Devil’s Advocate

August 14, 2017 Comics Comments (0) 542

(Click panels to embiggen. Get the comic in a single image here. Click here for more comics.)

 

I am, as has been stated many, many times elsewhere, personally a hard-liner on the First Amendment. Nazis do, unfortunately, have the same right to speech and assembly as everyone else, and that is as it should be. It is, as the saying goes, the high price of freedom — because any effort to legally stifle hate speech will inevitably be exploited to harm the people it seeks to protect.

However, there is a time and a place to argue for free speech. If you are the ACLU, maybe that time is “always.” If, however, you are a decent human being seeking to engage with other human beings on the Internet, the time to argue for free speech may not be the immediate aftermath of a Nazi rally that killed three people. Sometimes it’s good to say “Yeah, Nazis are bad.”

You may not sound like the greatest intellectual in the room, but you will also avoid sounding like a complete asshole.

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First Amendment Friday: February 3, 2017

February 3, 2017 Featured, First Amendment Fridays Comments (0) 814

Fun fact: Donald Trump isn’t even three weeks into his Presidency! If you’re like me, you are already tired of winning.

Like the previous two weeks of Trump, this one has been overwhelming, especially if you’re concerned about the First Amendment. We’re going to focus on the big cases here, and maybe come back in a future week to some things that slip through the cracks.

If there was a theme this week in First Amendent News, it was “Conservatives Misintepreting the First Amendment.” So grab your handy study guide, and let’s dive in.

Does the Alt-Right have Alt-Rights?

A massive protest by students at UC Berkeley led staff to cancel a scheduled speech by Twitterless alt-right troll Milo Something-or-Other. The move ignited debates across the Internet and inspired our President, who has not yet made any statement about the alt-right terrorist who murdered innocent Canadian Muslims during prayer service, to threaten the university’s federal funding.

Despite outcry, of course, Milo’s First Amendment rights were in no way impinged. The First Amendment does not protect against opposing speech from fellow citizens, nor does it guarantee a podium and a microphone. It is a protection against punishment or censorship by the government — and it is likely, had Milo the courage to step out onto the sidewalk and engage his speech rights the way any other American may, that the government (in the form of police) would have protected him.

Instead Milo ran away, because alt-right trolls are cowardly, and claiming persecution fits his narrative and his brand better than, you know, using his freedom of speech. The protesters, meanwhile, fully engaged their First Amendment rights to assembly and expression, and responded to offensive speech in exactly the right way — by raising their own voices.

The First Amendment does not mean the police force thousands of protesters to keep silent so you can give your Nazi PowerPoint. That said, I’ll step off my soap box.

Religion, Refugees, and Resistance

Late last week President Trump kept his promise to ban Muslims from the United States with just about the sloppiest roll-out of immigration policy in US history. You may have heard of this one. In response, thousands of Americans turned up at airports across the country to protest. Notably, Presidential sycophant/Svengali Steve Bannon blamed these protests, which happened in cities like Indianapolis, Louisville, Omaha, and Nashville on the metropolitan coastal elites. One wonders where he thinks the coast is.

On Thursday, more than one thousand small business owners in New York City, most of Yemeni nationality, closed their shops for eight hours to join a protest at a federal courthouse in Brooklyn. Messages of solidarity and donations came from neighbors and supporters in New York City and worldwide.

There is debate as to whether Trump’s Muslim Ban (which, notably, extends only to nations in which Trump does not have personal business interests) violates the Constitution’s prohibition on religious discrimination, but many experts say it runs afoul of Constitution law in multiple ways. Immigration law is complex, and the President does have significant leeway, but several federal judges have issued orders suspending various elements of the ban on several rationale. Further court scrutiny is still to come, and the ultimate fate of the ban remains to be seen.

Trump Threatens LGBTQ+ Rights… or Does He?

The queer community watched Monday as reports emerged that Trump would reverse President Obama’s executive order protecting LGBT employees When word spread Tuesday that Trump would keep Obama’s policy in place, some in the community expressed cautious relief. Then on Thursday, the press obtained a leaked draft of an executive order protecting “Religious Freedom” that would legalize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Just another week with Trump in the White House.

Trump’s order would also limit women’s access to contraception under the ACA, and would present particular harm to trans Americans. The administration has stated he has “no immediate plans” to sign the order, though it’s up in the air what exactly that means — that he won’t sign it this week? Today? That he doesn’t have a pen in his hand at this moment? Who can say?!

This SCOTUS Nomination Gor-Sucks

Speaking of “religious freedom,” the likely next member of the Supreme Court (occupying the seat left vacant by the illegal and immoral obstruction of former-almost-justice Merrick Garland) has a lot of scary ideas. We don’t yet know his views on abortion since, like many lawyers hoping for a Supreme Court appointment, he has avoided the topic almost entirely.

What we do know is that the Religious Right is extremely excited about him, and we know that Donald Trump promised during his campaign that he would only appoint Justices who opposed abortion.

We know that Gorsuch was unhappy with the Hobby Lobby decision, which allowed employers to decide whether female employees can take birth control, because he didn’t think it gave the employers enough authority. And we know that he has strong opinions that Americans should not be permitted the autonomy over their bodies to decide when they want to die. Because, you know, God and stuff.

On LGBTQ+ rights, Gorsuch has expressed an opinion that it should be left to so-called states rights, and state legislators should have say over what queer people can do with their own bodies.

Oh, and he really hates liberals. In high school he thought it was a hilarious joke to compare liberals with fascists, and as recently as 2005 he published essays about how awful liberals are.

So… Not great.

The Collection Plate PAC

Sigh. Staying on the theme of so-called “religious freedom,” President Trump vowed to “destroy” the law that prohibits churches, as non-profit organizations, from engaging in unlimited lobbying and political advocacy.

 It’s hard to get too upset about losing a law that really hasn’t been enforced in recent years. But it’s worth pointing out that, once again, there is no First Amendment violation in the law.

The law does not prohibit churches from political speech. In fact it solely addresses their non-profit tax status. Under the US Tax Code, specific types of activity are granted non-taxable status. Religious practice is one of those types of activity; political advocacy is not.

Nonprofits are permitted only a limited amount of political advocacy as part of their mission. Non-profit organizations that do a lot of lobbying therefore establish multiple corporate entities; the ACLU, where I was on staff as a fundraiser, existed as both a 501(c)(3) charity, which did little to no lobbying work and to which contributions were tax deductible, and a 501(c)(4) lobbying organization, which funds the political advocacy work and to which donations (including membership dues) are NOT tax deductible.

Churches nationwide, however, have been getting away with spending massive amounts of money on lobbying and political advocacy all under the banner of their 501(c)(3) tax status. Many people (myself included) have insisted that they should be subject to the same rules as other charities, but there has been little to no effort to enforce the tax code. Now Donald Trump wants to “destroy” the law that has not been enforced.

If churches are spending a lot of money on political advocacy, they should be paying taxes on that particular money. That’s the only question here, there is no “prohibition” on any type of speech or religious expression.

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First Amendment Friday: January 27, 2017

January 27, 2017 Featured, First Amendment Fridays Comments (0) 506

Congratulations, Internet! We made it to another Friday, a whole week into the Trump Presidency. Only… 207 more weeks to go. Hoo boy.

It did take almost an entire week for Steve Ganondorf Bannon to declare the press officially “the opposition party.” In the meantime, Trump and his surrogates have mainly stuck to veiled threats toward the “media.” American reporters may all be headed to re-Ned-ucation soon, but so far it’s all talk. So let’s turn the eyes of liberty elsewhere.

[A brief aside: I have a Patreon page, and I would love your support! I’ve been blogging for more than ten years here, and have never yet turned a profit. Patreon makes it very easy to commit to as little as one dollar a month, so if you like what I’m putting into the world, please consider becoming a patron!]

Women be Marchin’

The Women’s March on Washington, and worldwide “sister marches” on Saturday, January 21, were very likely the largest protest action in the history of… well, the world. Estimates put the number of marchers in the United States between 3.3 and 5.4 million. That’s roughly one to two percent of the nation. and worldwide estimates range from around 250 to 350 thousand. Good job, everybody!

I marched in the New York City Women’s March. You can see some of my photos here, and read some suggested next steps for marchers who may be wondering where to put that energy now.

Side note: I only today learned that there was a Women’s March in the French Revolution, in which the ladies marched on Versailled and evicted the King. I don’t know if that reference was intentional, but I sure hope so.

PA Supreme Court Hears Rapper Charged with Threatening Police

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is considering the case of Jamal Knox, who raps under the name Mayhem Mal. Knox, a 22-year old resident of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, was arrested and charged after, well…

“The case began with an April 2012 traffic stop in the city’s East Liberty section, when Knox, now 22, drove away after telling an officer he did not have a valid driver’s license. Following a chase in which he hit a parked car and a fence, police found 15 bags of heroin and $1,500 on Knox and a stolen, loaded gun in the vehicle.”

Yikes. But none of that is what this case is about! Seven months after that, police found a rap video on YouTube in which they say Knox threatened them. Knox’s lawyers say the video is a protest, and protected free speech under the First Amendment. Police counter that the lyrics, which include references to “cop killer” bullets and Richard Poplawski (who killed three Pittsburgh officers in 2009) constitutes a true threat.

For more on Knox’s case, Lily Hirsch has a terrific write-up over at The Establishment.

Third Time’s a Charm for Colorado Religious Discrimination Bill

The Colorado House has, for the third time in three years, defeated attempts to pass a “Religious Freedom Bill” that would legalize discrimination.

We’re going to see a lot of these in 2017, so get ready. “Religious Freedom,” in this context of course, means turning gay people away from your business. Because as Jesus said, it is easier for a fat man to fit through the eye of a needle than to bake a cake for two dudes getting married. Or something like that.

Meanwhile, back in Pennsylvania, a restaurateur in Annville allegedly kicked out a black student after calling him a racial slur. The student, Rickey Lee Bugg Jr, says the owner of Just Wing It told him “Trump’s President… so I can say what I want.”

In point of fact, that is not [yet] the case. But who knows? Once they get a taste of legalizing discrimination, the GOP may try to push us all the way back to the 1950s.

Quick note here for the unaware. The First Amendment does not apply to speech or expression in pursuit of profit. That’s considered commerce and therefore, under the Constitution itself, may be regulated.

Federal Court Hears Suit on Concealing Actors’ Ages

Maybe it’s insensitive of me, but I’m going to call this the “Jenna Maroney” Law.

A federal court is hearing a challenge to a California law, passed last year, that prohibits commercial casting websites from listing actors’ ages. The law was promoted by Screen Actors Guild President Gabrielle Carteris, who was 29 when she landed the role of 17-year-old Andrea Zuckerman on Beverly Hills, 90210. Carteris was able to conceal her age, but believes that sites like IMDB today deny actors that opportunity.

Most experts warned California legislators at the time of passage that the law wouldn’t withstand scrutiny. The First Amendment protects the right to list virtually any information, including the age of an actor. If you’re an actor going out for a part that is *ahem* a bit young for you, better act fast.

 

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Nathan McLendon Explains It All Wrong

July 21, 2015 In The News Comments (0) 254

web1_Nathanl_McLendon_t300I’m slightly hesitant to publicly criticize an undergraduate for misunderstanding history and civil rights, but since Nathan McLendon (pictured at left, without what I assume is his customary fedora) is apparently a guest columnist at the Albany (Georgia) Herald, and therefore popped up among the Google alerts in my inbox, I’m going to make an exception.

First, I invite you to read the jumble of accreted right-wing talking points the Albany Herald, an esteemed publication with a 125-year history and a 29-word Wikipedia entry,* thinks qualifies as a guest column. Following the thetical headline “Political Correctness Threatens Free Speech,” McLendon asserts the following:

  • That activists seeking to remove the Confederate Flag from popular use are attacking free speech. Which is counter to reality, because those activists are employing free speech in advocating for the removal of a government-sanctioned symbol. It’s McLendon who opposes free speech by suggesting that those raising complaints are somehow committing an offense against public discourse.
  • That public outcry against unpopular opinions attacks free speech. This is a right-wing canard: “If I express my opinion, that’s free speech. If you express criticism of my opinion, that’s oppression.” McLendon backs it up with another deceptive canard, the “bakery owner fined for refusing to participate in a gay wedding.” In fact the fines in question resulted from the bakery owner encouraging harassment and violence against the gay couple in violation of court instructions.
  • That “it’s easier to call someone a racist than to think for yourself.” This follows a lengthy repetition of farcical Civil War history, which I’ll get to in a moment. In the minds of many right-wingers (especially racists), one of the worst things anyone can do is call someone a racist. I just find it so bizarre and slightly amusing that so many Americans frame their opposition to free speech as a defense thereof.

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The Free Speech Problem

November 17, 2014 In The News, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 324

Most everyone agrees that online harassment is a major problem in need of an immediate solution, but in the hunt for trolls, some are too quick to dismiss legitimate concerns about free speech.

(Cross-posted at Medium)

In the wake of the GamerGate blowup, most of America is aware of our epidemic of online harassment. Unrepentant trolls on Twitter, Facebook, and similar services exploit anonymity and the ease of creating sockpuppet accounts to stalk, threaten, dox, and torment victims, even driving some to the point of suicide. But while activists rightly raise alarms about the problem, their proposed solutions often carry the risk of limiting the free speech and expression that make the Internet so powerful.

Writing at Boing Boing, for example, Glenn Fleishman explores Twitter’s problem with serial offenders, known trolls who have been banned but then return thanks to Twitter’s failure to enforce their own policy against serial accounts. Roughly two-thirds through the piece, Fleishman leaps abruptly to a rather dramatic conclusion: “the fight for anonymous speech ends when promotion of it is inexorably and demonstrably linked to enabling harassers.” Continue Reading

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First Amendment Friday: Nov 14 2014

November 14, 2014 First Amendment Fridays Comments (11) 3633

I haven’t done one of these in a while, but if Europe can land a robot on a comet then by God I can read my Google alerts and present my little Constitutional digest. As we end a week in which TIME magazine suggests banning the word “feminist” and a celebrated emerging sci-fi author is revealed as one of the Internet’s most nefarious trolls, it seems appropriate to take a look at what’s happening worldwide with the rights to speech, assembly, and expression:

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First Amendment Friday: 05.02.2014

May 2, 2014 ACLU, Gay and Lesbian, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 244

This is a feature I started in my time working for the ACLU, that seems worth continuing here. It’s a roundup of news stories about First Amendment rights, not only from the United States but other parts of the world where such rights may not be guaranteed. As with any roundup of news stories, please consider the integrity of the linked source–I try not to link articles that feel bogus, but sometimes stories slip through.

  • In a new book, retired Supreme Court Justice Paul Stevens suggests six new amendments to the U.S. Constitution, including a revision to the First Amendment that would place “reasonable limits” on political campaign contributions. [NPR]
  • The NCAA believes the First Amendment gives them the right to profit from using the images of the players it doesn’t pay and doesn’t educate in video games, and they want the Supreme Court to agree. [Bloomberg]
  • Several Christian groups that perform same-sex weddings, including the United Church of Christ, have sued North Carolina because the state’s marriage equality ban, enacted through both state law and the state constitution, violate their religious freedom under the First Amendment. [Wall Street Journal]
  • Defense attorneys for alleged gang leader Ronald Herron argue that his rap recordings, in which prosecutors claim he journaled his crimes, are in fact protected free speech, analogous to Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” and inadmissible at trial. [AP]

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First Amendment Friday: 04.25.14

April 25, 2014 In The News, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 220

This is a feature I started in my time working for the ACLU, that seems worth continuing here. It’s a roundup of news stories about First Amendment rights, not only from the United States but other parts of the world where such rights may not be guaranteed. As with any roundup of news stories, please consider the integrity of the linked source–I try not to link articles that feel bogus, but sometimes stories slip through.

  • Eight rappers who sell CDs of their music in Times Square are suing the NYPD, saying the police violate their free speech and target them unfairly for persecution and arrests. [AllHipHop]
  • Dallin H. Oaks, a leader of the LDS Church, says he believes protections for religious freedom of speech are eroding. [AP]
  • A Pennsylvania student’s family is suing after administrators removed religious notes he inserted into Valentine’s Day cards. [The Express Times]

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First Amendment Friday: 4.16.2014

April 18, 2014 Politics / Religion Comments (0) 202

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This is a feature I started in my time working for the ACLU, that seems worth continuing here. It’s a roundup of news stories about First Amendment rights, not only from the United States but other parts of the world where such rights may not be guaranteed. As with any roundup of news stories, please consider the integrity of the linked source–I try not to link articles that feel bogus, but sometimes stories slip through.

 

 

  • The U.S. Supreme Court will consider an Ohio case that could make it illegal to lie in a political campaign. At least two Justices, by the way, have previously indicated their belief that the First Amendment does not protect “factually untrue statements.”
  • A bipartisan group of Congressional Representatives has sent a letter criticizing the Air Force for unconstitutional violations of religious freedom and urging them to revise regulations.
  • The Hugh Hefner Foundation has announced the 2014 winners of their First Amendment Awards, including Glenn Greenwald, Mary Beth Tinker, and a lifetime achievement award for NYU Professor Norman Dorsen. The Foundation has presented their First Amendment Award since Playboy magazine’s 25th anniversary in 1979.
  • The Virginia Supreme Court will weigh in on whether business owners may sue Yelp reviewers for libel.
  • First Amendment Zones,” often-controversial restrictions on the time and place of public protest, met new criticism at the Nevada Cattle Ranch standoff. Their ensuing removal received praise from the ACLU.

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