Yale Might Want To Look Into Some Sort of Basic Civic Literacy Course

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a very controversial figure: some revere her for her advocacy for women, some revile her for her extremely blunt and broad condemnations of Islam. Earlier this year Brandeis University joined the disinvitation craze and rescinded her honorary degree and speaking engagement.

Now she's been invited to speak at Yale. Predictably, some student groups are outraged. 35 student groups have signed a letter by the Muslim Students Association condemning Ali and asking that another speaker be brought in to provide balance (not unreasonable) and that Ali's speech be limited to her personal experience and professional expertise (completely unreasonable).

Yale is not a public entity and is not bound by the First Amendment. It's only bound by American values and by its stated commitment to free speech. But the Muslim Students Association doesn't think this is free speech:

[MSA Board Member Abrar Omeish '17] said that the group and their Islamic values uphold freedom of speech.

“The difference here is that it’s hate speech, [which] under the law would be classified as libel or slander and is not protected by the First Amendment. That’s what we’re trying to condemn here.”

The Yale Daily News lets that pass without comment.

But Abrar Omeish is wrong. Very wrong. First, there is no general exception to the First Amendment for anything called "hate speech." Such speech is clearly protected unless it amounts to a serious call for imminent violence. Second, you can't libel or slander a "race" in America. Under the group libel doctrine, the First Amendment protects statements that do not identify a specific person or persons. Moreover, hyperbole and statements of opinion (at least ones that do not include false facts about a specific person) are protected by the First Amendment.

Abrar Omeish's legal statement is incorrect. It's clearly incorrect to anyone with a passing knowledge of the subject. Its wrongness can be easily determined, as surely as if someone had told the Yale Daily News "women won't be a factor in this election because they don't have the vote." Oddly, though, the Yale Daily News lets the legal assertion go unchallenged. How difficult would it have been to get a quote from a professor at Yale Law? Since they don't do real grades there they probably have plenty of spare time.

In a way, this reminds me of the feckless "balance" of modern journalists who want to invite an Apollo 11 conspiracy theorist for every moon landing story they do. I have no problem with the Yale Daily News quoting someone in their incorrect understanding of the law. But when journalists don't take even minimal steps to find out what the law actually is, they are promoting civic ignorance.

Via Peter Bonilla.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

Comments

  1. Chris says

    Are we certain that Yale and other colleges aren't part of, or working for, the US Departments of Retribution? I mean, if I was designing the system, purposely keeping citizens unaware or misinformed of the law would be the first step in making sure that no one challenges the lawfulness of my actions.

  2. Trent says

    You're gonna bring out the crazies with this post, mark my words. Islamic organizations from what I've seen frequently point to the hate speech laws in Europe to justify blasphemy type laws that make speech based attacks on Islam illegal. After all, if you don't actually have free speech (which you don't if you make "hate" speech illegal) you shouldn't be claiming you support free speech, because you don't.

    Hate speech exceptions to free speech basically do away with free speech entirely. Islamic groups in the US need to understand and should be corrected, particularly by the press, when they claim the US has hate speech laws that make criticizing Islam illegal.

  3. CJColucci says

    "The Yale Daily News lets that pass without comment."

    And properly so. This was a news story, not an editorial or a news analysis. The newsstory is that A did B and X said Y. Whether A's doing B is good or bad, or whether X was correct when he said Y is not, as commonly understood in the journalism business, for the news reporter to address.
    Maybe the common understanding needs to change because it empowers the ignorant and mendacious. But that kind of change is probably best implemented by more analytical stories in which the actual focus is whether Y is true. Drive-by corrections in stories about people doing bad or stupid things or saying bad or stupid things are probably not best entrusted to the reporter reporting that story in that story. And getting some other talking head to provide a quote, even when accurate, that "Y is wrong" is just another dreary bit of "opinions differ on shape of earth" reporting.

  4. Rick says

    But Abrar Omeish is wrong. Very wrong. First, there is no general exception to the First Amendment for anything called "hate speech." Such speech is clearly protected unless it amounts to a serious call for imminent violence.

    That's exactly how some Muslim-related free speech is squashed: while the speech itself isn't a "serious call for imminent violence", the reactions to the speech could be.
    This exercise can be readily demonstrated by one exercising one's right to speech by carrying around a representation of Mohammed.
    So, a winning strategy for squashing speech is to be douchebag so the effect eliminates the cause.

  5. En Passant says

    Rick September 10, 2014 at 4:07 pm:That's exactly how some Muslim-related free speech is squashed: while the speech itself isn't a "serious call for imminent violence", the reactions to the speech could be.The term of art for such phenomenon is heckler's veto.

  6. htom says

    I can understand a foreign student not understanding free speech in the USAian way, but how can there be so many student groups buying into this misunderstanding? Are they merely ignorant, or afraid of being made an example of by an extremist with a dull kitchen knife?

  7. ShelbyC says

    Perhaps there is no such thing as group libel under the first amendment, but her speech is still unprotected because it qualifies as political advocacy.

  8. Scote says

    CJColucci September 10, 2014 at 4:07 pm
    "The Yale Daily News lets that pass without comment."

    And properly so. This was a news story, not an editorial or a news analysis.

    You seem to have fallen for the rececent notion that reporting is merely transcribing what people say without fact checking. That is not reporting, that is stenography. Basic fact checking his part and parcel of good reporting.

  9. Wyrm says

    I really find amusing how many people think that "free speech" is only the right to say anything that they don't dislike.
    And most of the time, they start with "I'm all in favor of free speech, but…" (here: "the group and their Islamic values uphold freedom of speech."), then explain why they have the right to censor someone else.

  10. En Passant says

    Nancy September 10, 2014 at 5:49 pm:

    ShelbyC: Political advocacy is illegal in the US? Have you explained that to the politicians?

    You've been Dirksed.

    See Ken's comment immediately preceding yours.

    Hey, at least I got the block quotes right this time!

  11. Nancy says

    En Passant

    Google does not have a listing for Dirksed. An explanation is therefore required for the person voted "Most Likely to be Totally out of it."

    Thank you.

    Nancy

  12. David L. says

    @Nancy

    In case that link doesn't show up (it's not at the moment), look in the archives two posts before this one.

  13. says

    This was a news story, not an editorial or a news analysis. The newsstory is that A did B and X said Y. Whether A's doing B is good or bad, or whether X was correct when he said Y is not, as commonly understood in the journalism business, for the news reporter to address.
    . . . . Drive-by corrections in stories about people doing bad or stupid things or saying bad or stupid things are probably not best entrusted to the reporter reporting that story in that story. And getting some other talking head to provide a quote, even when accurate, that "Y is wrong" is just another dreary bit of "opinions differ on shape of earth" reporting.

    I have some sympathy with your approach, but in this instance you elevate form over substance. A reporter's job is to convey "the facts" honestly. But that job necessarily requires selecting some particular facts, quotes, and opinions to include in his story while he necessarily excludes other facts, quotes, and opinions. While it is very likely a true fact that Board Member Abrar Omeish said what he was quoted as saying (ignorance of many Yale students cannot be doubted), what Omeish said was not a true fact. To the contrary, it is a true fact that Omeish's statement was demonstrably false. The falsity of Omeish's statement is not a matter of opinion. The falsity of Omeish's statement is a fact. In his selection of facts to include in his story, for the reporter not to include true facts exposing the falsity of Omeish's statement was to exclude facts that were not merely relevant, but were central to the real story, i.e., the story about the state of free speech at Yale.

  14. Dion Starfire says

    How the h*ll did the reporter let a phrase like "their [any religion] values uphold freedom of speech"?!

    I don't know of a single religion that supports freedom of speech. Most religions are all about restricting behavior, not protecting it.

    Any religion that supports the concept of blasphemy, can't say they support freedom of speech.

  15. Nimas says

    Dion, although I personally dislike religion, its important to remember that religion changes over the years (typically following the usual social zeitgeist in some manner) and that though the core tenants usually deal with how to lead a good life (in the church's opinion), ancillary teachings do occur, and I'd imagine you'd have a rather large push from many in a religion for something like free speech, even if their individual definition of free speech is flawed (as in this case).

  16. Chris says

    There's also something incredibly tacky about objecting to a speech before it's happened on the grounds of its content. Why not just argue, "we're doing it for her sake, so she doesn't get in trouble by saying something illegal!"?

  17. Yalie says

    First of all, there are courts for this very reason– definitions of libel and slander are open to interpretation. Hirsi Ali has been known to libel in her countless books. Courts interpret the law in situations like these and are the ones to determine this. No blanked statement dismissing this can be made.

    You seem to be bitter about everything in general– Yale, this poor student, Muslims… why do you call yourself a pope hat? You are quiet the contrary. Do not affiliate yourself with faith– God does not teach one to treat others like this.

  18. William says

    hthom

    I can understand a foreign student not understanding free speech in the USAian way, but how can there be so many student groups buying into this misunderstanding? Are they merely ignorant, or afraid of being made an example of by an extremist with a dull kitchen knife?

    While I think that ignorance is a perfectly servicable explanation for this behavior, cowardice might not be the best alternative understanding. You probably have some significant number of student groups (or leaders within those groups) who simply couldn't give two tugs of a dead dog's cock about free speech. Maybe they're offended by Ali and want her to be silenced. Maybe Ali's speech is irrelevant to them, but they would like to be able to call on the MSA (and whoever else signed the letter) the next time they want to silence someone who criticizes their pet issue. Maybe they are overtly hostile to the concept of free speech and recognize that undermining it at the university level is a very good way to set the stage for greater political change later. Lets not discount malice as an explanation of behavior.

  19. Kilroy says

    Is this "Yale" actually accredited in some way or just one of those joke institutions that pop up to take advantage of gullible students?

  20. Kilroy says

    So now we are on to quilts? I can't follow this conversation at all. Need some of that Yale edumacation to figure this out.

  21. Sarcastro says

    I know, Hirsi Ali is just an awful person. Here she is, a refugee from a culture that physically maimed her and then tried to marry her off at a criminally young age to someone very old, and she goes and blames a whole religion for fostering these crazy ideas that their followers come up with. When her and a friend decide to make a movie about how the culture she grew up in uses a religion to criminally maim and rape young women, some completely crazy follower of that religion goes and stabs her friend to death in the middle of the street. And she continues to blame that religion and the culture it fosters on this crazy person's violent stabbing of her friend. She then goes and writes books that directly quote leaders of this religion justifying the raping, maiming and killing. How terribly libelous of her! What about context?

    I do believe any speech by Hirsi Ali should also have a counterpoint speaker. I mean, it's the same as the Catholic Church abuse scandal. Whenever survivors of that abuse give public speeches about the terrible secrets of the Catholic Church the people hosting the speaker almost always have a NAMBLA member give a follow-up speech as a counterpoint. I mean, what could be fairer?
    -Sarcastro (using my superpowers for good)

  22. Dan Weber says

    And properly so. This was a news story, not an editorial or a news analysis

    What? If one person said "the student center is painted blue today" and someone else said "the student center burnt to the ground last week," is the newspaper just supposed to leave it to their readers to figure out for themselves if that really happened?

    The reporter doesn't even need to interject his/her own legal opinions. Yale apparently has a law school (I'll have to take Ken at his word on this one), and so they can get an actual professor to get on the record.

    "He said / she said" is horrible reporting. Journalists should aim to find out the facts.

  23. Another Nancy says

    Remember, Yale is in the state which sends Joe Courtney to Congress, another man who doesn't understand how our government works. (He stated in his PPACA opening remarks that his constitutuents wanted the same health insurance options as "those who rule them in Washington".)

    Sadly I think much of the country, and certainly any state or institution with a traditionally "progressive" majority, has ceased teaching students how our government and laws are supposed to work.

  24. CJColucci says

    I yield to no one in my distaste for he-said/she-said/opinions on shape of earth differ journalism because, as I said, it empowers the ignorant and mendacious. But sometimes it just is the case that the "story" is that X said Y, not whether others disagree with Y or whether Y is true. Sometimes this is tricky. If the President of Yale says the student union building has burned to the ground and it manifestly hasn't, then the "story" is that the President of Yale is delusional, which requires establishing that, in fact, the student union has not burned to the ground. That's also the kind of fact a reporter can readily establish. If the President of Yale says there's a genetic reason for the lack of African-Americans in the Yale Classics department (I haven't checked the actual make-up of the Yale Classics department, so substitute as needed), then the "story" is that the President said this, and, probably, the subsequent furor over what the President said. That story does not require the reporter to determine whether what the President of Yale said is true or false. And the reporter probably has no way of quickly and authoritatively finding out whether it is true or false.(Do we really want the run-of-the-mill blow-dried talking head or ink-stained scribbler even trying to tell us what is true or false about anything more complicated than whether the student union is still standing or a smoking ruin?) If the story has legs, then a follow-up piece devoted to exactly that subject may well be warranted, and there ought to be a lot more of that than there is. Though even then these kinds of stories tend to degenerate into "opinions differ on shape of earth."
    I wouldn't argue with anyone who thinks we need a kind of journalism that does a lot more about determining what is true and a lot less about transcribing and excerpting what was said, but developing it, and the people who can make it work, and making a paying proposition out of it, is hard. Within the normal limits of journalistic practice as it now exists, the Yale Daily News can't be blamed.

  25. albert says

    @yalie
    "…First of all, there are courts for this very reason– definitions of libel and slander are open to interpretation….". I think the law is pretty clear on this.
    "…Hirsi Ali has been known to libel in her countless books…". Please cite a court case; without it, you are making a libelous statement. Finally, try, if you can, to get through "The End Of Faith", by Sam Harris.
    .
    @y'all
    What's with this 'equal time for the opposition' stuff? Is this Fox "News" giving "both sides" of the story? Why is it necessary for some speakers to have 'counterpoint' speakers'? WTH is wrong with you? Have you not been taught to think for yourselves, or are you afraid that folks might hear something that you disagree with? (I state that these are rhetorical questions)
    .
    @Ken
    Was that your comment in the yaledailynews post? You should have come down harder. Apparently, there are folks that need some head shaking over there.
    .
    This issue (and these things happen often on college campuses everywhere), is a rather bitter indictment of the state of 'higher' education here in the US. What's worse, is that it only reflects the general state of ignorance in the country as a whole. The Supreme Court, led by that paragon of Constitutional Law, Scalia, is deconstructing the Constitution as quickly as they can.
    .
    I gotta go…

  26. En Passant says

    Yalie September 11, 2014 at 12:13 am:

    You seem to be bitter about everything in general– Yale, this poor student, Muslims… why do you call yourself a pope hat? You are quiet the contrary. Do not affiliate yourself with faith– God does not teach one to treat others like this.

    After all these years another Yalie finally steps forward to publicly defend God. Shirley the Second Coming is at hand!

    (@Sarcastro: I've got your back.)

  27. bja009 says

    @sarcastro
    Hey, you're at Popehat now! I thoroughly enjoy you on Volokh. Welcome!

    @yalie
    Now I'm glad I didn't go to Yale. Not that I could have paid for it, but still.

  28. CJColucci says

    Sarcastro was one the the people I figured I'd miss once Volokh went behind the Post's paywall. Too bad he can't put up his VC avatar. Or can he?

  29. pjcamp says

    Why should they bother to find out what the law is? They don't bother identifying any other factual information, from science to history.

    Journalists appear to live in a world in which there are no facts, only conflicting political positions. When this spills over into the non-journalism world, shuttles explode because the O-rings haven't completely eroded away so there's still a margin of safety, and people lead us to ill-conceived wars while spouting idiocy like this (attributed to Karl Rove):

    The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." … "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

  30. Michael says

    @Yalie

    First of all, there are courts for this very reason– definitions of libel and slander are open to interpretation. Hirsi Ali has been known to libel in her countless books. Courts interpret the law in situations like these and are the ones to determine this. No blanked statement dismissing this can be made.

    Courts do indeed interpret the law in situations like this. What you're missing is that once the Supreme Court rejects a given interpretation, that interpretation is no longer just as good as the interpretation the Court adopts. With respect to Mr. Omeish's quoted assertion, the U.S. Supreme Court has already unambiguously decided to the contrary. Which makes a blanket statement that Mr. Omeish is wrong about the law entirely accurate and appropriate. One needn't believe that the Court got it right, but to deny that the Court has said what it has said is to be objectively wrong.

    You seem to be bitter about everything in general– Yale, this poor student, Muslims… why do you call yourself a pope hat? You are quiet the contrary. Do not affiliate yourself with faith– God does not teach one to treat others like this.

    I'd much rather be around people who will tell me the ugly truth than people who will blow smoke up my ass to spare my feelings.

  31. NickM says

    First of all, there are courts for this very reason– definitions of libel and slander are open to interpretation. Hirsi Ali has been known to libel in her countless books. Courts interpret the law in situations like these and are the ones to determine this. No blanked statement dismissing this can be made.

    You seem to be bitter about everything in general– Yale, this poor student, Muslims… why do you call yourself a pope hat? You are quiet the contrary. Do not affiliate yourself with faith– God does not teach one to treat others like this.

    STFU Abrar Omeish.

  32. Sarcastro says

    @bja009

    No, I'm not the guy from Volokh Conspiracy. I just picked a name of a character from The Tick instead of trying to use some other form of sarcasm tag for that comment.

  33. GFRF says

    LET HER SPEAK!
    Intolerance will not be allowed in the public forum!
    As a FGM survivor, wouldn't you think she'd have women's rights at the forefront?

Trackbacks

  1. […] Ken White "…when journalists don't take even minimal steps to find out what the law actually is, they are promoting civic ignorance." Umm…with a rare exception, I think journalists would rather let the world burn than try to understand whatever they're reporting on. There's a reason I rarely read mainstream financial news and I tend to read finance blogs instead. After reading Ken's blog, I stopped reading mainstream legal news. Anyway, here's the link. (Popehat) […]