What Kind of Nutter Calls For Censorship?

When a public official acts like a censorious asshat, and flogs one of my least-favorite stupid pro-censorship quotes, and is named "Nutter," my fundamentally suspicious and misanthropic nature leads me to look around nervously. Am I being Akbarred here? Or is this giddy warmth and pre-pounce quivering anticipation I feel further evidence of a God that loves me?

It's the giddy warmth one.

The scene is Philadelphia. Philadelphia Magazine printed "Being White in Philly," a tedious self-indulgent piece of shit that reads like the transcript of a barstool rant. It's subtitled "Whites, race, class, and the things that never get said," and it's the sort of piece that assumes that things that don't get said are by necessity profound or credible or true. It's the sort of piece that makes you wonder if the author is engaged in some sort of performance art or satire, before you dismiss the question as not worth the effort to explore.

This is unremarkable. Long-form douchebaggery is common in American letters. Our archives are to the right if you doubt me.

What's remarkable is the reaction of the Mayor Of Philadelphia, the presciently named Michael Nutter. Nutter could have used his bully pulpit to blast the article and condemn its author as a racist and rage against the magazine for printing it. That would be the classic "more speech" reaction to speech we don't like, and I would support his right to do so. But simply using his taxpayer-sponsored megaphone wasn't enough for this Nutter. He went straight to the government thuggery, sending a letter to the "Philadelphia Human Relations Commission" demanding an investigation of Philadelphia Magazine:

Finally, I ask that the Commission consider specifically whether Philadelphia Magazine and the writer, Bob Huber are appropriate for rebuke by the Commission in light of the potentially inflammatory effect and the reckless endangerment to Philadelphia's racial relations possibly caused by the essay's unsubstantiated assertions. While I fully recognize that constitutional protections afforded the press are intended to protect the media from censorship by the government, the First Amendment, like other constitutional rights, is not an unfettered right, and notwithstanding the First Amendment, a publisher has a duty to the public to exercise its role in a responsible way. I ask the Commission to evaluate whether the "speech" employed in this essay is not the reckless equivalent of "shouting 'fire!' in a crowded theater," its prejudiced, fact-challenged generalizations an incitement to extreme reaction.

Rue Landau, Executive Director of the Human Relations Commission, gets the message:

Rue Landau responded to Mayor Nutter’s letter saying, “The Commissioners and I share the concerns of the Mayor regarding the racial insensitivity and perpetuation of harmful stereotypes portrayed in the Philadelphia Magazine piece. We will take up the Mayor’s charge and, as a matter of fact, we are already looking at intergroup relations in the city, particularly in changing communities.”

What a sumptuous feast of lies about the United States Constitution! The Philadelphia Magazine article is not within artillery distance of any applicable exception to the First Amendment, and it is irresponsible for a public official to suggest otherwise. As Eugene Volokh says:

The implication — which I think is very strong — that the “speech” is indeed unprotected by the First Amendment under the “incitement” exception is absolutely wrong: Under Brandenburg v. Ohio and Hess v. Indiana, the speech in the article is clearly protected. (It’s true that a narrow range of speech that is intended and likely to produce imminent illegal conduct, with imminent meaning within hours or at most a few days, rather than at some unspecified future time, is unprotected, but the magazine article definitely does not fit within that.) And it’s quite troubling, I think, when a mayor (who has power over, among others, the Police Department) suggests that the expression of opinions that he disapproves of about race is constitutionally unprotected.

Moreover, Nutter's perpetuation of the "fire in a crowded theater" cliche — the grim origins and inaccurate usage of which I have talked about before — shows that Nutter is willing to perpetuate ignorance about fundamental American rights in the course of promoting his opinion.

Nutter's defenders may say he is only calling for more speech, that the Commission is a toothless lion that will only be holding hearings that won't amount to anything and don't threaten action against the publisher. Not so. I strongly defend government actors' right to respond to ugly speech. It's a necessary part of the marketplace of ideas. That's not what is happening here. Here Nutter — unquestionably flexing his mayoral muscles, not speaking as an individual — is demanding an investigation, is making false statements about the protections offered by the First Amendment, is making bogus comparisons between clearly protected speech and unlawful incitement of imminent violence, and is implying that other consequences may flow to the author and publisher of expression he doesn't like. The threat may be understated — it may be vague — but as I often say here, vagueness in legal threats is the hallmark of thuggery and censorship. It's repulsive, and Nutter ought to be ashamed, if only he had such capacity.

Elsewhere: Reason, Hans Bader.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Kilroy says

    Stop the presses! A politician has a poor understanding of the Constitution! Updates at 9:00.

  2. says

    A sadly rhetorical question: Couldn't displaying such ignorance of the Constitution that grants him, and every other elected official, their authority, be seen as de facto proof of incompetence to hold office? (Hell, if we could fire everyone who, charged with either making or enforcing laws, then demonstrated public ignorance of said laws, we'd pretty much replace at least half of all cops and politicians.)

  3. says

    > Long-form douchebaggery is common in American letters.

    A bit off topic, but I wanted to note that I really enjoyed this 900 word post.

  4. says

    Nutter's already infamous in gunnie circles for greatly exceeding the promise of his too-apt name. His election might cause a person to doubt the sanity of the city electorate. Until you remember that this is the City of Brotherly Firebombing Love, and sanity never entered the equation.

  5. mojo says

    Once again, he seems to have forgotten that if there IS a fire, shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre becomes a positive duty rather than a crime and a well-known exception to the 1st.

    Note that about the same number of people will die in the ensuing panic in either case.

  6. orvis barfley says

    point of order, here, just for clarity.  not sure if a space character was missing.

    was it 'asshat' or 'as shat'?

  7. Blah says

    Hey, let's give credit where credit is due: Nutter is a cool guy because he once rapped with DJ Jazzy Jeff of "The Fresh Prince" fame. That's like the textbook definition of "cool".

  8. Caleb says

    So I read…okay, skimmed…the literary-self-gratification-masquerading-as-meaningful-journalism "article" at the nexus of this kerfuffle.

    I light of this apparent controversy, I'm confused.

    My impression was that the piece was your run of the mill attempt at being "edgy" in the most politically innocuous way possible. It was the embodiment of the trope that 'race is a taboo subject for polite discourse, so your fearless author will boldly dare to invoke the name of that which is forbidden.' It's been done a thousand times before, in every media conceivable. I thought the piece was about as 'edgy' as those obnoxious performance groups from the '90s who visited schools to "rap" about safety, stranger danger, and saying no to drugs.

    In other words, why on earth did this even appear on the mayor's radar? Are race relations in Philly really that sensitive?

  9. says

    @Caleb: I don't live in Philly, but living in Delaware I'm there often enough (and pay enough attention to local media, which all comes out of Philly) to know that this is pretty par for the course for Mayor Nutter, near as I can tell. Don't get me wrong, the man has some decent policies, but he also has plenty that I don't agree with (his non-negotiations with city unions, for example, and the atrocious way his administration is handling the pension problems the city has). One thing's for sure: He's not afraid to express his opinions on things, including with the bully pulpit.

    It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

  10. says

    Couple of interesting articles from philly.com about this. The first one is about a town-hall style meeting held by Philly Magazine's editors and the author of the article. It's strange in that it describes Nutter's letter to the Human Relations Committee as asking to investigate if the magazine deserves a rebuke from the Committee. Whether that's something they'd do without his prompting, I don't know. The second article is by the only full-time black employee of Philly Magazine, who happens to be their event planner/coordinator, not one of their writers. She wrote an opinion piece describing her opinions. I put it up for a bit of local opinion. If I find anything else interesting in local media I'll post that, too:



  11. B says

    To be fair though, a 'race riot' is not some fanciful, impossible scenario for Philadelphia. They have had them before, albeit not recently that I am aware of…

    I have no idea what the 'situation' there is but wouldn't you generally extend people in the positions such as the Mayor's office and whatever this "Philadelphia Human Relations Commission" that they would evaluate whether or not the publication posed a significant risk to the health/well being of the populace?

    If they investigate and find that there was no real risk of inciting a riot, then they were just being diligent defenders of the public good, yes?

    (Not that I think it can be construed as reasonable, in any way, that a word/symbol or any combination of word/symbols could instigate such an event… I just think the reality is that when certain socioeconomic conditions converge, any populace can riot given even a negligible cause)

  12. EricE says

    While I agree the article is crap, I was shocked to see a fairly civil discourse in the comments – at least the first page or so. I'm not wading through all of them. But what I did browse through were fairly free from the typical kooks that show up in such articles, especially given the wild publicity the article received.

    Which if the mayor really disapproved of the piece, his highlighting it and causing his actions their well earned scorn sure wasn't a way to "keep a lid on things".

  13. Blah says

    "Are race relations in Philly really that sensitive?"

    Yes. I mean, just last year Philadelphia had to institute a curfew to stop violent flash mobs from beating up old people, and there was a lot of racial rhetoric flying around at the time.

  14. says

    I…I just realized I used the word "opinion" 3 times in as many sentences in that last post. I am ashamed at my terrible writing today. Apparently engineering isn't good for your written communication skills…

  15. says

    @Josh: In my secret identity as a database developer who also has a degree in English Writing, I edit/correct TDDs and other sundries for my company. So let me assure you: No, it isn't.

  16. says

    While I agree with my colleague Ken about Mayor Nutter, without more context I'm not sure I agree with his conclusion about the PHRC's Landau.

    Nutter's original letter, after excoriating the magazine for race baiting, proposed two things for the Commission: (1) study race relations in Philadelphia with the hope of proving that the magazine was irresponsibly trolling and (2) look into a rebuke of the magazine. The latter is indefensible, the former less so.

    As I read the excerpt from Landau's statement, she's only dealing with the former. She says that they "are already looking at intergroup relations in the city, particularly in changing communities". There is a broader reading of her statement, which implies she'll get to Philadelphia Magazine later, but I'm not so sure that she didn't just give the mayor's inappropriate request the high hat while moving to make sure that the not-as-kooky investigation into race relations happens.

  17. says

    @Lizard I realize that I need to be careful about re-using words, especially with how often stuff gets repeated when writing experimental procedures. It becomes difficult to use non-standard wording for things even outside of the lab. It's terribly aggravating, because I like to think of myself as a well-read and (somewhat, at least) well-spoken individual.

    Clearly, I need to go back and re-read about 20 or 30 novels to re-acquaint myself with the florid variety of language in good prose.

  18. Narad says

    I mean, just last year Philadelphia had to institute a curfew to stop violent flash mobs from beating up old people

    I was once menaced by a group in the veritable Cracker Barrel of "Fishtown" for wearing a tie.

  19. says


    > @Clark: Dude. That's like a napkin doodle for me.

    No, I was being serious. I enjoyed some short form douchebaggery from you as a break from the long form kind.

    (God knows I always keep my stuff brief.)

  20. James Pollock says

    I'm confused, perhaps by not understanding what is meant by "rebuke from the HRC". Assuming standard English meaning (1. verb (used with object) to express sharp, stern disapproval of; reprove; reprimand.
    2. noun sharp, stern disapproval; reproof; reprimand.), why would receiving one be an infringement of anyone's rights?

  21. Fred says

    In the words of Cartman, "Oh shit… here we go! It's on! RAAACE WAR!!!! Race war!! Race war!!"

    Sadly, I think this will draw people further into their race-reluctant shells.

  22. says

    So, the gist of the article is whites aren't allowed to ever discuss race, and the very first thing that happens is, the Mayor proves the point of the article.

  23. says

    "the First Amendment, like other constitutional rights, is not an unfettered right"

    Anytime I hear someone say that, I just know they want to fetter the absolute shit out of someone's speech rights.

  24. Anony Mouse says

    I guess it depends on the effect of the "rebuke". If it really is a toothless commission and all it can do is wag a finger and say, "naughty," then I fail to see why anyone should care. Now, if they can mess with licenses or issue fines or do actual, real harm, then it's worth getting mad about.

  25. AlphaCentauri says

    I would bet that Philadelphia Magazine depends on a significant amount of advertising from government agencies (events at Penns Landing, Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Fairmount Park, for instance). If the commission decided that advertising there was not a wise use of funds because the article would reduce their readership in the desired demographic, that would be teeth, and it would probably make sense. But having used such ill-considered words to launch the discussion, whatever the results are will not have much credibility.

  26. C. S. P. Schofield says

    The key, frankly, is that Nutter is no more competent than most big city Mayors, and resents this being called out in public. Being Black, he is accustomed to being treated with kid gloves in the media and his reflexive response to criticism by any Caucasian is to scream "racist!",as he has been taught to by the likes of Al "if I was white I'd be a nobody KKKlansman" Sharpton.

    Very few Mayors are worth the oil that will be necessary to fry them in Hell, If your town has one of the exceptions, treasure him (or her).

  27. Jerryskids says

    To the extent that Nutter is appealing for 'something to be done' in an illegal manner to an agitated mob, isn't he guilty of creating the 'potentially inflammatory effect and the reckless endangerment to Philadelphia's racial relations' that he accuses the magazine of? Can someone get the Philadelphia HRC to look into that?

  28. Jack says

    My take on it is that Nutter knows it's indefensible, but wants to distract attention from the more serious problem of a recent long-form investigative piece in the Inquirer about how the city has completely failed to enforce property tax collections for decades; and a great deal of its current budget troubles are directly attributable to this; and cleaning up property tax collections was one of Nutter's campaign promises but things are now demonstrably worse.

    Here's the 4-part series plus ancillary articles in one place

  29. orvis barfley says

    i didn't know nutter is black until just now.  adds an interesting perspective.

  30. Blah says

    "I was once menaced by a group in the veritable Cracker Barrel of "Fishtown" for wearing a tie."

    Hey, it could have been worse – when I first arrived in the City of Brotherly Love the big local news story was about some gang jackasses firing assault weapons into a bus, at the request of a pregnant woman who claimed she was being harassed. Of course, she was actually ON the bus at the time of the shooting, so I don't know what anyone involved was actually hoping to accomplish.

    I guess what I'm getting at here is that Philly is kind of a dump sometimes.

  31. naught_for_naught says

    But did Susan at Villanova every find her Blackberry — easily-sidetracked minds want to know.

  32. neight says

    The purity of the intellectual dishonesty in Nutter's response was rather rare. I can't decide if he and his ilk are particularly skilled cynics, or so hidebound to a world view that they will themselves believe anything with the thinnest veneer of plausibility to perpetuate it.

  33. andrews says

    Remember that Philadelphia is the city whose prime example of urban renewal was firebombing a neighborhood and shooting the folks who tried to get out.

    Turns out they managed to burn down non-target homes, too, and so they had to try to build replacements. That contract went to a well-connected but none-too-competent builder, which is why the 10-year warranties came into play. Not effectively honored, so litigation ensued.

    Did I mention that the name of the city is Greek for "City of Bodily Harm"?