Category Archives: Free Speech

The Library And The Culture War

Over the years, I have come to admire two professions above most others: social workers and librarians. The social workers I’ve come to know are simply wonderful human beings–compassionate, caring and non-judgmental. (If we admire traits we personally lack, that would explain my awe about that “non-judgmental” thing…) The librarians I know are dedicated protectors of the First Amendment, and absolutely fearless defenders of our right as individuals to access whatever information interests us.

The traits of both professions are obviously anathema to the White Christian Nationalists who control today’s GOP . Those culture warriors are especially intent upon controlling what other people can read, and that single-minded devotion to cultural control brings them into fairly regular conflict with librarians and the mission of the nation’s libraries, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked by a recent headline from The Guardian: US library defunded after refusing to censor LGBTQ authors: ‘We will not ban the books.’

A small-town library is at risk of shutting down after residents of Jamestown, Michigan, voted to defund it rather than tolerate certain LGBTQ+-themed books.

Residents voted on Tuesday to block a renewal of funds tied to property taxes, Bridge Michigan reported.

 The vote leaves the library with funds through the first quarter of next year. Once a reserve fund is used up, it would be forced to close, Larry Walton, the library board’s president, told Bridge Michigan – harming not just readers but the community at large. Beyond books, residents visit the library for its wifi, he said, and it houses the very room where the vote took place.

“Our libraries are places to read, places to gather, places to socialize, places to study, places to learn. I mean, they’re the heart of every community,” Deborah Mikula, executive director of the Michigan Library Association, told the Guardian. “So how can you lose that?”

What was the library’s sin? It refused to remove materials about sexual orientation from its shelves–materials that the residents asserted were “grooming” children to adopt a “gay lifestyle.”

The controversy in Jamestown began with a complaint about a memoir by a nonbinary writer, but it soon spiraled into a campaign against Patmos Library itself. After a parent complained about Gender Queer: a Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, a graphic novel about the author’s experience coming out as nonbinary, dozens showed up at library board meetings, demanding the institution drop the book. (The book, which includes depictions of sex, was in the adult section of the library.) Complaints began to target other books with LGBTQ+ themes.

One library director resigned, telling Bridge she had been harassed and accused of indoctrinating kids; her successor, Matt Lawrence, also left the job. Though the library put Kobabe’s book behind the counter rather than on the shelves, the volumes remained available.

“We, the board, will not ban the books,” Walton told Associated Press on Thursday….

The library’s refusal to submit to the demands led to a campaign urging residents to vote against renewed funding for the library. A group calling itself Jamestown Conservatives handed out flyers condemning Gender Queer for showing “extremely graphic sexual illustrations of two people of the same gender”, criticizing a library director who “promoted the LGBTQ ideology” and calling for making the library “a safe and neutral place for our kids”. On Facebook, the group says it exists to “keep our children safe, and protect their purity, as well as to keep the nuclear family intact as God designed”.

I’m sure the person who wrote that had spoken to God personally about the threat. (That’s sarcasm. I admitted I’m judgmental…)

Apparently, libraries across the country are facing a surge in similar demands to ban books. The American Library Association has identified 729 challenges to “library, school and university materials and services” just in the last year–and an estimated 1,600 challenges or removals of individual books. That figure was up from 273 books the year before.

“We’re seeing what appears to be a campaign to remove books, particularly books dealing with LGBTQIA themes and books dealing with racism,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, head of the ALA’s office for intellectual freedom, told the Guardian last year.

There is certainly “grooming” going on, but those responsible aren’t trying to sell small children on the glories of homosexuality, or destroy what’s left of the nuclear family. The real “grooming” has been done by hate-mongers like Alex Jones, the late and non-lamented Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson and his fellow-travelers on Fox News–aided and abetted by fundamentalist churches and  various Rightwing organizations.

The GOP’s groomers play to the racism, misogyny and homophobia of their White Christian Nationalist base, encouraging them to direct their hysterical fear of cultural change at the nation’s libraries.

In this fight, my money is on the librarians.

 

What Can We Do About Fox?

I subscribe to a newsletter from Tom Nichols, a non-crazy conservative who writes for the Atlantic, among other outlets. Nichols recently addressed a problem that pretty much everyone who isn’t crazy recognizes: Fox “News.”

Nichols taught at the Naval War College for 25 years; he worked closely with many American military officers, and he has become increasingly worried about the danger of extremism in the ranks–a situation made worse, in his view, by the fact that Fox is the “default channel in so many military installations.

The overlap between Fox and even more-extreme outlets such as Newsmax and One America News Network, a slew of right-wing internet sites, and talk radio is part of a closed information ecosystem that affects the military no less than it does American society at large. Many years ago, I defended the emergence of Fox as an antidote to the politically homogeneous center-left tilt of the established American media. (Please spare me too much caviling here about media bias back in the Good Old Days; it was less of a menace than conservatives depicted it, but more of a reality than liberals were sometimes willing to admit.)

But things change: Fox is no longer an additional source of news and opinion. It is, instead, a steady stream of conspiracy theories and rage-bait, especially in prime time.

As Nichols explains, there is a significant and important difference between different views held by people who have reached opposing conclusions about various issues and people whose opinions aren’t derived from anything that might remotely be considered evidence or fact.

I am increasingly concerned, however, that what comes from Fox and similar outlets these days is not a “view” so much as an attack on reality itself. As Russian dissident Garry Kasparov has noted, modern propaganda isn’t designed “only to misinform or push an agenda”; it is meant to “exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth,” a good description of how Fox and similar outlets now present their programming… …To watch Fox for an extended amount of time is to go on an excursion into an alternate reality of paranoia and fury, to plunge into a hurricane of anger that shapes views by defying logic and evidence.

I agree. So–I repeat the question with which I’ve been approaching most of the issues of our day: what can/should we do?

Nichols’ response echoes generations of First Amendment case law: the answer to bad speech is more and better speech. More openness, not censorship. Nichols insists that the  answer to an authoritarian challenge cannot be more authoritarianism. (He also dismisses the predictable calls to bring back the Fairness Doctrine–calls from people who clearly don’t understand what that doctrine did and didn’t do. The Fairness Doctrine was a  1949 rule, finally discarded in 1987, that applied ONLY to broadcast channels owned by the government. Ownership allowed government to attach conditions to the lease of those airwaves–attempting to apply it to cable or other privately owned means of communication would violate the First Amendment.)

I used to share with students something I called my “refrigerator theory of Free Speech”–like the forgotten leftover in the back of your refrigerator now covered in green fuzz, suppressed ideas will eventually smell the place up. Put those same leftovers in bright sunlight, and their stench is baked out.  The marketplace of ideas can’t function properly unless there’s verbal sunlight, and freedom of speech requires that We the People participate in that marketplace and produce that sunlight–in this case, more and better speech.

As Nichols says,

No matter how much you don’t like it, you cannot ban, censor, or silence Fox. It’s that simple. You can choose not to watch it and encourage others to do likewise—which can have more impact than you might think. Another possibility is for businesses and institutions to choose neutral programming in common areas such as sports or weather, as military exchanges (stores for military personnel) did in 2019.

He is absolutely right–and that’s what’s so incredibly frustrating. Bottom line, rescuing our democracy necessarily depends upon the efforts of millions of reasonable Americans to combat the hatreds, fears and racial grievances that motivate the members of today’s GOP cult and provide the content of its propaganda arms.

Ultimately, America’s survival as a democratic republic will come down to whether good people–including genuine conservatives–outnumber, outvote and occasionally out-yell the White Nationalists, theocrats and other angry, frightened people who are the target audience of outlets like Fox “News.”

There’s no guarantee those good people will prevail…..and that’s what is so terrifying….

 

That Misunderstood First Amendment

I know that my constant yammering about the importance of civic education can seem pretty tiresome –especially in the abstract–so I was initially gratified to read Brookings Institution article focusing on a very tangible example.

Emerging research confirms the damage being done by misinformation being disseminated by social media, and that research has led to a sometimes acrimonious debate over what can be done to ameliorate the problem. One especially troubling argument has been over content that isn’t, as the article recognizes, “per se illegal” but nevertheless likely to cause significant. harm.

Many on the left insist digital platforms haven’t done enough to combat hate speech, misinformation, and other potentially harmful material, while many on the right argue that platforms are doing far too much—to the point where “Big Tech” is censoring legitimate speech and effectively infringing on Americans’ fundamental rights.

There is considerable pressure on policymakers to pass laws addressing the ways in which social media platforms operate–and especially how those platforms moderate incendiary posts. As the article notes,  the electorate’s incorrect beliefs about the First Amendment add to “the political and economic challenges of building better online speech governance.”

What far too many Americans don’t understand about freedom of speech–and for that matter, not only the First Amendment but the entire Bill of Rights–is that the liberties being protected are freedom from government action. If the government isn’t involved, neither is the Constitution.

I still remember a telephone call I received when I directed Indiana’s ACLU. A young man wanted the ACLU to sue White Castle, which had refused to hire him because they found the tattoos covering him “unappetizing.” He was sure they couldn’t do that, because he had a First Amendment right to express himself. I had to explain to him that White Castle also had a First Amendment right to control its messages. Had the legislature or City-County Council forbid citizens to communicate via tattooing, that would be government censorship, and would violate the First Amendment.

That young man’s belief that the right to free speech is somehow a free-floating right against anyone trying to restrict his communication is a widespread and pernicious misunderstanding, and it complicates discussion of the available approaches to content moderation on social media platforms. Facebook, Twitter and the rest are, like newspaper and magazine publishers, private entities–like White Castle, they have their own speech rights. As the author of the Brookings article writes,

Nonetheless, many Americans erroneously believe that the content-moderation decisions of digital platforms violate ordinary people’s constitutionally guaranteed speech rights. With policymakers at all levels of government working to address a diverse set of harms associated with platforms, the electorate’s mistaken beliefs about the First Amendment could add to the political and economic challenges of building better online speech governance.

The author conducted research into three related questions: How common is this inaccurate belief? Does it correlate with lower support for content moderation? And if it does, does education about the actual scope of First Amendment speech protection increase support for platforms to engage in content moderation?

The results of that research were, as academics like to say, “mixed,” especially for proponents of more and better civic education.

Fifty-nine percent of participants answered the Constitutional question incorrectly, and were less likely to support decisions by platforms to ban particular users. As the author noted, misunderstanding of the First Amendment was both very common and linked to lower support for content moderation. Theoretically, then, educating about the First Amendment should increase support for content moderation.

However, it turned out that such training actually lowered support for content moderation-(interestingly, that  decrease in support was “linked to Republican identity.”)

Why might that be? The author speculated that respondents might reduce their support for content moderation once they realized that there is less legal recourse than expected when they find such moderation uncongenial to their political preferences.

In other words, it is reasonable to be more skeptical of private decisions about content moderation once one becomes aware that the legal protections for online speech rights are less than one had previously assumed. …

 Republican politicians and the American public alike express the belief that platform moderation practices favor liberal messaging, despite strong empirical evidence to the contrary. Many Americans likely hold such views at least in part due to strategically misleading claims by prominent politicians and media figures, a particularly worrying form of misinformation. Any effort to improve popular understandings of the First Amendment will therefore need to build on related strategies for countering widespread political misinformation.

Unfortunately, when Americans inhabit alternative realities, even civic education runs into a wall….

 

 

Free Speech For Those Who Can Afford It

When John Roberts was elevated to the Supreme Court, my concerns weren’t focused on his likely conservative/ideological rigidity. (That was —and remains–my concern with subsequent Justices.) My “reading” of Justice Roberts was that he would instinctively side with power and authority–that he was likely to be pro-government and pro-business elite in situations calling for more searching inquiry into the equities involved.

I am not happy to report that my concerns were well-founded.

Roberts is solicitous when it comes to the rights of American elites. The defense of corporate “free speech” rights in Citizens United required an airy disregard of the foreseeable consequences of that decision for the electoral system. The opinion simply ignored the issue of disproportion, disingenuously equating the free speech rights of everyday citizens with the free speech rights of those who have massive resources at their disposal.

The problem began when the Court equated money with speech, and in Citizens United and several subsequent cases, it has steadily chipped away at McCain-Feingold restrictions meant to level the political playing field.

A few days ago, Len Farber reminded us of the quote from Anatole France that is perfectly applicable here: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

The most recent example of this sanctimonious and dishonest approach to the constitutional right of free speech came in a case brought by the odious Ted Cruz.

The case challenged a law limiting the amount of campaign funds that can be used to repay personal campaign loans to $250,000.  In a decision further weakening campaign finance regulations, the court held that a federal cap on candidates’ use of political contributions after an election to recoup personal loans made to their campaign was unconstitutional.

Roberts wrote the majority opinion, protecting the “free speech” rights of candidates with the resources to lend their campaigns enormous sums. Justice Elena Kagan cut through Roberts’ “free speech” pose to zero in on the real issue.

In her dissenting opinion, Kagan criticized the majority for ruling against a law that she said was meant to combat “a special danger of corruption” aimed at “political contributions that will line a candidate’s own pockets.”

In striking down the law today,” she wrote, “the Court greenlights all the sordid bargains Congress thought right to stop. . . . In allowing those payments to go forward unrestrained, today’s decision can only bring this country’s political system into further disrepute.”

Indeed, she explained, “Repaying a candidate’s loan after he has won election cannot serve the usual purposes of a contribution: The money comes too late to aid in any of his campaign activities. All the money does is enrich the candidate personally at a time when he can return the favor — by a vote, a contract, an appointment. It takes no political genius to see the heightened risk of corruption — the danger of ‘I’ll make you richer and you’ll make me richer’ arrangements between donors and officeholders.”

Even if we give Roberts the benefit of the doubt–if we assume that, from his lofty perch, he really doesn’t understand how the political “real world” works–it’s difficult to understand this decision. (Former Congressman Lee Hamilton used to say that the Supreme Court would benefit greatly from fewer Ivy League graduates and more Justices who had run for county sheriff–people who understood the gritty realities of political life.)

Cruz argued that “by substantially increasing the risk that any candidate loan will never be fully repaid,” the law forces a candidate to think twice before making those loans in the first place. The underlying assumption of his argument, of course, is that “serious”candidates for office are wealthy enough to self-finance their campaigns. This decision allows those wealthy candidates to do so without risking an actual loss of some portion of their funds, because they can now recoup the entire amount from post-election campaign fundraising.

As the Deputy Solicitor argued, the law “targets a practice that has significant corruptive potential.”

“A post-election contributor generally knows which candidate has won the election, and post-election contributions do not further the usual purposes of donating to electoral campaigns,” he said.

Campaign finance watchdogs supported the cap, arguing it is necessary to block undue influence by special interests, particularly because the fundraising would occur once the candidate has become a sitting member of Congress.

As one election law expert commented, “the Court has shown itself not to care very much about the danger of corruption, seeing protecting the First Amendment rights of big donors as more important.”

As an Atlantic  newsletter concluded: campaign-finance regulation in the U.S. has all but vanished.

This decision is more evidence–as if we needed it– of a Court that has lost its way.

 

 

 

 

Keeping Americans “Mad As Hell” 24/7

I don’t regularly read Mother Jones, so I had missed a profoundly important analysis by Kevin Drum that ran in that publication last October. I’m indebted to Gerald Stinson for sharing it.

Drum asks: why are Americans so angry? He notes that the anger is almost entirely political (most of us aren’t mad at our families, friends, plumbers)…

Research suggests that our “national temper tantrum” began in 2000, and Drum methodically investigates–and discards– the usual explanations for that vitriol. He demonstrates that Americans are no more addicted to conspiracy theories than we ever were, for example. (Hofstadter wrote about American paranoia back in 1964, after all.)

He also discounts the role of social media, while acknowledging that–like all new forms of communication–it has had a political effect. When we examine how social media affects what we learn about politics, he writes:

This obviously depends on how much political news we get from social media in the first place, which turns out to be surprisingly little—at least when it comes to actual articles or broadcast segments, not hot takes from your Uncle Bob.

And then there’s that pesky timeline: social media can’t explain something that started 20 years ago.

Drum also makes short shrift of the argument that we’re all mad because everything has gotten worse. It hasn’t, and he shares data showing that Americans’ opinions on virtually every aspect of our communal lives has remained constant–albeit with two very troubling exceptions. One is the rise of White grievance:

White respondents believe that anti-white bias has been steadily increasing. And the American National Election Studies, among other polls, have showed this belief in so-called reverse racism is overwhelmingly driven by white Republicans. This trend starts before 2000, but it’s growing and is an obvious candidate to explain rising white anger—as long as there’s something around to keep it front and center in the minds of white people.

The other is a precipitous collapse of trust in government.

If the “usual suspects” don’t explain our current fears, hatreds and political divisions, what does? Drum’s conclusion: Fox News.

When it debuted in 1996, Fox News was an afterthought in Republican politics. But after switching to a more hardline conservatism in the late ’90s it quickly attracted viewership from more than a third of all Republicans by the early 2000s. And as anyone who’s watched Fox knows, its fundamental message is rage at what liberals are doing to our country. Over the years the specific message has changed with the times—from terrorism to open borders to Benghazi to Christian cake bakers to critical race theory—but it’s always about what liberal politicians are doing to cripple America, usually with a large dose of thinly veiled racism to give it emotional heft.

As Drum notes, rage toward Democrats means more votes for Republicans. Creating that rage is what Fox does.

As far back as 2007 researchers learned that the mere presence of Fox News on a cable system increased Republican vote share by nearly 1 percent. A more recent study estimates that a minuscule 150 seconds per week of watching Fox News can increase the Republican vote share. In a study of real-life impact, researchers found that this means the mere existence of Fox News on a cable system induced somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of non-Republicans to vote for the Republican Party in the 2000 presidential election. A more recent study estimates that Fox News produced a Republican increase of 3.59 points in the 2004 share of the two-party presidential vote and 6.34 points in 2008. That’s impact.

As we saw earlier, the past couple of decades have seen a steady increase in the belief among white people—particularly Republicans—that anti-white bias is a serious problem. Fox News has stoked this fear almost since the beginning, culminating this year in Tucker’s full-throated embrace of the white supremacist “replacement theory” and the seemingly 24/7 campaign against critical race theory and its alleged impact on white schoolkids. This is certainly not all that Fox News does, but it’s a big part of its pitch, and it fits hand in glove with Trump’s appeal to white racism…

Thanks to Fox News, conservative trust in government is so low that Republican partisans can easily believe Democrats have cheated on a mass scale, and white evangelicals in particular are willing to fight with the spirit of someone literally facing Armageddon.

You really need to read the whole, lengthy analysis.

Drum concludes “It is Fox News that has torched the American political system over the past two decades, and it is Fox News that we have to continue to fight.”

But he doesn’t tell us how.