William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
—A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt
In 1919, Oliver Wendell Holmes proclaimed that you cannot “shout fire in a crowded theater.” The ignorant, the credulous and the cynical have been misusing that phrase ever since. The argument usually follows a well defined euphemistic process:
Person X says something offensive or inflammatory. Person Y denounces not person X but rather his speech by saying, “there is no such thing as free speech. You can’t shout fire in a crowded theater.” Implied is that speech is already restricted, so there’s no problem in restricting it further for whatever the reason du jour.
I’ve heard this argument from both sides of the political spectrum.
Here’s the thing. Justice Holmes was using the ‘fire in a theater’ analogy to refer to speech that had no “conceivable useful purpose,” or was “extremely or inherently dangerous.” In this case, the speech in question were fliers handed out in Yiddish opposing the draft for Mr. Wilson’s war. (In case you missed it, Mr. Wilson is the great “Progressive” president that oversaw a government apparatus of which Josesph McCarthy could only dream, longingly.)
Is this perfectly clear? Justice Holmes, with the full weight of the judicial branch behind him, with enthusiastic support from the executive branch, ruled that any verbal or written opposition to war was of no purpose and was extremely dangerous, essentially nullifying any First Amendment rights on the issue. Many hundreds of people languished in prison for long periods of time for the “crime” of “shouting fire in a crowded theater,” and this is inevitably the problem with arguments from authority or arguments from tradition. They almost always lead back to Yiddish-speaking pacifists. Please remember this the next time one of your friends feels the need to use this canard in any future discussions about speech.
I am going to be unequivocal in what I say next. There will be no genuflection. There will be no apologies. I ask for no quarter and welcome all challengers on the subject.
I will stand up for and next to mentally ill, idiotic, book-burning pastors with all the ignorant religiosity and disgustingly offensive things they stand for before I’ll give one nod of acknowledgment to the likes of Senators Harry Reid and Lindsey Graham (Democrat and Republican, respectively) and their pusillanimous simpering; anytime, anywhere.
When Harry Reid says, “We’ll take a look at this of course … as to whether we need hearings or not, I don’t know,” I say, “It’s none of your business. It’s none of the government’s business.” Not only should Harry Reid be fundamentally embarrassed for uttering such a statement, his constituency should be incredibly alarmed.
When Lindsey Graham says, “I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we’re at war,” my response is to ask, “when are we NOT at war?” I will also go on to say that in all of human history, nothing thoughtful or nuanced has ever been uttered after the phrase, “Free speech is a great idea, but. …”
Any bien pensant has more than a few choice words for the likes of Pastor Terry Jones and his ilk. He has expressed his First Amendment rights, as is his birthright, and we fight him in kind, with … wait for it … free speech. That’s how it works. We want people like Terry Jones and his maniacal followers in the light of day. We dare not use the force of government to censor him, for fear of driving him underground to fester, to lend him credence. That’s how it works in an enlightened, secular, civil society. When offended, we do not go around beheading people. We do not rend our clothes and beat our breasts. There are no overwrought gesticulations. We go to the public square, without hindrance of or succor from the government, and we fight it out.
It needs to be said. Clichéd euphemisms do not need protection. They are banal and lazy, but rarely offensive. We fight these battles at the desolate outer fringes of respectability. We do this because we understand that to censor speech is to set up a chair in the anteroom of all our minds, inviting any petty bureaucrat to have a seat. Whom do you trust to take on such a role? Senator Harry Reid? Senator Lindsey Graham? Who among your friends would you appoint the gatekeeper to your thoughts?
Burn a book? I would stand on the side of any person who burned every beloved word of William Faulkner if it demonstrated how serious I am about free speech. I say that with no small amount of emotion. Just the thought of it makes me tear up.
I do not wish to have the devil turn on me and, in turn, have no protection, all the laws of the land laid low.
Shame on those who think otherwise, whatever their political ideology.
[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]
Filed under: Freedom of Expression, Politics, Religious Freedom, Rhetoric
Comments: 2 Comments
A friend of mine recently applied for an off-air position at a radio station. The interview went well–until they asked if he were a Christian. When he said he wasn’t, they responded that they were sorry, but they were running a Christian talk station and they could only hire Christians. They said that they had to have this policy in order to comply with FCC regulations.
That seemed pretty bizarre. I could understand a Christian station wanting to hire people with similar beliefs, but what did the FCC have to do with it? Then I looked up the FCC’s Equal Employment Opportunities regulations. The FCC requires stations to do a lot of things to avoid discrimination in recruitment. They have to participate in job fairs, sponsor job fairs, host job fairs, offer internships, or take other actions that have been approved by the FCC. All of those measures impose some costs on stations. However, a religious station need not take these steps to recruit for an open position if it makes religious belief a qualification for the position. So to keep their recruitment costs down, Christian stations bar non-Christians from employment. Rules that were supposed to prevent discrimination are actually causing stations to discriminate.
The religious discrimination might even out, so to speak, if there were equal numbers of stations affiliated with many different creeds. But of course, the vast majority of religious radio stations are Christian. There are very few Muslim stations or Jewish stations; I’ve come across online Buddhist broadcasts, but no brick-and-mortar Buddhist stations. And I haven’t found any atheist radio stations, although there are individual shows dedicated to atheist ideas. A Christian who wants to work in radio likely won’t miss out on any opportunities, but a Muslim or an atheist will be passed over when religious stations are hiring.
Would that happen even if the FCC didn’t impose these regulations? Not necessarily. I’d expect Christian stations to exclusively hire Christian for on-air positions. And probably they would want only Christians to write content for religious shows. But there are other jobs, like board operator or call screener, that people with different beliefs could still perform competently. Religious stations might hire people of other faiths for those roles, if the FCC didn’t give them an incentive to discriminate.
Filed under: Regulation, Religious Freedom, Technology, Unintended Consequences
Park 51, also known as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” may be the latest victim of zoning tyranny. Zoning takes building decisions that should be made by property owners and turns them into neighborhood popularity contents–or in this case, a national referendum.
Some of the debate around Park 51 deals with the people planning the community center. Opponents are combing through speeches, statements, and previous affiliations, looking for evidence of radicalism. To which I say: Do you really want to do that kind of research before any group erects a structure? Even the Westboro Baptist Church has a building. If you’re going to research every edifice that could harbor radicals, you should start with the all bus shelters where neo-Nazis gather before cleaning up highways.
Opponents will counter that Park 51 deserves special scrutiny. The proposed building would go up only a few blocks away from Ground Zero, so, they claim, we need to make sure terrorist sympathizers don’t congregate nearby. The thing is, that kind of reasoning can be used to stop any community center, anywhere in the country. This isn’t just a slippery slope of my imagination; it’s already happened. A proposed Hindu education center in Missouri has been caught up in a zoning fight for years, with some people objecting to it because they think it’s connected to 9/11. That incident shows that zoning disputes like the one threatening Park 51 aren’t about preserving the sacredness of any particular location. They’re about preventing members of minority religions from building swimming pools and chapels. When the memory of 9/11 can be used to stop a proposed Hindu community center one thousand miles from Manhattan, nobody’s safe.
Filed under: Politics, Religious Freedom, Zoning
Comments: 1 Comment