Alex Blaze

Free speech needs your help

Filed By Alex Blaze | December 14, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: American Civil Liberties Union, free speech, Glenn Greenwald

Last week Glenn Greenwald posted on the ACLU's budget problems. Their largest donor, who normally gives $20 million a year, just can't keep on giving due to his financial situation. The financial crisis has hit them like it has every other organization that depends on the goodwill of people to fork over cash to them, so, if you can, help them out a little this month.

I'm posting about this because the ACLU is a special organization. Before all the other work they do, including important work on LGBT issues, their main work is on free speech. And they stick to it. To me, that's about as gutsy as people get nowadays, being willing to protect the rights of those with whom they disagree with to speak. (A lot of people pay lip service to that concept, but few actually fight for it.)

phelps.jpgLast week I posted about a free speech case (that the ACLU is not involved in, as far as I know), involving one of the most unpopular groups of people in the country: the Westboro Baptist Church. You don't have to search too hard to find someone who's pissed at this group for doing what they do.

And they deserve all the vitriol they get - they're just plain hateful. But, ever since they started protesting soldiers' funerals instead of AIDS victims' people who died due to complications with HIV (UPDATE: thanks to Michael Petrelis for educating me there. Don't really know why he called me a "tranny" in the process.... Is "tranny" is the new, all-purpose insult, like "faggot," to be flung at anyone that someone doesn't like? Why I'm wasting time wondering what Petrelis is thinking is another story...), states have been cracking down on their actions. And the state of Nebraska has a law that prohibits flag desacration, which prohibits anyone from "casting contempt or ridicule" on the American flag. Shirley Phelps-Roper violated this law and was charged with a misdemeanor.

It'd be easy to dismiss the law as a misguided attempt to keep people civil, but it's anything but. It's the sign that the government has decided what we're allowed to see and what we're not allowed to see, and that the people are supporting their own diminished autonomy because they think that the patriarch will be more benevolent than their fellow citizens and themselves. The attempt to control others' access to speech stems from fear, not strength. And, most importantly, it's the sort of thing that gets easier to justify the more it happens.

Take, for example, the comments off the Courrier-Journal's version of the story.

God loves Nebraskans! God Bless Our Flag! Thank you Nebraska for honoring our flag!

I hope the ruling sticks, 'cause they've got nothing to do but fight and picket. Or, excuse me, make their little kids picket. Shirley's mouth matches her face: UGLY!

Abusing freedoms, disrepect, irresponsibility and moronic behaviour is what causes laws to be crafted, and freedoms to be lost.

Go up to your room and think about that, Shirl. And don't come out until your attitude has changed!

A judgement of reason and honor. Gob Bless the Nebraska Supreme Court!!! Let's go celebrate and play in the snow and make snow angels at the Phelp's compound !!!

Am I the only one who finds all that scary?

These people think that the restrictions put in place on free speech in Nebraska are justified. They might think that there's something morally wrong with desacrating the flag. They might think it'll inspire others to do more of the same. It might make them feel insecure in their own patriotism, so they want to stamp out someone else's ability to express themselves. It might actually hurt their feelings to see the flag treated that way, and I respect that.

I'm not saying that these folks don't have their reasons to believe that free speech should be rejected. Personally, I don't agree with anything the WBC says. But what I do like about the WBC is that they're out there saying that they hate America and gays and everyone else. They make it completely obvious to everyone else out there that their motivations are hate. They don't gussy it up.

We really couldn't ask for anything more from them. That is, if we have faith in our fellow citizens.

If we have faith in the other humans who live in America, we'd assume that the majority would look at the freakshow that is the WBC and realize that that's not what they want for themselves, and that they shouldn't follow along because they're terrible human beings. If we have a little faith in our fellow Americans, we'd realize that all the WBC is doing is selling the equation "Hating gays = hating America." If we didn't think we were surrounded by rubes, then we'd understand that people can look at that sort of language and not turn into little Phelpses themselves.

That's if we have faith in other people not to be sheep.

If we think that people are in fact sheep, then we're just fighting over who gets to be the shepherd. We might think that restricting the sheep's access to voices like those at the WBC is good for them since they'd only follow along with what the WBC says. So we make laws and block the WBC from protesting in certain areas and try to get them arrested and thrown in jail so that they can't protest so much and we feel better because we think that we've controlled the other sheep and made them into better people since they really can't be trusted to think for themselves.

But then, the problem with thinking that everyone else is a sheep and expecting the government to treat them like they're sheep is that we can't really stop the process from happening to ourselves too. At some point, someone else is going to think that there's information or an opinion that's harmful to us, so we can't look at it or hear it. They decide to keep it wrapped up on the top shelf because they can't trust us to look at it.

The worst thing that happens there is that, at some point, we agree. We agree that we're sheep who can't be trusted to think for ourselves. And some people with power take full advantage of that, because any moment in which you're willing to give up a little bit of your freedom there will always be someone else willing to take it from you.

At some point along the way we stopped treating others like people to be interacted with and started thinking of them more as populations that need to be controlled. It happens to both liberals and conservatives, with each side thinking that there's an agenda out there that they need to advance, that truth might not exactly serve every time, so information needs to be controlled to advance that agenda.

Conservatives will usually shroud themselves in the language of the flag, morality, and guns. Authoritarianism runs rampant among American conservatives right now, and they love the idea of a benevolent patriarch deciding for them what's good and what's bad, and making sure that other, less moral people are kept in line.

Liberals, on the other hand, talk about false-consciousness, about stereotypes. Many liberals seem to think that if people just talked better about other groups of people and stereotypes were eventually eliminated from the TV and movies and music, by any means necessary, that we'd all be better off. Sure, I can listen to that harmful murder music and take it for what it is, but I know it'll inspire someone else, some rube (probably from a red state), to do violence.

Liberals have their agenda to advance and think that if everyone were to talk correctly, then they'd think correctly. And then our problems would be solved.

Except that's not how it works. That sort of arrogance tends to only breed resentment against us. Moreover, I'm thoroughly convinced at this point in my life that any goal worth working towards, any agenda worth advancing, is rooted in truth. And we don't arrive at truth by hiding certain opinions, even those that we think are untrue. Knowing how to recognize lies, knowing who's a liar, understanding how to dispel lies, and showing others that we trust them to see what's true and what's not are all important steps to actually advancing a leftwing agenda. Left-wing ideology is, at heart, a criticism of authority, so using authoritative means of advancing that ideology can only be counterproductive.

If you think we can move our agenda forward by suppressing the hateful people like Fred Phelps, by pushing them out of the spotlight, then you've got another thing coming. And we should all be appalled by how much faith people put in authoritarianism when it comes to advancing a leftwing agenda.

That's why I believe that the core mission of the ACLU, free speech, is so valuable. All of our rights are important, true, but being able to talk about them and organize for them and to make our case to everyone for them makes the world a better place. We're not going to convince people that, as LGBT people, we're moral if we only use authoritarian sources of power. Sometimes we have to make the case, and we should be glad that we have the right to do so in a free society.

See if you can't help them out.

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

I might add that defending free speech for WBC also helps Bilerico from being filtered out of existence in conservative library systems and communities.

Absolutely. As a new media polemicist, this does touch home for me. I think America would be a lot worse off without the work the ACLU does, including de-blocking gay sites from Tennessee computers, like they did earlier this year.

On a semi-related note Low Power FM in the form of the the Local Community Radio Act (HR 1147) goes before the house tomorrow according to Low power radio could be a huge boon to our movement.

Couple of things:

Alex; apprarently the establishemnt sees you as too trans-friendly so you get tied in; I got that from some Rad_fem_seps a few months ago. Victims of any disease(casualties) seems appropriate, cancer victims, victims of an accident, victims of H1N1....etc

Free speech is the bugbear of this Republic; everyone wants it but not for their opponents as a rule, with some principled exceptions--and your piece puts you on the principled side, but be warned that leaves you in the middle ground to take hits from both sides.

In re: Low Power, it could be a boon for us but I see the Right, the extreme right, ending up dominating that the way they dominate short wave programming.

Re Petrelis, yeah, thinking the same thing, although I'm wondering why anyone would consider me trans-friendly this week. Taking my lumps too.

And free speech, yeah. Free speech for me but not for thee. It'd be nice if only good people bought into that, I suppose, and if we could trust them, but I just don't trust anyone (even myself!) with that sort of power.

When I was very sick with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome back in the late 1980's many of us didn't like being called CFS victims.

I suppose it depends on the person and the disease. I try to avoid calling someone with cancer a "victim," for example. Perhaps it's from my CFS days as well as the influence of AIDS activists 20 years ago.

I think our free speech rights are too liberal. I would like to see more legislation take the position that hate speech is not a good thing for our country and banned altogether (as it is in the UK).

any moment in which you're willing to give up a little bit of your freedom there will always be someone else willing to take it from you.

Amen, brother.

How can the , "Fairness Doctrine" be ignored? How do you justify unlimited use of public air and land to practice free speech? (air and cable transmission)

Most important is ballot box equality. Do you approve unlimited lobbying funds? unlimited campaign funds that allows the moneyed to convince others to vote for their candidates and friendly laws? That poor homeless veteran on the street cannot match the power of money of others

Do you approve referendums to upset marriage laws that were legally approved by government bodies? Remember referendums are paid for by the moneyed to collect signatures, also freedom of speech.

One last question relating to ballot box equality, Shouldn't all voters have access reliable factual and truthful information regarding candidates and their positions on government?-----Marvin

The best way to expose a liar is to let him talk. We can never be afraid to hear, just as we must never be afraid to speak freely.