as one of, if not the, foundation upon which philosophical inquiry can stand. In chapter two of On Liberty, for example, John Stuart Mill famously defended “the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.” Granted that they did not incite violence, Mill would generally support Fritts-the-citizens’ expressions not because he would necessarily agree with the message, but rather because Mill would agree with the quip from Evelyn Beatrice Hall (often mis-attributed to her friend Voltaire or, sometimes, to the American Patrick Henry) that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Although he too valued free inquiry, Immanuel Kant took a different approach to the free expression of that inquiry. In his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?,” Kant explains how the social roles we inhabit limit how we can rightfully behave. When functioning as the representative of an organization – as one does when they wear a uniform or speak in an official capacity – Kant calls this the “private” use of reason (since the speaker’s reasoning abilities are being applied to the private purposes of the group); when arguing on one’s own behalf – in, say, self-published writings under one’s own name – this is Kant’s “public” use of reason.1 Because the development of widespread public use of reason is essential for the continued development of society (“enlightenment”) overall, Kant thought that it should be free in a roughly Millian sense. However, the private use of reason can be rightly constrained in all sorts of ways particularly if the private application of one person’s reason could limit the public use of another’s.

For example, Kant points out how an officer on duty cannot criticize his orders without undermining the authority of his office; when representing his duties as an officer, the soldier is restricted to obeying his superiors, but when speaking “publicly” as an individual citizen, “he could not rightfully be prevented from taking notice of the mistakes in the military service and from submitting his views to his public for its judgment.” Or, similarly, Kant talks about how citizens are obligated as citizens to pay their taxes, but they are free (as individuals) to express doubts about the propriety of those taxes. This two-tiered split between the public and private spaces is a hallmark feature of post-Enlightenment thinking.

What, then, was Fritts’ sermon doing? Was it the public expression of an individual simply speaking his mind? Or was Fritts acting as a representative of a particular office?

Kant clearly would think the latter. His primary example of a private use of reason which can be easily abused is the office of clergymember who defines certain dogmas as ‘orthodox’ to limit the freedom of church members’ thinking. To Kant, preachers should preach within the boundaries of their ordination; if a preacher wishes to go beyond those doctrines in their personal writings or conversations, they are free to do so – but such distinctions should be clearly marked. By saying anything from the pulpit, it is implied that this is the official position of the organization, just as how saying anything while wearing a uniform lends the authority of that uniform to the words. It is imperative for Kant that individuals like Mr. Fritts, who (at the time) carried both governmental and ecclesial power, make clear in what mode they are speaking – as representatives of their respective organizations or as free individuals with opinions of their own.

Because Fritts was speaking not just as Mr. Fritts, but as Pastor Fritts, Kant would likely support cautionary limitations on his freedom of speech insofar as Fritts’ words conflict with the cohesive message of his religious community as a whole. These restrictions might not take the form of legal proscriptions from the state, but would be the responsibility of the (in-theory) misrepresented group itself to restrain their rogue member. The fact that Fritts’ particular congregation is aligned with his perspective simply means that it would fall to his wider faith community as a whole to condemn his speech and the entirety of the small church body’s viewpoint.

Furthermore, by failing to distinguish between Mr. Fritts, Pastor Fritts, and Officer Fritts, Kant would condemn the improper confusion of multiple public roles. Kant points out in “What is Enlightenment?” that anyone who does believe things contradictory to their office “would not be able to administer his office with a clear conscience. He would have to resign it.” Because Fritts’ speech has given clear evidence that his biases reveal underlying convictions contradictory to a police officer’s oath of public service, Kant would likely doubt Fritts’ ability to perform his sheriff’s duties in the proper way and support his professional removal.

So, as with many things in Kant, the conclusion here is complicated, but at least one thing is clear: he saw the cooptation of another person’s thinking as downright sacrilege, as well as the likely result of misrepresenting a group’s identity. Because enlightenment requires everyone to be able to think for themselves without relying on others to do it for them, Kant thought that everyone should be free to think and argue whatever they like – but in order to think rightly, we need to be able to trust that the representatives of an organization fairly reflect their group. For Pastor Fritts to ostensibly speak for a centuries-old faith community with billions of members worldwide (many of whom are members of the very marginalized group he slandered) – obligates him to treat his words more carefully.

Perhaps this is, in part, why Mr. Fritts’ own Bible cautions people from becoming teachers, lest they “receive the greater condemnation” (James 3:1).


1 Notice that this is roughly backwards from how we often talk about the ‘private’ and ‘public’ categories today. Many thanks to both @ergo_praxis and Florence Bacus (@morallawwithin) for their assistance in clarifying this tricky point of Kant’s. Any confusion of mine that remains is certainly despite their efforts.

Camille Paglia and Campus Free Speech

Photograph of empty seats in university lecture hall

Camille Paglia has long been a magnet for controversy. The writer and academic first made waves in 1990 with her controversial work Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Emily Dickinson to Nefertiti, an exploration of the Western canon of the visual arts. One reviewer, summarizing the backlash against the piece, described it as “profoundly anti-feminist”. Paglia, who has been teaching at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia since 1984 and currently holds a tenured position, is once again making headlines for her divisive views. Early this month, a group of UArts students, described by The Atlantic as “a faction of art-school censors,” started a an online petition (which has nearly reached its goal of 1,500 signatures) demanding that she either be removed from her teaching position or that alternative classes be offered to students who wish to avoid contact with her. In the description of the petition, the students explain that,

“[Paglia] believes that most transgender people are merely participating in a fashion trend (‘I question whether the transgender choice is genuine in every single case’), and that universities should not consider any sexual assault cases reported more than six months after the incident, because she thinks those cases just consist of women who regret having sex and falsely see themselves as victims.”

Paglia’s views on sexual assault are well-documented. In a lecture she gave on what she called the “victim mentality” of young college-aged women in the #MeToo era, Paglia said that “girls have been coached now to imagine that the world is a dangerous place, but not one that they can control on their own […] They’re college students and they expect that a mistake that they might make at a fraternity party and that they may regret six months later or a year later, that somehow this isn’t ridiculous?” She complains, “To me, it is ridiculous that any university ever tolerated a complaint of a girl coming in six months or a year after an event. If a real rape was committed go frigging report it.”

The transgender students and survivors of sexual assault who started the petition have expressed deep discomfort with her continued prominence at the university, to which Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic responds, “Even if students who feel that way should be able to avoid Paglia’s classes, they should not try to impose their preferences on their peers.” Friedersdorf further argues that her views cannot possibly be harmful to actual transgender people, because 1) Paglia identifies as transgender herself and 2) her writing is theoretical, and therefore, he claims, doesn’t have the power to influence the daily lives of trans people or shape government policy.

In many ways, this story feels like another chapter in the ongoing debate over free speech in universities. This situation is unusual in that Paglia is a tenured professor who is being condemned by students from within her own institution, but in most ways the controversy over her views speaks to a number of concerns in the free speech debate. Perhaps most saliently, it asks us to examine whether or not students (even a minority of students) should have the power to determine who should or should not be a member of their faculty. We also have to consider the effect hateful rhetoric spouted in an academic setting can have outside of the classroom, and whether or not sexist thought can exist in a harmless vacuum like Friedersdorf suggests.

A number of states, including Oklahoma and Maine, are currently deliberating over bills protecting the right to free speech on university campuses. These bills are mainly in reaction to “free-speech zones,” special areas on college campuses committed to unrestricted expression. These zones are supposed to protect a wide range of activity, from student-led demonstrations to lectures from visiting speakers. The Oklahoma and Maine legislation challenges the constitutionality of these zones, as marking off an area as safe for free speech implies that the rest of the campus is not. Another free-speech bill recently proposed in Missouri, which also seeks to expand the free speech of students, advises that “faculty should be careful not to introduce matters that have no relationship to the subject taught, especially matters in which they have no special competence or training.” This approach to the free-speech debate is one possible response to Paglia’s case, considering that she does not teach sociology or gender studies and therefore has no training in those areas. But some are concerned that Missouri’s solution, which is constructed to both expand the rights of students and protect faculty from provoking controversy, may be antithetical to the purpose of education.  

UArts, it seems, has taken a different approach to addressing student issues. In the wake of protests against Paglia, the president of the university sent a letter to the student body defending Paglia’s position and right to intellectual freedom, unambiguously shooting down any hope of her losing tenure.

In a lecture on free speech, Paglia said that “we have got to stop this idea that we must make life ‘easy’ for people in school […] Maybe the world is harsh and cruel, and maybe the world of intellect is challenging and confrontational and uncomfortable. Maybe we have to deal with people who hate us, directly, face-to-face.” She argues that “it does not help you to develop your identity by putting a cushion between yourself and the hateful reality that’s out there.” But in situations like this, it always ends up being students, many of whom come from vulnerable or otherwise marginalized positions, who are forced to accommodate the views of “controversial” professors and become exposed to ideas that denigrate their very right to personhood, not the other way around.

Pinterest’s Block on Anti-Vaccination Content

Photograph of hands of a scientist, under a sterile hood, preparing a vaccine

Pinterest, the good-natured social media site where users re-pin new ideas and things to try, has made recent headlines for their stance against anti-vaccination propaganda. In fall 2018, Pinterest quietly removed results to vaccination-related questions from the search bar.  Now, when you type “vaccine” or “anti-vax,” a pop-up will relay that there is no related content and will provide a link to the community guidelines. Reported first by the Wall Street Journal, Pinterest finally disclosed their choice to censor the questionable health claims made by anti-vaccination groups.

Pinterest’s decision to block vaccines in their search domain was widely based on the fact that the site had become a hub for anti-vaccination activists. These groups aim to educate parents regarding the dangers of vaccinations but with theories that are unsupported by peer-reviewed, scientific research. The tactics used are typically fear-inducing photographs or stories about harm to children caused by vaccinations without any scientific proof. The groups claim to offer parents the “most transparency” but also don’t mention the dangers of not vaccinating. Pinterest’s response aimed to discontinue the spread of misinformation and falsehoods on their website.

When it comes to vaccines, the spread of misinformation could have a devastating impact on individuals and the society. There has been an increase in confusion and mistrust among the public when it comes to vaccines in general. One of the most noteworthy fear-causing publications was by the doctor Andrew Wakesfield, who suggested a connection between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the development of autism in young children. Although deemed fraudulent, it is considered the beginning of the anti-vaccination movement. This movement is equally seen in the cases of influenza in America. Last year during the 2017-2018 season, there was a record-breaking number of hospitalizations and deaths among children in the US with less than half of Americans receiving the flu shot. It is because of these that World Health Organization (WHO) has recently listed the anti-vaccine movement a top health threat for 2019. When Pinterest decided to curtail vaccine-related content on their site public, it raised the question; should social media censor for misinformation?

Pinterest’s new policy stems from the fear that misinformation can have “detrimental effects on a pinner’s health or on public safety.” The guidelines officially state that the website bans the “promotion of false cures for terminal or chronic illnesses and anti-vaccination advice.” A report found in 2016 claimed that 75 percent of posts on Pinterest referring to vaccines were negative. In addition, other studies have found that 80 percent of mothers and 38 percent of fathers in the US have used Pinterest. It is likely that mothers and fathers, looking for advice regarding their children’s heath, ran across posts on Pinterest with anti-vaccination rhetoric. One could argue that media sites have an obligation to censor this kind of propaganda for public health and safety reasons. On the other hand, even well-intentioned censorship threatens to intrude on our rights protecting free speech (also discussed in this Prindle Post article about the case of Alex Jones).

With a website that is used by mothers and fathers, restricting these groups’ ability to voice their concerns or opinions could be seen as a commentary on parenting styles. Vaccine hesitancy is often caused from worries about side effects, cost, moral or religious obligations, or lack of knowledge about immunizations. There is value in the autonomy that parents have in choosing whether or not to vaccinate their children because they have the right to make medical decisions focused around their own values. In addition, who is to say whose opinion is more valid regarding vaccinations? Who’s to say which opinions deserve censure? Pinterest approached this issue in banning all vaccine-related information, reputable or not. This absolute censorship, while avoiding the bias of what is considered a reputable source, could also be seen as problematic. It is taking the opportunity away from readers to decide for themselves what sources they think are credible or not and through Pinterest they cannot be educated on the subject to any extent. A spokesperson from Pinterest, Jamie Favazza says, “Right now, blocking results in search is a temporary solution to prevent people from encountering harmful misinformation.”

Vaccine misinformation isn’t only a Pinterest problem; other social media outlets like YouTube and Twitter have been infiltrated by vaccination misinformation as well. YouTube’s policy doesn’t allow ads for anti-vaccine videos. Twitter has no specific policy on the matter. A spokesperson for Twitter, Katie Rosborough, said that “We, as a company, should not be the arbiter of truth,” and also added that, “the company was working to surface the highest-quality and most relevant content first.”

Social media represents an open platform for people to voice interests and create spaces that unite beliefs. But should some spaces not exist and should some beliefs not be circulated? In the case of anti-vaccine movement, people continue to adhere to their beliefs which further energizes the movement and polarizes the theories. With our ever-growing reliance on social media for information, social media outlets have a reason to worry about the ramifications of their content, especially in influencing user’s decisions about their health.

The Dangers and Ethics of Social Media Censorship

"Alex Jones" by Sean P. Anderson licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

Alex Jones was removed from Youtube and other major social networks for repeatedly violating the site’s community guidelines. Among other things, Youtube’s community guidelines prohibit nudity or sexual content, harmful or dangerous content, violent or graphic content, and most relevant to this situation, hateful content and harassment. While the site describes its products as “platforms for free expression,” it also states in the same policy section that it does not permit hate speech. How both can be true simultaneously is not entirely clear to me.

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Pronouns and Provocateurs: Wilfrid Laurier University’s Free Speech Controversy

A photo of an academic building at Wilfrid Laurier University

At the beginning of November, Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University,  made the fateful decision to show a video clip of a debate about pronouns to her tutorial for students in a large first-year writing class. The debate, which aired on Canadian public television a year ago, featured firebrand Jordan Peterson, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto and a crusader against political correctness.

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Free Riders, Agency Fees, and the Fairness of Public Sector Unions

A low-angle shot of the U.S. Supreme Court

An upcoming case in the United States Supreme Court could have significant effects on the state of the American Labor Movement: Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. At stake is whether public sector unions can require employees who have not joined the union to pay agency fees—fees that go to exclusively cover the costs of negotiating the labor contract that covers all workers at a workplace, union members and non-members alike. If the court were to rule against the legality of required agency fees, this would overturn a previous Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which held that agency fees were allowable, just so long as those fees were not used for the political or ideological activities of the union.

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Democratic Equality and Free Speech in the Workplace

A close-up photo of the google logo on a building

Numerous news outlets have by now reported on the contentious memo published by former Google employee, James Damore, in which he criticized his former employer’s efforts to increase diversity in their workforce. The memo, entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber: How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion,” claims that Google’s diversity efforts reflect a left-leaning political bias that has repressed open and critical discussion on the fairness and effectiveness of these efforts. Moreover, the memo surmises that the unequal representation of men and women in the tech business is due to natural differences in the distribution of personality traits between men and women, rather than sexism.

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Social Media, Blasphemy, and Protecting People from Speech

The norms of communication on social media are evolving quickly. In the first death penalty case involving social media, a court in Pakistan has sentenced a man to death for blasphemy. Though Taimoor Raza still has appeals remaining that he can avail himself of, this verdict has come days after a college professor was refused bail on charges of blasphemy; the attitude of the state towards such online offenses seems clear.

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Facebook Live’s Violence Problem

On the evening of Easter Sunday, 74-year-old Pennsylvania resident Robert Godwin was enjoying a walk through his neighborhood after a holiday meal with his family when he was approached, at random, by self-described “monster” Steve Stephens.  Stephens, who was given the moniker “The Facebook Killer” by the media, blamed what was about to happen to Godwin on his broken relationship with his girlfriend, before shooting Godwin in the head, killing him instantly.  

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Free Speech and Passport Fraud: On CNN’s Ban from Venezuela

Progressives in the United States are decidedly against the policies and ideology of Donald Trump. And, predictably, when President Trump has displayed aggressiveness towards CNN and other media outlets, these progressives uphold the values of free speech. Yet, last month, CNN was expelled from Venezuela, a country whose socialist regime has been lauded by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, and other visible figures of the left. There has been little (if any) uproar over this. This is at best inconsistent, and at worst hypocritical.

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The Berkeley Protests, Shock Jocks and Free Speech

On the evening of February 1st, 2017, protestors burst through lines of zip-tied metal fencing to flood a building at the University of California, Berkley.   Some protesters wore masks, and others threw red paint on members of the College Republicans.  Windows were smashed and fires were started.  This chaos was caused by disapproval on the part of many Berkeley students to the invited speaking engagement of Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial conservative commentator and technology editor for Breitbart.

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