How About Defending Speech Because It's Speech, Not Because You Agree With It?

Earlier today, in the course of discussing possible jackass/possible troll/possible mentally ill person George Tierney, Jr., I asked people to consider calling out vengeful would-be censors because they are vengeful would-be censors, not because the victim of the moment is on "our side":

Political differences are meaningful, and should not be disregarded, but recognition of mutual humanity is often productive, and there are few more common human experiences than encountering crazy douchebags on the internet. In addition, we all have a stake in calling out, and opposing, censorship.

I'd like to expand upon that theme.

Last week I blogged about how convicted bomber and perjurer Brett Kimberlin pursued blogger Aaron Worthing, and linked to Aaron's story about how he was fired, and falsely charged with a crime, as a result of Kimberlin's vengeful efforts to silence him. Since Aaron released his story, many people have written about it. This is a good thing. It's a story that ought to be told. Moreover, there are legitimate partisan political elements to this story — like the question of why certain leftist political activists associate with Kimberlin, and why some entities donate to Kimberlin's organizations. For that matter, the various people who wrote about Kimberlin and incurred his wrath may have been motivated, at least in part, by partisan politics.

But to me, the core of Aaron's story is not about partisan politics. It's about freedom of expression, and how it can be attacked by frivolous litigation, by threats to employers, and by other such contemptible measures. Some of the responses to Aaron's story recognize that. But others do not — other responses frame this as a story about Left vs. Right.

I'll cite Michelle Malkin as an example, though she is by far the only one. Fair disclosure: I often disagree with Michelle Malkin and this site has criticized her before. In her post discussing Aaron's story, she quoted and linked us, which I appreciate. However, I must dissent from her framing of the issue: "Free speech blogburst: Show solidarity for targeted conservative bloggers." In a better world, this issue should be framed as "Free speech blogburst: show solidarity for targeted bloggers." Protecting freedom of expression, and condemning its enemies, benefits everyone — conservatives, liberals, and so forth.

We've talked about legal (and other) threats against all sorts of expression here, and occasionally been able to lend a hand. We've talked about lawsuits against former parishioners criticizing churches, threats against artists criticizing how Etsy is run, Democratic senators lashing out at parody, various legislatures of different political stripes posturing about "cyber-bullying," junk scientists suing critics, the TSA "cautioning" journalists, colleges threatening alumni critical of their new administrations, twerps threatening me for making fun of them for threatening critics of junk scientists, and and libel suits springing from book reviews. And that's just 2012.

What this diversity of topics shows is that legal threats — and threats of other forms of retaliation for speech — represent a pervasive problem in our culture, and are a deterrent of all sorts of speech, not just the speech you like. Say that someone sues, or threatens, or abuses someone whose ideas you despise, someone whose good faith you doubt, someone working for political or social ends you are struggling against. If that censor is successful in any measure, are you harmed? Yes. You are harmed because the next censor, the one gunning for you or someone you agree with — is emboldened. You are harmed because people, in general, are deterred from discussing controversial ideas. You are harmed because when censors are successful, censorship increasingly becomes the norm, and the populace's already tenuous support of principles of free expression ebb a little more.

That's why decent people ought to be unified behind protecting people like Aaron Worthing, and opposing people like Brett Kimberlin — not because we agree with one of them or the other. When the rallying cry is "protect conservatives from censorship by leftists" — or the reverse — the rallying cry is less effective, easier to ignore, easier to dismiss as mere partisanship. We shouldn't defend Aaron because of his political stance. We should defend him because in this country you should have the right to express yourself without a convicted domestic terrorist and his cronies harassing you with frivolous litigation and threats.

There is no need to agree with, or praise, or even treat respectfully the people we defend. For instance, when I wrote about Nadia Naffe's threats against blogger Patterico because of his support of James O'Keefe, I felt free to make fun of Naffe, O'Keefe, and (to a lesser extent) Patterico. And even though I said Evan S. Cohen was right on the law, he won't be thanking me any time soon for what I said about him. It's perfectly fine to say "this person is a jackass, this person is wrong, what this person urges is contemptible and awful — but this person should not be censored, and I stand against such censorship." That should be the message. "Stand against the censorship of our side is the wrong message. I'm disappointed to see so much of it in the wake of Aaron's posts. I think it is detrimental to the cause of free expression, and a boon to the censors, who will use it to portray the defense of free speech as just another instance of tiresome political bickering.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. perlhaqr says

    Hell yeah, dude.

    I think it's entirely too easy for us human tribal animals to get tied up in our tribal affiliations, and excuse offences from people on Team Us, and to double down on offences by Team Them.

  2. C. S. P. Schofield says

    Oh, hell, yes!

    I'm a 1st amendment extremist. I think, for example, that 'child porn' should only be photographic representations that make it clear that a child has been sexually abused. Drawings shouldn't cut it. Simple nudes, in situations where a child might reasonably be nude (baby on a sheepskin, or in a backyard wading pool, for example) shouldn't cut it. Yes, some creeps will 'get away' with that standard. So what? It is not the place of the State to punish all creeps.

    Now, where I part company from a lot of self declared First Amendment Warriors, is that I feel that freedom of speech and of the press should not mean a right to a podium or your printing cost. The National Endowment For The Arts funding of intentionally offensive 'art' is a travesty. Andres Serrano has an absolute right to submerge a crucifix in urine. He has no right to tax money for the display of same.

  3. Piper says

    It has become my Team over my Country, and it's really sad, especially when the lunatic side of fandom takes over.

  4. Piper says

    Especially when you are one who believes the principles of our Country are the things that should govern.

  5. AlphaCentauri says

    The NEA funding of artists is problematic all around. Art should challenge presuppositions and established beliefs. Even if we agreed it was okay for the government to use our money to fund things we find offensive, it seems counterintuitive that a government bureaucracy would be able to accurately identify art worth funding. To a certain extent, the best art is exactly what a government agency would be incapable of understanding.

  6. says

    Why should art challenge presuppositions and established beliefs? And why should "the best art" defy common understanding?

  7. ttl says

    I'm currently making my way through Heinliein's Future History stories and just came across this passage from "If This Goes On-"

    "For the first time in my life I was reading things which had not been approved by the Prophet's censors, and the impact on my mind was devastating. I would glance over my shoulder to see who was watching me, frightened in spite of myself. I began to sense faintly that secrecy is the keystone of all tyranny. Not force, but secrecy…censorship. When any government, or church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, "This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know," the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything-you can't conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him."

    I admit reading that passage made me eyes water a little. Thanks Ken for devoting so much of your time to exposing people like the Prophet and his censors.

  8. Sarahw says

    Kimberlin doesn't have a "side" except his own, or except how he might exploit one for his own enrichment.

    There will be a partisan story if anyone thinks his methods are worth getting behind or that he's "useful" somehow or that its a great idea to let a lifetime cheater of the law. let alone the tax code, to be given lots of money and not a lot of oversight.

    But the real story could apply to psychopath exploiter of the right or libertarian causes.

    People like that threaten everyone.

  9. C. S. P. Schofield says


    AlphaCentauri has bought in to the claptrap self-importance that has been poisoning the Arts since the early 19th century. Tom Wolfe (not Thomas, the guy who wrote THE RIGHT STUFF) probably dissected the whole mess as well as anyone. The two key books are THE PAINTED WORD and FRON BAUHAUS TO OUR HOUSE, but there are good essays touching on the subject in THE CANDY COLOR TANGERINE FLAKE STREAMLINED BABY and HOOKING UP.

  10. Damon says

    "We shouldn't defend Aaron because of his political stance. We should defend him because in this country you should have the right to express yourself without a convicted domestic terrorist and his cronies harassing you with frivolous litigation and threats."

    QFT. I read all the full posting by Aaron and what he went through is outrageous–all along the line. From Kimberline, to Mont. county, to his employer (although I can understand that somewhat). The judicial system was supposed to protect people and punnish the guilty, not be twisted into a tool to personally persecute someone by a third party. What a bunch of douches.

  11. nlp says

    I think what Judge Downes said in regard to Bill Ayers set the standard perfectly.

    "When his group was bombing the U.S. Capitol in 1971, I was serving in the uniform of my country. Even to this day, when I hear that name, I can scarcely swallow the bile of my contempt for it. But Mr. Ayers is a citizen of the United States who wishes to speak, and he need not offer any more justification than that."

    He hates the messenger, he hates the message, but he will defend both. That is a powerful commitment to the First Amendment.

  12. says

    @C. S. P. Schofield:


    Indeed, those were both very good.

    I found the latter a bit hard to stomach in parts, just because it was SO au courant and parts didn't date well at all (e.g. the essay on the Kustom Kar Kulture is still entirely relevant, but the radio DJ thing seemed like it was out of date and dated the next Monday morning).

  13. C. S. P. Schofield says


    If you haven't checked out the other two, you have a couple of treats in store. I agree that a lot of the essays in TANGERINE didn't age all that well, but they were snapshots of a moment in time, and as such they are interesting to me even now. For one thing, the pop culture has a way of recycling its cliches. I mean, how many sexually edgy vapid blond twit singers have we lived through now?

    I wish Wolfe would write more non-fiction and give up on novels. I know that the novels work for lots of people, but I like the essays better.

  14. Sparkylong says

    "Free speech blogburst: show solidarity for targeted bloggers." Protecting freedom of expression, and condemning its enemies, benefits everyone — conservatives, liberals, and so forth."

    This is the core truth within your words today, Ken.

  15. says

    Being scraped by InfoWars is apparently open license to be scraped by other people who are feeling blue. And by "feeling blue," I mean "taking colloidal silver."

  16. jeannebodine says

    And you have made it all about moralizing & self-righteous preening instead of focusing on the real human tragedy involved in the story.

  17. says

    Jeanne… Dear, sweet, stupid-as-fuck Jeanne…

    I'm fucking DATING one of the people involved in this story. I'm friends with Aaron. I've known Patterico for years…

    Liberty Chick (the one I'm dating, no offense I'm sure RSM is a great guy) even tweeted this post out.

    Who the holy fuck do you fucking think you are accusing Ken of that shit? Did you not read the fucking post all the way through?

    Or are you just that fucking stupid?

  18. says

    @C. S. P. Schofield

    > a lot of the essays in TANGERINE didn't age all that well, but they were snapshots of a moment in time

    Oh, clearly.

    Just painfully painfully DATED snapshots in time that were sometimes a bit hard to read in the same way that someone getting all gee-willikers about the newest fashions in buggy-whips is painful. ;-)

  19. Jess says

    JeanneBodine – what exactly got you banned from Mediaite – I'm just curious? Also, what exactly do you mean by the “real human tragedy”? Please enlighten us.

  20. Joe Pullen says

    Scott – JeanneBodine has multiple tweets stating “I will no longer recommend your company to my clients. This country was founded on principle of Free Speech!” In response to “insert company name here” who decided to cease their advertising on The Rush Limbaugh Show.

    So, Scott, it “appears” JeanneBodine at least on the surface understands the “concept” of free speech, but likley not more than that since apparently Ken’s post was a tad too erudite for her poor little Barbie brain.

  21. says

    Last night I had a long talk with folks, and in it I talked about the Wonkette.

    Anyone else remember that? When that one bumble-fuck posted that horrible Trig Palin article?

    And we all tweeted and e-mailed advertisers, letting them know their ads were running next to that story…

    And we were not friends of the first amendment that day. We might not have said "No one buy from these advertisers because they support Wonkette!", but the effect was the same – getting the ads pulled.

    I joined in that day, and I'm kind of sorry I did. No one brought the post to the attention of advertisers with innocent intent. We were acting no better than the rest. Maybe we were more polite about it, but that doesn't make it ok.

  22. Joe says

    What the fucking fuck.

    Apparently nearly half of the Republicans serving in the New York State Assembly have proposed legislation that would ban anonymous online comments. If enacted, the legislation would require websites — including social networks and online newspapers — to remove all anonymous comments that are brought to the attention of administrators. An anonymous comment could remain if the author “agrees to attach his or her name to the post and confirms that his or her IP address, legal name, and home address are accurate.”

    Shit I’m screwed.

    UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh told The Daily Caller that the bill is “clearly unconstitutional.”

    Good – cause guess what you stupid New York State Assembly fuckers, Gene is right.

    The sponsor of the state Senate’s version, Republican Thomas O’Mara, said “ he had not initially considered that the legislation might ban First Amendment-protected speech, and that today is the first day that these issues have been raised,” and “I haven’t gotten any comments from any of my colleagues in the Senate who said that this wasn’t a good idea.”

    As blogger Dedicated Tenther puts nicely “If you really hadn't thought of the 1st Amendment implications, then you're an idiot and not qualified for office. If you did think of those, and just sort of hoped no one would notice, you're a lying tyrant and not fit for office. Either way, I'm not thinking you should be in office. And to all of those "colleagues" who didn't say the legislation wasn't a good idea: the same goes for you. You should have thought of the First Amendment. If you didn't, you're an idiot who isn't fit for office. If you did, you're a tyrant who isn't fit for office. So which is it?”

    “I certainly didn’t introduce the legislation with the thought that it was violative of the First Amendment. We’re certainly looking forward to any and all input.”

    Great here’s my input – you can stick that bill where the Sun don’t shine.

    The bill is ostensibly a reaction to cyberbulling: “It’s an effort to deal with the problem. I’m hopeful that this will be helpful in combating that,” O’Mara explained, “or at least get a dialog going with the industry about this concern.”

    And this is exactly the WRONG way to address cyberbulling. Victims of slander or libel from online postings can currently go to court to unmask anonymous authors, or simply ask websites to remove comments.

    Republican state Assemblyman Jim Conte praised the legislation, writing that it would eliminate “mean-spirited and baseless political attacks that add nothing to the real debate.”

    Perhaps the Mr. Conte needs to learn to put on his big boy pants or at the very least understand how to apply sunshine and more speech as an antidote.

    Read more:

  23. says

    What Ken's marvelous post calls for is simple integrity. How much better the country would be if Right and Left cared as much about that as they did about grinding each others' faces into the mud!

  24. Rich Rostrom says

    Being all non-partisan about "defending speech from censors and bullies" is good; but there are times when a particular faction adopts censorship, bullying, and intimidation as a regular tactic against particular victims.

    I don't see anything wrong with calling out such a faction by name. Nor with reminding members of the target group that they are under attack.