Perhaps the very worst thing about the repeal of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance is that voters feared imaginary sexual assault so much that they voted in favor of actual sexual assault. There’s basically no documented history of straight men pretending to be transgender so they can access womens’ bathrooms. There is, however, a long and savage history of sexual abuse of transgender people just for being transgender–and for using the restroom to which their chromosomal gender would assign them.
There are people I respect who believe this vote really was about restrooms, and a visceral response to a perceived loss of privacy. Clearly I am not one of those people.
Three days ago, Indiana governor Mike Pence admitted that he “didn’t anticipate the hostility” that would result from passing the state’s new anti-gay “Religious Freedom” law. Speaking to the press on Sunday and Monday, he emphatically denied that the new law was about anti-gay discrimination. All this, despite abundant warnings from legal experts about the nature of the law, warnings and examples from gay rights groups about the potential backlash, and the fact that three professional homophobes stood behind the governor when he signed the bill.
How could this be?
There are those who assume Pence is being obtuse, that he’s adopting ignorance as a defense against the “unforeseen” backlash, but there is another possibility: The governor of Indiana might honestly have been this out of touch with reality–as out of touch as Mitt Romney before the 2012 election, when he ordered celebratory fireworks and neglected to write a concession speech.
Cognitive dissonance is a fascinating thing, and April 1 is the perfect day to discuss it. As companies across the Internet post their best April Fools joke–from Southwest’s crazy new bag fee system to CERN’s announcement that the Force really is with you–they rely on cognitive dissonance to help you get the joke. When the human mind is confronted with new information that conflicts with what previous experience would lead it to expect, one way to reconcile that conflict is to recognize humor.
There are other responses to cognitive dissonance, however. One of the most fascinating is what researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler termed the backfire effect: the tendency of a person to reject new information when it contradicts that person’s belief or understanding, and double-down on that commitment. Continue Reading
In October, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the “Revictimization Relief Act,” which allows crime victims to police the actions of perpetrators for life with almost no limits. The inspiration was a recorded commencement speech by Mumia Abu-Jamal played at a Vermont college earlier that month; Pennsylvania legislators said the speech re-victimized the widow and family of Daniel Faulkner, the Philly cop Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing.
Faulkner’s widow was not forced to hear the speech. Her trauma and mental anguish came only from the knowledge that Abu-Jamal would deliver it. “How could they allow him to speak when Danny no longer has a voice,” she asked in an official statement. “It is my opinion that all murderers should forfeit their right to free speech when they take the life of an innocent person.”
A majority of Pennsylvania legislators agreed. They gave Maureen Faulkner, and other victims, the legal right to stop convicted people like Abu-Jamal from doing almost anything. The law, as written and passed, allows victims to prevent any “conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim,” with such conduct defined as that which “causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.”
To many, the idea that one person’s subjective emotional experience trumps another’s constitutional rights is an affront, and the ACLU has already sued to strike down the Pennsylvania law. But the elevation of emotion is emerging as a disturbing theme of 21st century law. [pullquote position=”right”]As more Americans seek to protect people’s feelings, they sometimes find themselves in conflict with the foundation principles of justice.[/pullquote]
This year the Supreme Court will rule on Elonis v. United States, a complicated case in which a Pennsylvania man, Anthony Elonis, was convicted after posting graphic and horrifying Facebook statuses obviously directed as his ex-wife. Elonis’s defense claims he was writing rap lyrics, expressing his darker urges in the style of Eminem, and that the First Amendment protects him. Prosecutors say his messages constitute a true threat, and are not constitutionally protected. The case reached the high court partly because of a question over jury instructions: While the First Amendment and prior case law rely on the speaker’s intent to threaten, jurors who convicted Elonis were told to consider his speech a threat “if a reasonable person would have felt threatened.” [Emphasis added]
In other words, the difference between free speech and a federal crime hinges not on what was written or how, but rather on the emotional response of the person doing the reading. Continue Reading
Update, June 1 2015: This article was written in February, when Caitlyn Jenner still publicly identified as Bruce, and employs the name and pronouns that she chose at the time. While I’m at it, congratulations to Caitlyn for coming out and living a life that is true to herself.
I have a relative, a nasty closed-minded kind of guy–homophobic, misogynistic, and just generally lousy. A couple of years ago, he saw fit to apologize to me for any gay jokes that might have offended me. I suspect this was prompted by other relatives, and not by any inner guilt or empathy–by my best estimation, this individual isn’t capable of feeling such things.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I hope you know I was just kidding, and I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
I accepted the apology, surprised as I was to receive it, but I took the opportunity to deliver a little lecture. I explained that, as a man in my late 20’s (at the time) I was secure in my queer identity–certainly secure enough that the jokes and opinions of small-minded bigots didn’t hurt my feelings. But, I said, it wasn’t me he should be concerned about. Continue Reading
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]