The above image is a still from a video I came across on YouTube. That clip is very poignant in its message: that the concept of free speech is under assault and going up in flames. But, that assault is not being perpetrated by the government, but by the very citizens to whom the First Amendment’s provisions are afforded.
Originally, this post was going to talk about net neutrality, and how critical that the rules established by the FCC during the Obama administration be preserved. In a nutshell, net neutrality forbids ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon from giving preferential treatment to certain content. All content must flow freely to the requester without any restrictions imposed, whether throttling bandwidth or assessing fees. To give that control to corporate interests would, in essence, give them the power to decide who succeeds on the Internet by promoting sites and opinions they deem favorable, and slowing or blocking the content of competitors or individuals with whom they disagree.
Publicly, these companies say they have no interest in altering the flow of information over the Internet. Yet, since the rules were adopted, those regulations have been challenged in court by the big phone and cable companies. Why? Why oppose and seek the reversal of rules that you say effectively have no impact? These efforts to date have been soundly defeated. When Donald Trump entered the White House, he named a new chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai. Did you know he is a former lawyer for Verizon?. Sorry, I do not see much coincidence in the choice for the chair of this agency. If you cannot beat them in court, ensure that the President appoints someone who can change the rules himself. Disgusting.
But then, with my mind all fired up about net neutrality, I come across an article about how a white supremacist site, The Daily Stormer, had their domain registration cancelled by GoDaddy in response to the events that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia. They moved their site registration to Google Domains, and were promptly shown the door again by Google. The puzzling thing in it all: those who are up in arms about the very real danger of having their content controlled (and, by extension, certain points of view effectively silenced) by corporate entities if net neutrality rules are rescinded are applauding the very same sort of censorship through denial of domain registration. If this is not hypocrisy, I do not know what is.
Incidentally, this is the last week of the FCC’s public comment period related to this issue. You can make your commentary by visiting the relevant docket on the FCC website, then clicking “+New Filing.”
Net neutrality swirled with censorship, and I started thinking in even broader terms and about other recent events. Charlottesville. Protest and counter-protest. Berkeley. Statues and monuments on public property. THE FIRST AMENDMENT. This was morphing into something way bigger. In software development, this would be the equivalent of what is known as “requirements creep”, where the scope of the project blossoms beyond the original requirements.
The First Amendment
My view of government is a limited one. The Constitution exists to define the structure of our government, with the Bill of Rights established to protect individuals from the government. Laws exists to protect us from each other, and to further the exercise of the rights granted by the Bill of Rights.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
So often, I see people complaining that their right to free speech is being violated when their comments are purged from a site. They have no basis to make an argument – private entities are not the government, and are free to implement any policy they like in their terms of service agreement. I personally do not agree with such policies, as they violate the spirit of our freedom of speech, but I observe them, nonetheless.
In forgetting, or not realizing, that “freedom of speech” only protects that right from government intervention, people also tend to forget that freedom of speech does not mean “freedom from consequences” as a result of that speech. Companies and government agencies are combing social media for questionable postings when hiring new employees or doing investigations for security clearances. One certainly cannot walk into their manager’s office, call him (or her) a “cocksucking pedophile mutant” and expect to remain employed. If someone chooses to attend a public event, like Charlottesville, they must accept the consequence that their mere presence will likely associate them with the extreme elements that are present, whether they actually agree with their extreme views or not.
Protests vs. Counterprotests
Constitutional provisions like the First Amendment must be observed by states and municipalities. When it comes to peaceful assembly, the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that local governments can impose rules in the interest of public safety regarding the location and time that said assemblies can take place. While I understand the need to have the ability to allocate resources to handle these events, I am also skeptical because it introduces the possibility that those rules can be abused to silence certain points of view under the umbrella of “public safety concerns”. It also gives opposition an opportunity to organize, for better or worse.
If you go back to my original post on this site, I stated that “my rights end where yours begin”. It is not something codified in law, nor it is derived from a religious text – it is a basic ideal of individual liberty in which I fervently believe. With that said, as much as one group has a right to engage in a protest, another group has an equal right to organize their own counterprotest. However, protesters and counterprotesters rarely have the benign motive of simply expressing or countering a message; all too often, their goal is to shut down the an event or another protest and to silence those staging it. Their aim is not to dissuade others from supporting actions or beliefs with which they disagree, but instead to agitate, antagonize, harass, and incite. Here’s a little sampling of what I am talking about:
Protesters shut down Milo Yiannopoulos event at UC Davis
Protesters Shut Down BLM Critic, Threaten Student Journalists
Peaceful, Disruptive Protesters Shut Down I-580 in Oakland
Trump protesters shut down I-80 in Iowa City
Black Lives Matter protesters shut down City Hall news conference
As you can see, this behavior is not the domain of one political ideology or another. All the myrmidons, zealots, and lemmings of the Alt-Right and Ctrl-Left (my term for Antifa and other extreme left groups) share a common trait: the burning desire to silence opposition, individual liberties be damned. When their actions impinge upon the liberties of others, no matter how right they feel their motivation are, they are WRONG in action.
Donald Trump was roundly criticized for his response to the tragic events of Charlottesville when he chose to assign blame to both the protesters and the counterprotesters for unrest . I am going to step out on a limb and say that I actually agree with him, when I view what unfolded through my personal prism of “my rights end when yours begin”.
As for the despicable murder of Heather Heyer, there is only one direction to point the finger of blame and shame: James Fields. He alone made the conscious decision to plow through the crowd of people, and he alone is to blame. The nonsensical argument that the protest led to her death is no different than any other “x caused y” fallacy, which are too numerous to list. Individual choice, individual responsibility, individual consequence – and I hope his appointment with the needle comes sooner rather than later.
As I said earlier, a consequence of free speech, expression, and assembly is the danger of association with groups whom one may not want to be associated. In an effort to publicly shame those in attendance at the protest in Charlottesville, Twitter users were encouraged to engage in “doxxing”, a term for publicly identifying people (often with sensitive personal details like addresses, phone numbers and employer information), individuals who were at the rally. At the root was a Twitter account @YesYoureRacist, operated by Logan Smith.
Remember when I said speech has consequences? More than once, the noble (slight bit of sarcasm) mission of @YesYoureRacist, operated by someone by the name of Logan Smith, resulted in the misidentification of people who were never in Charlottesville, let alone ever expressed a bigoted viewpoint in the public sphere. Case in point: University of Arkansas professor Kyle Quinn. A photo of someone in an “Arkansas Engineering” shirt who was the rally was shared in the Twittersphere, and without any more verification than “Uhhhh, that professor at Arkansas kinda looks like him, duhhhhh, think we should post it?”, Kyle Quinn suddenly became a face of the Alt-Right hate machine. Except… HE WASN’T THERE. Hateful and threatening messages streamed in via Twitter and Instagram, and he and his wife were forced to leave their home out of fear of misplaced retribution.
Since then, Logan Smith has actually had the audacity to deny responsibility for any of this. Frankly, he should be sued for defamation. If you choose to doxx someone, you had better be damn sure you are right – that is your responsibility. Your righteous fury, no matter how justified it may be, does not absolve you of that responsibility. Too many lives have been ruined by the spread of misinformation, and accountability for that ruin must be exercised.
This protest and counterprotest, and the violence that ensued, were a direct result of the absolute lack of respect that has evolved in our country when it comes to allowing others to exercise their rights and speak their minds. No matter how vile and repugnant I may find the beliefs of various groups, be they Alt-Right or Ctrl-Left, I flatly refuse to try to silence them. My rights end where theirs begin, and I cannot, in good conscience, deny them the same courtesy I would expect for myself. America is unique in the latitude that free expression that is given, and to throw that away that unique quality because something is offensive would be a tragic mistake.
As with net neutrality, when we attempt to choose who should be heard and who should be silenced, it is only a matter of time as the winds of politics change direction that YOUR viewpoints will be in the proverbial crosshairs. It is inevitable. Will you cry about being oppressed when suddenly the tables are turned and you are subjected to the treatment you so willingly heaped upon others?
Rather than muzzle those with whom we disagree, I say give them a bullhorn. Let them hold their rallies. Let them publish their vitriol on their websites. Let them reveal their true selves to be put on the display for the rest of the world to see, and to be ridiculed and shamed for views that are antithetical to everything we as Americans hold dear. I would rather have my ideological enemy in the open than lurking in the shadows, unseen and unheard. Friends close, enemies closer, right? They have no power to do anything except marginalize their so-called movements and generally look like the fools they are. We hold the real power: to expose them for what they truly are, to deny them through the ballot, and ensure they will never be in a position to impose their awful beliefs upon the rest of us. But to do so in a society that truly values freedom of expression and individual liberty, we must also learn that disagreement and respect can coexist peacefully.