Below is my column today in USA Today on the decision of the Supreme Court to reject the Obama Administation’s argument for a low standard in criminalizing speech on the Internet and other forums. The Court did not have to directly deal with the free speech implications of the case since it ruled on the standard for criminalization. The Court rejected the lowest standard of a reasonable person in establishing a criminal threat. However, with the remand, the issue may come back to the Court under another effort to adopt an alternative standard of recklessness.
Below is my Sunday column in the Washington Post on Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Within minutes of the signing of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a chorus of condemnation arose across the country that threw Indiana Governor Mike Pence and his colleagues back on their heels. The response was understandable, though somewhat belated. After all, both Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama supported similar language that is found not only in federal law but the laws of 19 other states. While broader than most of these laws, the premise of the Indiana law was the same: citizens could raise religious beliefs as a defense to governmental obligations or prohibitions.
For those of us who have been warning for years about the collision of anti-discrimination laws and religious beliefs, the current controversy was a welcomed opportunity to have this long-avoided debate. Yet, we are still not having that debate. Instead, there is a collective agreement that discrimination is wrong without addressing the difficult questions of where to draw the line between the ban on discrimination and the right to free speech and free exercise. That includes the question of why only religious speech should be protected in such conflicts, as noted in the column. Yet, there is a reluctance of acknowledge good faith concerns among religious people in fear of being viewed as bigoted.
There has been a great deal of heated rhetoric in this discussion that avoids many of the more difficult questions. For example there is the common criticism that these bakers cannot assert their religious beliefs when it is really their business that is being required to take certain actions. However, last year, the Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. expressly found that such businesses do have religious rights (as they do speech rights, as recognized in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). In 2014, the Court ruled that “no conceivable definition of the term includes natural persons and nonprofit corporations, but not for-profit corporations.” Likewise, despite arguments that the federal RFRA is narrower because it references only conflicts with the government (and not other private parties in the Indiana law), some courts have ruled that it can be used in civil litigation.
As expected, the response of some commentators was to condemn even raising these question of free speech by saying that it saying that it equates gay couples to the KKK or Nazi sympathizers. Even when admitting that they do not have an answer for the free speech question, the attack is on the raising of such questions. There are legitimate concerns over allowing businesses to refuse to prepare products deemed offensive due to symbols or language, but we cannot really address these issues if people are denounced for just raising the conflicts and discussing conflicts. It results in a circular position that we can discuss the question of the protection of offensive speech but not if the question is offensive to discuss. This is an unfortunate trend where difficult questions are avoided by attacking those raising them as presumptive racists or homophobes etc for even raising different types of speech or views. It is a rather odd position to be placed in given my writings for decades supporting gay rights and same sex marriage. More importantly, when discussing the limits of free speech, one necessarily discusses the broad spectrum of free speech examples, including offensive speech. There is not an effort to equate gay marriage symbols or language with anti-Semitimic symbols or language. Obviously, as a supporter of same-sex marriage, I reject that notion. However, the point is that some people hold opposing views from my own. Some of those views I find deeply offensive. If we want to discuss the growing limitations on speech, we need to explore the spectrum of different forms of speech. That is what CNN did in the interview when raising the “KKK cake.” CNN was not saying that such a view is equally valid on the merits. It is ridiculous to say that, by discussing what different people consider offensive, we are saying that all of those views are valid or correct. It is not enough to say that such people are simply wrong or there is clearly a difference in the “real” offensiveness of the messages. Indeed, in some ways, such critics are answering the question by saying that some views are simply not viable because they are wrong. That is saying that society will draw the line on what speech can be the basis for refusing services and what cannot be such a basis.
The column below raises the question of line drawing and states that I would prefer an absolute rule requiring all services. However, I could not support such a rule if we are going to strip protection from “wrong” views while allowing others to refuse on the ground that other symbols or language are clearly offensive. One variation on the “No Cake For You” approach below was suggested by a colleague who said that we could allow bakers and others to refuse any offensive language — religious or non-religious — unless the government could show that the baker would have sold the cake but for the status of the prospective buyer (e.g., gay or straight, Jewish or not, etc.). Thus, as long as the basis of the refusal was the actual language or symbols, it would be protected as an expressive act.
As I say in the column, I continue to struggle with drawing this line. None of the options are particularly satisfying. However, I do think that we have to have a real dialogue on this issue free of low-grade efforts to those on the other side as bigoted for wanting to discuss the range of free speech conflicts. The point is that, when dealing with the question of the right to refuse to create offensive symbols or language, one must address the fact that there are a wide array of such conflicts that can arise among different religious, cultural, or political groups. One does not have to agree with their speech to raise the question of their right to engage in such speech. Indeed, the first amendment is designed to protect unpopular speech. We do not need it to protect popular speech. Some may ultimately decided that no business can refuse any message under the “Let Them Eat Cake” approach despite rulings like Hobby Lobby and Citizens United. However, the first step is to have the debate, preferably free of personal attacks or attempts to silence those who would raise the speech of other unpopular or offensive groups.
The Bergdahl case will raise some considerable challenges for the defense in what could be one of the most notable desertion cases in modern U.S. history. That is, if it goes to trial. This would seem a case where everyone may prefer a plea. The evidence is strong against Bergdahl, though there is clearly a great deal of evidence that has yet to be released. Cases always appear stronger for the government at the time of indictment. However, what we know is pretty bad for the defense. On the other side, the Obama Administration would clearly prefer a plea to a trial that would highlight Bergdahl’s actions and the possible loss of U.S. personnel looking for a deserter (who was later traded for five blood-soaked Taliban leaders with terrorist ties). Such issues would be obvious for prosecutors to raise when discussing the appropriate punishment, if Bergdahl is convicted. However, it could be an argument that the Administration would not want pursued by prosecutors. While such interference is prohibited as “command influence” on a military case, there have been allegations of such influence in past high-profile cases, including controversies in this Administration. In this case, the pressure is likely to be considerable for prosecutors to accept a plea, though such a plea could fuel previously accusations that the case was being manipulated to avoid embarrassment for the Administration.
Below is the longer version of my column that ran in print this morning in USA Today.
Below is today’s column in USA Today. The column was actually written after I went to Chicago for Christmas and experienced firsthand the speed traps created by the city to trap drivers. My home town is a case study of the twisted logic that goes into fleecing citizens. Chicagoans are paying the highest cost for parking in the nation after outgoing mayor Richard Daley Jr. signed away a 99-year-lease to all city meters (and later accepted a job with the firm that negotiated the deal).
Illinois also has the second highest property tax rates in the country; the highest cell phone taxes in the country; and the highest restaurant taxes of any major city. Even if you try to flee the city taxes, you are hit with the nation’s highest airport parking fees in the country.
To put it simply, citizens are tapped out. Instead of raising taxes further, the city decided to find a way to generate revenue and actually blame the citizens. It installed a system of cameras that would make Kim Jong-Un blush combined with the shortest yellow lights in the nation.
Now Emanuel has backed down after years of his Administration dismissing complaints from citizens. His close reelection rather than decency appears the motivation. In the past, his government has defended the patchwork system of lights. Chicago officials insisted that other cities are also using the three-second light, including Boston and New York City. However, in New York, no red light camera tickets are issued until 0.3 seconds into the red light and Boston does not have red light cameras at all (and use the three-second yellows only downtown). However, Chicago is not alone in this perverse revenue grab.
The column is below:
I had the pleasure this month of writing a piece on free speech in the leading policy magazine in Switzerland, “Schweizer Monat.” The piece is published in German (Charlies falsche Freunde or Charlie’s False Friends), which is particularly cool for my son Benjamin who is taking German at McLean High School in Virginia. The German version can be found here. Germany is currently our fifth highest supplier of readers with Switzerland close behind. Ironically, Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein also wrote a piece in the same issue this month. The translated column is below:
Below is my column in the Sunday Washington Post on the free speech implications of the massacre in Paris and what it means to “stand with Charlie.” Rather the piece explores the status of free speech in France and The murders themselves are clearly the work of Islamic extremists who need little reason to kill innocent people in their twisted view of faith. However, the victims were journalists who had struggled with rising speech limitations and regulations in France as well as other European nations. (Indeed, at least one surviving journalist expressed contempt for those who now support free speech but remained silent in the face of past efforts to shut down the magazine). We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in France (here and here and here and here and here and here) and England ( here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Much of this trend is tied to the expansion of hate speech and non-discrimination laws. We have seen comedians targets with such court orders under this expanding and worrisome trend. (here and here).
As many on this blog know, I have a particular affection for France and its people. I was moved to see the protest spontaneously protest as thousands can out to defend liberty and French culture. It was a quintessential moment for the French. Indeed, it reminded many of us of how the French once voiced the “Rights of Man” and rallied around civil liberties at a defining moment for all of Western Civilization. We all felt victims of these attacks and most of us were moved to see our French counterparts joining together in one voice to support free speech. However, there needs to be some frank discussion of threat posed by increasing speech regulations and prosecutions. Ironically, while thousands have demonstrated against immigration as a threat to national identity, the real threat is not the immigrants themselves but the loss of national identity from these prosecutions. What is France if it is not its liberties and freedoms? France cannot simply be defined by brie and baguettes. Those who want to join Western countries must accept their core commitment to free speech as part of a social convenant not just with the government but with each other.
(The title of the piece is selected by the Post, not the author. (We usually learn of the titles when the reader does). The print version includes a title that the “threat” comes not terrorism but the French. Many may conclude that the piece somehow blames the French for these attacks which is obviously not true. Rather, with the rallies (including the huge rally today) in support of free speech, the column explores the primary cause of the erosion of free speech in France — and what can be done to restore it. Likewise, this article is not meant to suggest that any criticism of religion is no longer tolerated in France. After all, the magazine continued to publish despite efforts to prosecute the editors and journalists. Moreover, French courts have ruled in favor of free speech in some critical cases. However, while some efforts have been curtailed by the French courts, government censorship has been increasing, particularly when the challenged speech is directed at living individuals. Other restrictions are broader and the appetite for such regulation appears to be increasing. For example, a few years ago, when the government made the denial of the genocide of Armenians by Turkey a crime, the drafter of the law Senator Valerie Boyer dismissed the objections and said “That’s democracy.” Indeed, Boyer exemplified why John Adams warned that “ democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” The clash between democracy and free speech is growing as different groups demand that others be silenced in the name of pluralism and tolerance.
Here is the column: