Twitter Takes a Side in the Culture Wars – Lies About It

Twitter announced that in order to combat abuse and harassment on its increasingly unpopular online platform, that it would enact new rules and regulations that would hopefully get control of things. The stated mission was to cut down on loosely-defined "harassment." But, what it seems to really be is yet another example of someone with a little bit of power behaving arbitrarily in favor of their "team."

Twitter didn’t call it “censorship.” They called it “fighting abuse to protect freedom of expression.” Ok, fair enough. Since it gives away accounts for free, and every lunatic has access to a computer, the barrier for entry on Twitter is very low. That means that the guy who used to stand on the street corner and scream at the clouds, or the crazy cat lady, both have as much access to Twitter as someone reasonably intelligent. The underside of the human condition is ugly and brutish, and if you spend 15 minutes on Twitter, you figure that out.

Twitter has every right to try and get ahold of things. If I ran Twitter, I wouldn't be very proud of it. And, its value is rapidly plummeting, both as a website worth visiting, and in financial terms. I'd imagine that this is, in no small part, because people are just sick of the bullshit on Twitter. While you can't really express much nuance in 140 characters, you sure can express stupidity and cruelty in less than that. You can form a mob and ruin Justine Sacco's existence with very little effort. Meanwhile, these bite sized chunks of shit do very little to promote discourse.

So I'll admit that if I ran Twitter, I'd probably engage in a little bit of a crackdown myself. I believe in an expansive view of freedom of expression, but I am not an absolutist. I get close, but I think that free speech absolutism is simply intellectual laziness. There is a line.

Where is it? I'm not sure precisely — that's part of my personal search for truth, and I'm not done with it yet. But, I do know that we have to draw a line somewhere.

If you recoil in horror, consider Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines. In 1994, that radio station was the Zyklon-B of the Rwandan genocide. Would I go back to 1994 and "censor" RTLMC? Yes. But, we must admit, that is a hell of an extreme example. But, it at least demonstrates that I can defend freedom of expression, but I'm not a religious zealot about it. (On the other hand, I do not think I would approve of censorship to prevent hypothetical localized harms).

With that out of the way, I don’t have any problem with Twitter deciding that it wants to be less of a shithole and more of a place where people can go to express themselves and read other peoples’ expressions without it turning into an intellectual trash-heap. Remember: it’s their site, their rules.

Nevertheless, I do fault Twitter for is its hypocrisy and its outright lies about what it claims that it is doing. Twitter is not at all interested in making Twitter a "nicer" place, nor promoting more constructive discourse. Twitter is taking a side in the culture wars, and it has chosen that it will be the destination of choice for the "social justice warriors" echo chamber.

A stark example came to light this weekend when Milo Yiannopoulos discovered that his account had suffered the “discipline” of having his official public figure status revoked. On Twitter, the real public figures get a blue checkmark next to their names so that people realize that they’re dealing with the real celebrity, and not one of any number of imposters, impersonators, or satirists. Mr. Yiannopoulos is, for those who are uninitiated, a conservative who frequently disagrees with the “social justice warrior” mentality. And that’s strike one against him. Yiannopoulos had the audacity to disagree with certain politically correct notions, and thus he was subjected to this minor form of discipline.

His reaction was a bit over the top, but far be it from me to criticize him for being hyperbolic. He immediately launched the hashtag “#JeSuiMilo.” Equating losing a little blue checkmark next to your name to the murders at Charlie Hebdo makes me spit a little. But, I’m not entitled to an offense-free existence, so if Mr. Yiannopoulos wants to damage his own credibility by trying to compare himself to those who actually laid their lives at the altar of freedom of expression, so be it. I’m not going to let that get in the way of the fact that he has a valid point.

And what is his valid point? There’s not a damn way that his account would have suffered any discipline at all had his views not been from the disfavored side of the debate. For all Twitter’s lip service to freedom of expression and prevention of abuse, Twitter believes in neither. As Allum Bokhari wrote, "The fingerprints of social justice warriors, who delight in redefining political disagreement as “harassment,” are all over this new rule. Twitter’s reputation for arbitrary, politically-motivated punishment looks set to grow."

In fact, in order to test Twitter’s so-called newfound prevention of harassment, I have tracked a number of Twitter accounts and even have set up decoy accounts. In what I've tracked, so far, pretty strong “harassment” emanating from accounts that purport to promote a "social justice" or feminist agenda remain unscathed – even with pretty extreme content, up to and including death threats. However, even slightly offensive messages coming from conservative voices wind up being disciplined. Thus far, the experiment has not gone on long enough to actually call it "scientific," so I'm not going to say that the early stages of studying the bias in Twitter suspensions is ready for prime time – but it is certainly confirming what we hypothesized.

Twitter, we see through your bullshit. It’s okay, you can simply announce that you’ve decided to take a side in the culture wars and you’re just not going to apply the rules the same way to conservatives as you will to liberals. You can say you’re going to discriminate on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, and anything else you want. But please don’t pander to us by trying to tell that this has anything to do with “harassment” or “free speech.” Somebody, or a group of somebodies in your organization has a political agenda and you’re going to use your power, diminishing as it is, to promote that agenda. That’s allowed. Maybe it will even make you more popular than ever, but just cut the lies. Because some of us are watching and we know better.

Tea and Unaccountability: Bureaucracy and the Drug War

Last week Radley Balko described a Kansas case in which loose-leaf tea led to a police raid. One law enforcement officer saw someone shop at a hydroponics store, and another officer conducted trash searches at the shoppers' house and found leaves, and a "field test" suggested (falsely) that the leaves were marijuana, and it was off to the races with an armed incursion into the shoppers' home, which did not in fact contain any marijuana. A federal judge in Kansas recently ruled that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity in the resulting lawsuit.

Orin Kerr took Radley to task for his rhetoric and carefully reviewed the federal judge's order. The investigation may be bungled, Orin argues, but all the judge really did is find that an officer can rely on a positive field test for drugs in establishing probable cause, at least when the officer didn't know that such field tests are notoriously inaccurate.

Radley's perfectly right to be outraged. And Orin's perfectly right to note that Radley's outrage is directed at a feature, not a bug, of the system. Law enforcement has become increasingly bureaucratic, in the sense that actors are insulated legally and politically from the consequences of their actions, and those actions are treated as dictated by circumstance rather than chosen by accountable humans.

Consider, to start, the utter lack of accountability for taxpayer money displayed in this case. The whole case arise from "Operation Constant Gardener," a Sheriff's initiative to conduct marijuana cultivation raids on April 20th because that date is considered an "unofficial holiday among marijuana users." One officer was tasked to sit in the parking lot of a hydroponics store and take down license plates and pass those plates along to another law enforcement agency in a custom-made spreadsheet. Another officer matched those plates to individuals and addresses, and another officer evaluated which addresses to visit. Having chosen a suspect and an address, two other officers visited three times to root through the trash and look for evidence. Those two officers brought the "plant material" they found to a supervisor, in part because it was "hard to identify," to solicit his input. Upon a false positive "field test" for marijuana (though the material was actually tea), an officer drafted a search warrant, a deputy prosecutor reviewed and approved it, and seven law enforcement officers conducted an armed raid on the suspect's house. When the seven officers could not find evidence of marijuana cultivation, they extended the search for a couple of hours in an effort to find personal use amounts of marijuana. They found none. The Sheriff's Office later conducted a press conference bragging of the success of Operation Constant Gardener, presumably referring to other raids.

How much did all of that cost the taxpayers? Tens of thousands of dollars, at least. Was it worth it? Would it have been worth it even if law enforcement had found a private-residence-sized marijuana grow at the house? That's not a question you'll hear asked. The War on Drugs means never having to say "sorry I wasted your money." Certainly nobody who's paid to sit in a parking lot taking down license plates, or paid to raid trash cans and squint (quite literally) at tea leaves, or paid to devise cleverly-named gestures of defiance at marijuana users and then give press conferences about it, will ever ask that question. Financially, law enforcement is unaccountable.

They're also unaccountable in terms of basic competence. There was no incentive for the officers to learn, and know, that field tests are unreliable. What does it matter to them? They get paid whether or not they're reliable, paid whether the search turns up marijuana or tea. Moreover, they're insulated from any civil liability for relying on junk science. Nor do they have any incentive to conduct corroborating investigation. The officers here could have subpoenaed the house's electrical bills to watch for unusual consumption, a tell of indoor marijuana cultivation. They could have investigated whether the house has unusual foot traffic, or whether there had been any tips about the homeowner selling drugs. Faced with hard-to-identify plant material, they could have sent it to the crime lab for a test — after all, they had already waited seven months after the initial sighting of the suspect at the hydroponics store. But why do any of those things? The bar for probable cause is set extremely low — low enough that a visit to a hydroponics store and a questionable field test result on a small amount of leaves clears it. The small amount of leaves in the trash is consistent with mere personal use of marijuana, and some would argue that a seven-officer armed raid is a disproportionate use of law enforcement force to investigate such use, but nobody's asking about proportionality and nobody's being held accountable for the lack thereof. Why not just phone in your investigation, shrug at the result, and show up for a time-and-a-half raid on the dude's house? If a hypothetical officer could objectively conclude that there's enough evidence for probable cause, why give a shit about whether the person really did it or not?

When seven armed agents of the state raid your home at gunpoint in front of your spouse and young kids, it is traumatic. But arguably the homeowner should feel relieved that nothing worse happened. The officers didn't shoot the kids' pet dog, or mistake the X-Box controller in somebody's hand for a gun and shoot them, or stumble on a step and shoot someone, or shoot the homeowner when he reacted to what he might have thought was a home invasion robbery. The officers were relatively low-key — only seven officers, only one AR-15, no flashbang grenades thrown into a baby's crib to soften the place up first. Lucky! If any of those things had happened, it's likely that the officers would not have been accountable for it. The law usually doesn't hold them accountable for such "mistakes" in the course of a raid. And nobody even talks about holding them accountable for making the decision to conduct an armed raid on an occupied dwelling — a raid in which deadly mistakes are a distinct possibility — based on the aimless, good-enough-for-government-work suspicion that maybe they're growing pot in there. Nobody's asking whether the game is worth the candle — whether the known risk to lives is justified by the ends of the War on Drugs.

Nobody asks those questions because it's a bureaucracy, and you don't ask such questions in a bureaucracy. Asking questions might make you accountable, and the whole point of the law enforcement edifice is to insulate actors from accountability and to separate cause from effect. Someone chooses to harass marijuana users on April 20 to make a point and someone decides that you can find marijuana users shopping at hydroponics stores and someone decides that a field test of an unknown substance is good enough and someone decides to get a warrant and a family winds up held at gunpoint in their own home for drinking tea. These events are treated as if they are disconnected; nobody stops to say "the end result of this will be a man prone on the floor under the barrel of an AR-15 in front of his children, so act accordingly." Nobody's responsible, say the police. It just happens. I just work here.

Ohio Judge Tim Grendell Is Popehat's Censorious Asshat of 2015

The votes are in. With a commanding lead of 10.2% over the nearest challenger, Ohio Judge Tim Grendell is Popehat's Censorious Asshat of 2015.


Congrats, Judge Grendell.

Honestly Grendell wasn't my choice. But I can see how he won: he's emblematic of the vapid pettiness of power. Grendell abused his contempt power in a fit of pique at insignificant criticism and offered smug Youtube-commenter-level justifications when challenged. Like many censors, he wraps himself in the First Amendment when it suits him. Electing Tim Grendell isn't about just Tim Grendell; it's about how many censorship stories are the result of authority conferred upon mediocre minds and small spirits. Never stop fighting them.

2015 Person Of The Year: David Brooks

2015 was an eventful year in the annals of history. Yet no person more exemplifies the spirit of this new era, for good and ill, than David Brooks, whom Popehat is proud to recognize as its Person of the Year.

A politically active bon vivant and celebrated thought leader, Brooks  was an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church's Western-influenced policies and was exiled to The Weekly Standard for 14 years before moving to the New York Times, where he continued his opposition. By February 2013, public anger with Pope Ezekiel II caused him to flee, and a month later Brooks was vindicated by the selection of Pope Francis I to the office of Pontifex Maximus, the seat formerly occupied by Saint Peter and by Julius Caesar himself. By 2015 Francis had established a new papal order based on strict adherence to the letter of the law, with the David Brooks as the Pope's greatest champion.

As Brooks wrote at the time of Francis's decretio ad lux et cursus honorum:

The best source of wisdom on this general subject is still “The Imminence of Ages,” by Alvin Toffler, which he wrote back in 1977. Toffler distinguished between practical organizations and mass movements. The former, like a business or a a grove of academe, offer opportunities for self-advancement. The central preoccupation of a mass movement, on the other hand, is self-sacrifice, the nullification of the ego in favor of larger truths. The purpose of an organization like the Catholic Church is to get people to negate themselves for a larger cause. This is what political scientists refer to as an "ethos."

An ethos was defined by Diogenes the Cynic, 2500 years ago, as "the characteristic spirit [or genius, as I like to call it] of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.

Mass movements, Toffler argues, only arise in certain conditions, when a once sturdy social structure is in a state of advanced internal turmoil. This is a pretty good description of parts of the Orthodox world, and yet to date the west has placed itself in opposition to such. To a lesser degree it is a good description of isolated pockets of our own segmenting, individualized society, where some people find themselves totally cut off.

As the famous oenophile John Kenneth Galbraith put it, we can judge a culture by its spirits (pun most certainly intended). In the dark and icy north, men turn to grain alcohols such as whisky and vodka for their inspiration. The MittelEuropan peoples find their surcease in craft-brewed lagers and ales. In the sunny south of Europe, wine is ambrosia of Everyman. And in the Muhammadan east and south, men take opium as a balm for their troubles.

With Brooks' support, students seized the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, and brought low the formerly proud American colossus. In 2015, a dispute with Noah Rothman of Commentary Magazine became an international cause celebre that found Brooks in uneasy alliance with the forces of modernity. Brooks remains a powerful symbol to the scribes of New York even after his infamous appearance on  the Daily Show with Jon Stewart in April 2015. "Rarely has so improbable a thought leader shaken the world," said Ezra Klein in naming Brooks to Vox's Fourteen Pundits Who Will Dominate Public Radio In The Coming Century.

David Brooks of the New York Times exemplifies the sartorial.

David Brooks of the New York Times exemplifies the sartorial splendor of the early 21st century elite thinker.

In 2015 Brooks self-published a meticulously researched and engaging web-log, The Life And Times of Joe Sixpack, which poses a provocative thesis: we as a postmodern collective are cultivating outwardly impressive but spiritually deficient “resume virtues” – rather than character, which Brooks defines as "that inner sense of the outward which brings us into commonality with what the Greek statesman Thales of Minos referred to as the state of belonging to the polity." And it's costing us dearly, the author says, both personally and communally.

In a year when our trust in American institutions was tested, David Brooks of the New York Times found the strength to stand for what is right and virtuous in our society. Brooks offers America a new way forward into an era of thought. We are proud to recognize him as our Person of the Year for 2015.

2015: Another Bad Year for Blasphemers

Popehat is pleased to offer a second guest post by Sarah McLaughlin. Sarah works for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (though the opinions expressed here are her own) and is interested in free speech and civil liberties. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarahemclaugh.

At the conclusion of 2012 and 2013, Ken undertook annual surveys of the state of blasphemy laws, and their enforcement, around the world. I did the same for this year, while paying close attention to the way that individuals have also played a significant role in punishing people accused of blasphemy. From the horrific January 7 Charlie Hebdo attack and Saudi Arabia’s first flogging on January 9 of blogger Raif Badawi (who was found guilty of insulting Islam in 2014 and sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison), there were early signs that 2015 would be another year where blasphemy would be punished harshly by governments and vigilantes alike[1].

How Blasphemy Was Punished This Year

Of the many dark entries in this year’s review, at the forefront stands ISIS. It is perhaps unsurprising that ISIS’ penal code, published in late December of last year, promises a death sentence to anyone found guilty of blaspheming Islam, Allah, or Muhammad. Who knows how many people have been executed under it this year[2]?

Saudi Arabia—which threatened to sue Twitter users who compared its justice system to ISIS'[3]—dispenses harsh punishments to those accused of blaspheming Islam in a manner fairly similar to that of a certain militant jihadist group that shall remain nameless, demonstrating the conduct that can apparently be expected from countries on the UN Human Rights Council. While Raif Badawi’s flogging punishments were halted over the course of the year, his wife claims they will soon resume and he remains imprisoned. In February, a man was sentenced to death (likely beheading, as is the Saudi Arabian way) for cursing God and Muhammad and hitting a Koran with a shoe. A month later, an Indian man was arrested (in Saudi Arabia) for liking a post with “blasphemous content,” causing it to appear on his page. That he did not intend for it to do so is apparently irrelevant. Last month, artist and poet Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death for apostasy, a charge apparently supported by the content of years-old poems and “the testimony of a few witnesses.” By the time Fayadh was sentenced, Saudi Arabia had already beheaded at least one hundred and fifty one people, many of whom been found guilty of nonviolent crimes including blasphemy, apostasy and, most often, drug offenses.

Like Saudi Arabia, Iran, on track to execute one thousand people this year, treats blasphemy as a serious crime—violators are usually charged with “spreading corruption on earth.” This fall, Iranian courts decided that activist Soheil Arabi will spend 7 years in prison as punishment for “insulting the Prophet” on Facebook, and must prove his faith and knowledge of Islam in monthly meetings. This is actually an improvement over his earlier sentence: death.

Saman Naseem, a 17-year-old man scheduled to be executed in February after being tortured until he admitted to being guilty of “enmity against God” and “corruption on Earth,” was missing for months in early 2015, leading his family to believe Iran had gone through with a secret execution. In July, Amnesty International learned that Naseem had been granted a retrial, so there is hope that Naseem will be found innocent, or at least given a lighter sentence. However, given that it took over two years for Iran to reach that conclusion, there’s little reason to believe that Naseem will receive fairer treatment this time from a fundamentally unfair system.

Pakistan has seen a number of convictions and killings this year as well. In March, Liaquat Ali was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for blasphemy and a month later an assistant professor who earned his doctorate under a scholar, Muhammad Shakil Auj, who was accused of—and assassinated for—blasphemy, was shot to death in what was likely an attack inspired by his connection to Auj. In August, three men were arrested for referring to a Christian pastor as “prophet” on a poster. Then in October, Bilal Husain, a man whose father reported him to police was given the death penalty for blasphemy too. Also in October, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman[4] on death row for supposedly insulting Muhammad was moved to solitary confinement over fears that she would be killed by guards, vigilantes, or other inmates. That same month, Christian faith healer Naveed John was arrested for the apparently blasphemous act of “having Islamic script on a sword he used to treat his clients.” Pakistan has received well-earned criticism over the past few months because of the ease with which its blasphemy laws can be used as a weapon “to settle petty disputes against Christians.”

Like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria is all too willing to execute supposed blasphemers. In June, a Nigerian court sentenced Muslim cleric Aminu Abdul Nyass and eight of his followers to death for statements about Muhammad. The sentencing was held in secret because crowds at the previous trial attempted to burn down the court—their second target after burning down Nyass’ home. A Nigerian governor seemingly attempted to justify the death sentence, saying: "The concern is mobs would take extrajudicial action if these convicts are for whatever reason released because they would certainly kill them when they see them on the streets."

Though he’s wrong that the government should give out the punishments the mob wants, but in a more orderly fashion, he’s right that mobs will often act against people who they believe have insulted their gods. In a particularly horrifying example from March, a crowd in Afghanistan attacked Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year-old woman they believed had burned the Koran. Specifically, they beat her, ran over her body with a car and dragged her down the street, stoned her, and then lit her on fire. She received essentially no help from the police during the attack. Only days after her death was it discovered that Malikzada had never even burned the Koran in the first place—she had insulted men selling amulets by calling them un-Islamic, and they retaliated by yelling to the crowd that she had burned the Koran.

Bangladesh, meanwhile, shows how common murders like Malikzada’s were this year. In February, Al Qaeda members “taught a lesson to blasphemers” by hacking atheist Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy to death with machetes. A little over a month later, Oyasiqur Rhaman, a satirical blogger who mocked fundamental Islam and had mourned Roy’s death by changing his Facebook picture to an image reading “I am Avijit,” met the same fate. He was hacked to death by three men who heard that Rhaman had “made some comments against Islam,” which they had never actually even seen. Then in May, a third atheist blogger, Ananta Bijoy Das, was also murdered by men with machetes. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for Das’ death as well. He had advocated for secularism on a blog called Free Mind, which had been moderated by Avijit Roy before his death. In August, Niloy Neel was the fourth Bangladeshi man to be hacked to death for his role as a secular blogger.

Roy, Rhaman, Das, and Neel were all on a widely-known list of secular bloggers created by groups pressuring Bangladesh to prosecute blasphemers more harshly. Bangladesh’s government was not content to let the machete-wielding murderers be the only villains in this story—after Neel’s murder the Inspector General of Police, while admitting that murder is wrong, actually asked that people report to the police secular blogs, whose contributors could face up to 14 years in prison, for “hurting religious sentiments.” What Bangladesh should do is eradicate its blasphemy laws and acknowledge that its treatment of blasphemy as a crime worthy of imprisonment encourages murderers targeting those who offend them. Instead, the Bangladeshi police have reaffirmed the notion that authority figures should violently censor speech that insults their constituents’ gods. I can hardly think of anything less safe for Bangladeshi bloggers than a public record of police investigations into their criticism of religion.

Threats and violence against blasphemers were not contained to the countries listed above. Three men were convicted under Myanmar’s blasphemy law and sentenced to 2 and a half years in prison in March for insulting Buddhism by publishing a flyer showing Buddha wearing headphones to promote their bar. Amos Yee Pang Sang, a 16-year-old blogger in Singapore was sentenced to a 4 week prison term in July for insulting Christianity, and he “admitted to his guilt and promised not to reoffend, as he realised his actions were against the law and could disrupt social harmony” after he was required to go to counseling. An executive at a Four Seasons hotel in Indonesia is facing blasphemy charges and up to five years in prison because she allowed a gay couple to hold a Hindu ceremony at her hotel. And an Indonesian footwear company is being sued solely because the word “Allah” is printed on sandals they produced, which they’ve promised to destroy. In October, a five year prison sentence against TV personality Islam El-Behery for “contempt of religion” was upheld by Egypt. In August, two men in India murdered professor M.M. Kalburgi, who was likely targeted for his criticism of idol worship. A few weeks ago, Indian director Pan Nalin received death threats because of the blasphemous content in his newest film, and took calls warning him: “We will make sure you go Charlie Hebdo way.” Last month Kuwaiti blogger and teacher Sara Al-Drees was arrested for “Insulting the Prophet” on Twitter, and could face up to ten years in prison doing hard labor. Events of a blasphemous nature faced threats and violence as well—in February three people were wounded and one man was killed when a gunman[5] targeted Lars Vilks’ event in Denmark and a Muhammad cartoon contest with keynote speaker Geert Wilders in Texas was unsuccessfully attacked in May by two gunmen (one of the gunmen had claimed allegiance to ISIS.)

More Blasphemy Laws, More Problems

In addition to the many acts of violence committed against blasphemers this year, a few countries introduced or passed bills that will likely perpetuate that violence, or at least frighten dissidents into silence. Kuwait is considering an amendment to its 1959 Alien Residence Law, which would ban “any person convicted of contempt of religions or penalised for derision of Islam, Islamic beliefs or the Prophet’s (PBUH) companions or family members” in another country from entering Kuwait. In July, the United Arab Emirates President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan[6] decreed a law that could easily be used to target blasphemous speech. Some of the “anti-hate” law’s provisions:

  1. Criminalises any acts that stoke religious hatred
  2. Criminalises any act that insults religion through any form of expression, be it speech or the written word, books, pamphlets or online
  3. Punishes anyone for terming other religious groups or individuals as infidels, or unbelievers
  4. Provides a sound foundation for the environment of tolerance, broad-mindedness and acceptance in the UAE
  5. Aims to safeguard people regardless of their origin, beliefs or race, against acts that promote religious hate and intolerance
  6. Includes jail terms of six months to more than 10 years for those who break the law

Not to be outdone, Bahrain began drafting a bill in August that would ban “any hate or sectarian discourse that undermines national unity, differentiates between individuals or groups on the bases of religion, creed or sect and triggers conflict between individuals or groups.” New Zealand’s new Harmful Digital Communications Act says digital communications "should not denigrate an individual by reason of his or her colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.” Humanist groups have raised concerns about the law’s ability to target blasphemous speech, but New Zealand’s Justice Minister Amy Adams claimed "a person would have to do much more than simply post blasphemy to fall foul of the criminal offence in the Harmful Digital Communications Act." There’s plenty of evidence from this year alone that many people consider blasphemous statements to be “denigrations” of their religion, so Adams’ comments are poorly thought out at best[7].

Poland and Denmark both took incredibly disappointing stances this year by reaffirming the legality of their blasphemy laws. The International Humanist and Ethical Union reports that Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Vanessa Vega Saenz spoke at a UN Human Rights Council meeting in March and acknowledged that Denmark’s blasphemy law is rarely used but claimed it’s “‘legally important’ in that it gives the state the possibility to stop people burning bibles and Korans, and to punish those who do[8].” In October, a Constitutional Tribunal upheld Poland's blasphemy law that states “whoever offends religious feelings of other people by publicly insulting an object of religious cult or a place for public holding of religious ceremonies, is subject to a fine, restriction of liberty or loss of liberty for up to 2 years.” In the ruling, one of the justices said “religious criticism is acceptable, only if it’s devoid of abusive, insulting or degrading opinions” and the tribunal asserted the importance of “punish[ing] such offenses, because the public debate about religion must be conducted in a cultured and civilized manner.”

Some Rare Good News

There were a few brights spots this year, though. In March, Jordan withdrew its proposed Inter-Parliamentary Union resolution that sought to restrict speech that failed to show “respect for religions and religious symbols.” In response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, two Norway politicians pushed through a proposal in May that finally achieved the long-planned end of the country’s blasphemy law, arguing that its existence “underpins a perception that religious expressions and symbols are entitled to a special protection.” Two months later, Malta announced that it was in the process of weakening its blasphemy laws[9]. Iceland’s parliament, also motivated by Charlie Hebdo, repealed its 75 year old provision against blasphemy in July. And in October, Pakistan’s Supreme Court decided that suggesting revisions to Pakistan’s blasphemy law is not, in fact, a violation of the blasphemy law. Alarming as it is that this needed to be said, it’s still progress worth noting. It’s a minor, but important, step forward for free speech advocates demanding reform.

That Norway’s and Iceland’s blasphemy laws (like Denmark’s) were rarely, if ever, used is irrelevant—laws that could be used to punish expression often do a very good job of chilling the speech they’re intended to suppress even if they’re never exercised. And sometimes, as evidenced by the tragedies in Bangladesh and Afghanistan, blasphemy laws do worse than chill speech—their existence reinforces the idea that blasphemous speech is something that should be physically punished. It shouldn’t be, and we should be genuinely concerned about the prevalence of the desire, from governments and mobs, to inflict pain on people whose beliefs deviate from what their neighbors or leaders deem acceptable.

[1] This list probably does not contain every newsmaking blasphemy incident of 2015, but it illustrates the hostility with which religious dissent was met in the past year. I used essentially the same methodology as Ken did when he blogged about blasphemy in 2012, but I grouped the incidents differently (as you can see).

[2] These are just a few examples of ISIS’ brutality. You can easily find many more if you’re so inclined.

[3] But who among us wouldn’t threaten to sue someone willing to criticize us for doing very rational things like beheading people for not imaginary crimes like sorcery? Who are we to judge?

[4] And the only woman.

[5] His motives were not known but Vilks is a well known target for his cartoon depictions of Muhammad.

[6] A rule to live by: anyone that demands to be called “his highness” can probably be expected to “decree” terrible laws.

[7] For more poorly thought out comments, check out Keith Vaz’s “lol idk maybe” ideas on blasphemy laws in the UK.

[8] This is a fairly blunt way of saying that they like being able to chill speech.

[9] But the Justice and Culture Minister said that “the new amendments will also aim to safeguard social and racial minorities, since the law will not allow for the vilification of any minority work,” so this is still worth watching.




Jessica Valenti Calls For Jailing of Critics Of War And The Draft

Jessica Valenti of The Guardian thinks that, just as we jailed people who protested and criticized the draft during World War I, we should be able to jail people who release unflattering videos about Planned Parenthood. Both, she believes, are justifiable.

Well, she doesn't say that explicitly. But that's the necessary implication of column today in The Guardian, in which she says that releasing undercover videos about Planned Parenthood should not be protected as free speech.

Freedom of speech is one of America’s most cherished rights, but we’ve always had limits on what’s acceptable: in 1919, the US supreme court ruled that the right doesn’t apply to speech that incites action that would harm other people.

At the time, the example presented by the court was that falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater doesn’t count as protected speech.

Like many people who favor censorship but have a cookie-sheet-shallow grasp of its history, Valenti is misquoting Oliver Wendell Holmes dropping a rhetorical aside in Schenck v. United States. Holmes invoked that image to justify the prosecution and imprisonment of a man who criticized and questioned the draft during World War I. Of course, in the century since, American courts have abandoned Holmes' sloppy and unprincipled stand, narrowing the "incitement" exception to intended to and likely to cause imminent lawless action. But Valenti speaks approvingly of the original ruling because, in her mind, it justifies censoring speech she doesn't like.

Just as she misleads her readers about history, Valenti misrepresents the present. She suggests that a federal judge in the Northern District of California prohibited the distribution of the Planned Parenthood videos because they posed a risk of danger to clinics. "Now, in the wake of the release of secretly taped and deceptively edited videos of abortion providers, a judge has issued a temporary restraining order because of the very real threat of violence that the videos pose." Valenti either doesn't understand the legal issues or is lying about them. In the Northern District case, the National Abortion Federation learned from the mistakes of Stem Express and explicitly couched their lawsuit and injunction request against the defendants in terms of breach of confidentiality agreements and fraud, not wrongful content. As Eugene Volokh explained, such content-neutral grounds may support prior restraint on speech, because they aren't about the content of your speech, they're about enforcing your promise not to reveal the information you're revealing.

To secure an injunction, a plaintiff must show — among other things — that they are likely to prevail on the merits of the suit and that the "balance of hardships" weighs in their favor. The NAF did not invoke the threat of violence as evidence that they would prevail. Instead, they argued that they would prevail because the defendants fraudulently obtained access to NAF events and violated confidentiality agreements. Only then did they argue that the balance of hardships was in their favor because of the atmosphere of threats and violence against abortion providers. The judge's temporary restraining order did not say that NAF was entitled to prior restraint because the risk of violence allows prior restraint. Rather, the court said that NAF had shown it would prevail on its substantive claims of fraud and breach of confidentiality agreements, and that the threats of violence went to the balance of hardships. Valenti is misleading her readers.

Valenti asserts that the Planned Parenthood undercover videos have caused violence against Planned Parenthood clinics. The only evidence she cites are the statements of the crazed and evil Colorado shooter. Valenti asserts that the videos are "secret" and "deceptively edited," but she does not explain how we know that the "deceptive" parts are what (allegedly) incited threats and violence, as opposed to the parts of the videos that are admittedly true.

Valenti's goal is clear: a broad, unprincipled rule that would punish rhetoric she doesn't like:

The frenzied language surrounding the video’s release – including out-and-out lies on national television by Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina – has stoked harassment and violence. And though preventing the release of more footage may not stop lies and violent speech, it could help curb it and would send the message that anti-choice activists will not be allowed to spread lies without consequence.

Some social controversies do lead to death threats and violence. Both are utterly unacceptable; I wish that more political death threats were investigated and punished. But note that Valenti's eager advocacy for censorship is not tethered to illegally recorded videos or misleading videos or even videos with explicit lies: it's an explicit call to censor political speech that makes people mad, whether or not it's intended or likely to cause imminent violence. It's an vague call for someone in the government — perhaps people who agree with Valenti? — to decide what bits of political rhetoric and hyperbole are "lies" and suppress political speech accordingly.

Everyone who reads Jessica Valenti's column and believes it is now stupider about First Amendment law. Remember: free speech has enemies. Fight them.

Bernie Sanders v. DNC

Beats the hell out of Hillary

Beats the hell out of Hillary

Bernie Sanders sues the Democratic National Committee and the complaint is here. The legal issues are less exciting than Bernie's hair style. What is more exciting is that Bernie Sanders isn't taking this shit from the DNC. The DNC is playing the part of Roger Goodell in the 2016 election cycle. See Former NFL VP Of Officiating: "Looks Like The League Office Is Making Decisions On Who Wins/Loses Games" With New Playoff Officiating Rule, Masshole Sports.

My take on this is that the DNC was pissed off enough last time around when its anointed candidate didn't beat the upstart. They weren't going to let it happen again, and they'll do whatever it takes to put her highness on that ballot.

In other words, I deflate my bowels in Roger Goodell's face and the DNC's face, simultaneously — and I pledge that I'll never vote for HRC. I don't care who the Republicans put up.

What would be awesome? Bernie and Trump run as independents, and the Democrat and Republican anointed princelings come in third and fourth. Lets face it, say what you want about Trump, but he represents the conscience of the Right, just like Bernie represents the True Left. The Parties are our enemies, no matter which side you're on.

I wrote a really good post on the Lanham Act today with with no cuss words at all (here).

My Four Favorite L.A. Times Comments

So the L.A. Times invited me to take this post about gun dialogue, remove the swears and most of the words and as much of the personal dysfunction as possible, and let them use it as an op-ed. I did, and they did. It ran on last Sunday's dead-tree op-ed page as well as online.

We get some odd comments at Popehat. But L.A. Times comments were at another level. Here, in no particular order, are five of my favorites:

More whining from a liberal.

Don't try to infringe on our 2nd Amendment rights, and ain't gonna be no problems.

You want a second civil war? Then come try and take em from us…….

Reasoned debate went out with the WASPs.

It will be some time before it returns, to the detriment of our nation.

Most every alleged mass-shooter was taking psychotropic drugs that often cause violent impulses.

MSM won't report this because they get major ad $$$ from Big Pharma to push Rx snake oil: Paxil, Prozac, etc. Instead they blame guns.

MSM also won't report that certain demographics are doing gun crimes at rates over 10x the Euro average. Af-Am's & Hispanics are over 90% of shooters in L.A. & Chicago, but are loyal Dem voters, so MSM blames guns & pale Repub's.

Let's start there.

That's all well and good, Mr White, if that's your real name, but what about the real threat that faces every man, woman, and child today?

You know very well what of I am writing.

What about the pony menace?

The Man in the High Castle in Albany and The First Amendment

The Man in the High Castle is a piece of alternative history fiction, which imagines an alternate future in which fascist forces won World War II. The Nazis occupy the eastern part of the United States, while the Japanese take up residence in the west. The Italians are non-existent in the series. You would think that they would get Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey… but I digress.

So there is an alternate future in which America loses its civil liberties and fascist forces occupy it. There is a surveillance state. Political dissent is not tolerated. Hmm… add in a butterfly ballot and some hanging chads and its… well, I digress again.

Suffice to say, this alternate future provokes the imagination. What lessons does it teach us? There is something for everyone in it. Stand up to fascism? Defend the homeland? We should all be armed?

But, in a day and age when Americans flee both left and right to avoid thought, it just couldn't be without some controversy. Someone had to complain that it invaded their "safe space." THEY'RE FEELS!!! THIS IS ARE COUNTRY!!!

Amazon bought some subway ads displaying the flags of the fictional Japanese and Nazi puppet regimes. Entire subway cars appeared as you might imagine them if The Man in the High Castle were a work of non-fiction. There is a red, white, and blue “rising sun” flag, and a stars and stripes that replaces the 50 stars with one big fascist looking eagle.

It makes you think.... NO, NOT THAT!  NOT THINKZ!

It makes you think…. NO, NOT THAT! NOT THINKZ!

It made me say "it kinda makes you think, doesn't it?"

That's the point.

It makes you think.

It is supposed to make you think.

It makes you think "what if we had not prevailed in World War II" Or, at the very least, it makes you think "what the hell is going on here?" Then, maybe you ask someone in the subway “what is all this?” You think. You talk. You have now entered the marketplace of ideas. Look around. There is some scary stuff for sale here. The good news is that there is other stuff that you might like.

Go ahead. Pick it up. Smell it. Leaf through the pages. You can even taste some of it if you like. Then decide.

Well, that is until the FEELINGS show up like the bat-winged pterodactyls that buzz my car every time I break 120 mph on Interstate 15 on my way back to Las Vegas. Then everything gets all twisted. I start to lose control…

Some people complained that it was "inappropriate" to put symbols of these defeated regimes on display.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio urged Amazon to pull the "offensive" ads, and Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn democrat, even called for a boycott against the Seattle company.

“While these ads technically may be within MTA guidelines, they’re irresponsible and offensive to World War II and Holocaust survivors, their families, and countless other New Yorkers,” de Blasio said in a statement. “Amazon should take them down.” (source)

What? Too soon?

Irresponsible? What does that mean?




The veins bulge from my temples. I grip the wheel with my left hand and swat the bats away with my right. THE FEELTYDACTYLS DESCEND!

In all seriousness, I realize that there are Holocaust survivors left in New York City, and I could not fault them if a few had an anxiety attack upon seeing a Nazi-esque eagle on the American flag. I can't imagine they like walking past the German consulate. I bet they get worked up at a lot of things that don't set me off. So, I see that side of it. But, I'm not about to call to ban Mel Brooks movies, The History Channel, nor heavy metal bands using umlauts in their band names.

Further, if there's one group of people who should want us to consider what might have been had we not fought the Nazis hard enough, I'd say it is the Holocaust survivors. You can’t have “never again,” if you neglect to think about what “again” might look like.

“Offensive” to veterans? I very much doubt that the greatest of “the greatest generation” are as soft skinned as today’s college students. World War II vets ought to point to these ads and say “you see what might have happened, had I not given up those years of my life fighting?”

These guys jumped out of planes into Normandy, or fought hand to hand with the Japanese at Iwo Jima, and Bill DeBlasio thinks "they might be offended?" These are people who have seen real offensiveness. These are not children who whine for “safe spaces” when confronted with opposing viewpoints. These are World War II veterans, not Amherst College students.

You want "offensive?”

I have offensive for you.

I guess I spoke too early when I said the Italians were not part of “The Man in the High Castle,” because governor Cuomo seems to be acting the part of Mussolini. He demanded that the ads come down or he would "order" that they be ripped out. (source) The least he could have done was play Gabriele D’Annunzio. At least that would have been a bit more interesting, what with all the crazy sex and poetry and stuff.

Instead, Governor Cuomo ordered that First Amendment protected expression, expression that might even border on political speech, be suppressed because someone might take offense.

How's your irony meter working?

If you're offended at anything, it ought to be at what Governor Cuomo did.

Just unpack it for a moment. Amazon made a series that is supposed to make us imagine a world where we don't have our basic freedoms. Ads about the series might "offend" a handful of people, so the governor simply decrees "this speech shall end." No due process. No nothing. Just "that offends me, so suppress it." That's called prior restraint.

One might think that this was performance art — that maybe Cuomo was trying to give us a taste in the real world of what it might be like if we had a dictator ruling over us, with no First Amendment to protect our freedom of expression. The ads are inarguably First Amendment protected expression, and aublic officials do not have the right to try and squelch free expression by using coercive threats. See Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan, 372 U.S. 58, 64–72 (1963). When a government official tries to stifle free expression of ideas that he disfavors, either through actual legal coercion or simply through threatening the use of government power, he violates the first Amendment. See American Family Association, Inc. v. City & County of San Francisco, 277 F.3d 1114, 1125 (9th Cir. 2002).

See also Okwedy v. Molinari, 333 F.3d 339, 344 (2d Cir. 2003) (per curiam): “the fact that a public-official defendant lacks direct regulatory or decisionmaking authority over a plaintiff, or a third party that is publishing or otherwise disseminating the plaintiff’s message, is not necessarily dispositive … . What matters is the distinction between attempts to convince and attempts to coerce. A public-official defendant who threatens to employ coercive state power to stifle protected speech violates a plaintiff’s First Amendment rights, regardless of whether the threatened punishment comes in the form of the use (or, misuse) of the defendant’s direct regulatory or decisionmaking authority over the plaintiff, or in some less-direct form.”

If there is anything offensive about this story, it isn’t that someone at Amazon’s ad department had poor taste, it is that Governor Cuomo gave us just a little taste of what it would be like if we really lived in the “High Castle” world, and I for one, don’t like it one bit.