Trigger Warnings and Tyranny

February 11, 2015 ACLU, Gay and Lesbian, In The News, Politics / Religion Comments (4) 794

Pennsylvania_State_Capitol_Front_PanoramaIn 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

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Jonathan Coulton, Internet censorship, and creativity as industry

January 24, 2012 In The News, Politics / Religion, Writing Comments (0) 289

I was blacked out last Wednesday [well, I wasn’t — my web site was] in web solidarity against internet censorship, so my three readers had to go elsewhere for their information on house centipedes [seriously, it drives like 90% of my search engine traffic]. You already know about SOPA and PIPA and why they must be stopped, so I won’t bore you by restating. How incredible to watch last Wednesday as public awareness skyrocketed, prompting cosponsors to drop off and kill a bill in what was essentially a few hours. I work in public interest and let me tell you, things don’t work that way most of the time. It was definitely one of those “Uh-oh, you woke up the Internet” moments.

As an author, and one who hopes to one day make writing my sole source of income, I have a vested interest in copyright law. I believe in copyright, and I recognize that the whole idea of a creative industry is reliant on intellectual property law. More than being illegal, I view piracy as morally wrong – at least, when it’s an artist trying to earn a living from whom you are pirating. However, to put large corporations in charge of deciding what is or is not a violation of copyright is just totally ludicrous.

Corporations cannot be trusted with IP decisions. Has everyone forgotten when Disney tried to trademark “Seal Team Six,” the name of a Navy Seal division? Marvel and DC Comics co-own a trademark on the term “Superhero.” Whole industries have sprung up around buying photo copyrights and suing unknowing bloggers. Corporations have no belief in education, parody, satire, critique, or any other fair use. Their only interest is in protecting their valuable property.

As much as I care about copyright, and the right of the artist to compensation, I also believe in maintaining an open forum for discussion and a free exchange of ideas. As an author, I recognize that readers are going to share my work around – whether lending books, or even in some cases reproducing them. Hell, I don’t just recognize it, I hope for it. Not only because it potentially creates more fans to purchase my products, but because I believe in a world where people can share things like art and music with friends, without having to treat that act as a financial transaction.

Which brings us to Jonathan Coulton, and his thoughts on both the SOPA/PIPA issue and the US Government’s ensuing shut-down of Megaupload. Coulton [whose work on Portal alone was enough to make me a fan] points out that, really, the business model we’re defending has been around a relatively short time, and there is no God-given right to make money from making art:

It so happens that technological and societal blahbity bloos have conspired to create a situation where selling songs about monkeys and robots is a viable business, but for most of human history people have NOT paid for art. I don’t want this to happen again, and I would be very sad if this came to pass, but it’s not up to me to decide.
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This is pretty on-the-nose, frankly. As sad as I would be to see my dreams of writing for a living go up in smoke [really, really sad – so keep that in mind before you pull the new Lady Gaga track down off Frostwire], it’s the nature of the business and the era we are all living through and shaping. I want to make a living doing what I love, but I don’t want it enough to justify a law that hamstrings free expression and the free exchange of ideas. Sony and Disney and Comcast might think their dollars are worth more than our collective minds. I just don’t happen to agree.

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