Martin Shkreli engaged in protected speech

Martin Shkreli, the CEO that so-called news organizations inappropriately refer to by the nickname “pharma bro”, recently had his bail revoked:

Shkreli, 34, was hauled off to the Brooklyn Metropolitan Correctional Center on Wednesday night after a judge revoked his bail over a Facebook posting that offered $5,000 to any follower who would grab a hair off Hillary Clinton’s head during her book tour.

The former pharmaceutical executive — who first came to national attention for hiking the price of a life-saving drug — insisted the posting was a joke. The judge, however, wasn’t laughing.

(To be clear, I don’t actually care that he has been nicknamed “pharma bro”. I just think it’s dumb that allegedly professional news organizations have taken to actually using that moniker.)

Here’s Shkreli’s Facebook post:

Shkreli

This is what is immediately clear about that post. 1) It has absurd premises. 2) His offer is absurd. 3) It was posted to his Facebook page, which is run for the sake of being absurd and/or trolling.

None of those things were taken into account by Judge Kiyo Matsumoto. Furthermore, she failed to take into account any of Brandenburg. As a result, she made this incorrect and irresponsible statement:

“This is not protected by the First Amendment,” U.S. District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto said before revoking the $5 million bond. “There’s a risk that somebody may take him up on it.”

Matsumoto had wide latitude to revoke Shkreli’s bail, so it’s perplexing why she would so intentionally spread misinformation. She ought to be embarrassed that she didn’t even pretend she was applying any basic First Amendment test here. This is a Maeghan Maloney-level understanding of free speech rights.

Shkreli’s bail status notwithstanding, if someone wants to show that his Facebook ‘offer’ was not protected speech, they need to apply the three-pronged Brandenburg test – something the judge didn’t do. Did his speech demonstrate 1) intent, 2) imminence, and 3) likelihood of lawless action? I don’t think it showed a single one.

Let’s start with intent. (This can include instances where a person should have reasonably expected his speech would result in lawless action.) Look at the post and how absurd it is at every turn. He said the Clinton Foundation has murdered people. He said he potentially already has Clinton’s DNA. He offered a tiny sum for a huge risk. It’s wildly clear that he isn’t even remotely serious. Even when he responded to someone where he said “I’m serious”, it’s impossible to believe him. He’s a 4chan poster without the anonymity. No reasonable person could believe that this was a real offer.

Next is imminence. How could this possibly result in imminent lawless action? Someone reading that post would have to 1) be in the same area as Clinton, 2) know she was in the same area, 3) know where to find her in the very near future, and 4) have a way to get close to her. It is 100% impossible that Clinton could have been in imminent danger. Even if a person was in the same city as Clinton and knew it, and even if she was in public at the very moment Shkreli made his Facebook post, that person would still have to have a way to get to her and to get access to her. And if they were across town and had to get in their car to drive to a convention center where they had to buy a ticket to get in? You’ve just lost your imminence.

And finally, likelihood. Give me a break. For it to be likely that someone would take him up on this offer, all of the following would have to be true of someone who read his post:

    They would have to be unaware that Shkreli is a dedicated troll.
    They would have to believe he was serious.
    They would have to be motivated by $5,000 per hair that had a follicle.
    They would have to think that more than one follicle was necessary for some reason, and that’s why Shkreli was incentivizing the capture of multiple strands.
    They would have to believe that The Clinton Foundation murdered one or more people.
    They would have to believe that Shkreli had Clinton’s DNA already.
    They would have to be willing to risk their freedom at the least and their life at the most.
    They would have to know where Clinton was and when she could be found in public.
    They would have to be near that location.
    They would have to be able to get near Clinton’s head.

There are two things in that list that are likely. One, people actually do think the Clintons have murdered people, so it’s not a stretch to say there are probably people who think their foundation has been complicit in killing. Two, I’m sure Clinton’s tour schedule has been published somewhere. But other than that? You could argue that it’d be possible to yank a hair from her head during some fan photograph session, but I don’t imagine that would go unnoticed by her Secret Service detail.

Martin Shkreli’s Facebook post fails every single part of the Brandenburg test. Every. Single. Part. It’s not even a close call that what he said was entirely protected speech – at least outside a bail hearing. And, once again, that’s what makes this so perplexing. Judge Matsumoto didn’t need to make up an incoherent First Amendment claim in order to justify revoking bail. She could have just done it. She ought to be embarrassed at her actions on the bench.

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Gawker founder files for bankruptcy

This is just so satisfying:

Gawker founder Nick Denton filed for personal bankruptcy Monday in the aftermath of a Florida jury’s awarding $140 million to Hulk Hogan in a privacy case revolving around a sex tape posted on Gawker.com.

As a result of the verdict, which is being appealed, Gawker’s parent company has gone into bankruptcy and is up for sale.

Denton’s bankruptcy filing Monday says he owes $125 million to Hogan, a former professional wrestler. Filing for bankruptcy helps him keep Hogan from collecting.

Overall, Denton’s filing says he has $100 million to $500 million in liabilities and that his assets are worth $10 million to $50 million.

This meat of this story – Gawker losing in court – isn’t exactly breaking news at this point, but there was a part of this story that made me want to write about it:

Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel bankrolled the lawsuit filed by Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, against Gawker. That raised concerns about the wealthy using their power to bring down media outlets.

“I am consoled by the fact that my colleagues will soon be freed from this tech billionaire’s vendetta,” Denton tweeted. Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook, was outed as gay by a Gawker-owned website.

Hogan’s attorney David Houston said in a statement that Denton’s bankruptcy “has nothing to do with who paid Mr. Bollea’s legal bills, and everything to do with Denton’s own choices and accountability. If even one person has been spared the humiliation that Mr. Bollea suffered, this is a victory.”

I was previously unaware of anything to do with Thiel, but I’m happy he was involved. I don’t know who he is or what his politics are, but I’m going to guess he doesn’t ideologically match up with the social justice warrior views of Gawker. Often, the regressive left will use this mismatch of views to justify ruining a person’s life. “Why, we’re just pointing out hypocrisy!”, they’ll say. Don’t believe it. That’s bullshit. They’re getting revenge by doing something wrong. Not only are their motivations ill conceived, but their execution is nothing more than an exercise in the belief that two wrongs make a right. They don’t. Ever.

I’m glad Thiel was able to exact ethically-sound revenge. Gawker did something wrong, so when he had the chance to put the screws to them and point out their hypocrisy, he did so without committing a wrong himself. He’s a better person than Nick Denton and all the people who have ever supported that garbage website.

Uganda adopts circumcision, finds science works

This is no real surprise:

The growing uptake of medical male circumcision by men in the Rakai district of Uganda is leading to a substantial reduction in HIV incidence among men in one of the districts of the country worst affected by HIV, Xiangrong Kong of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI 2015) in Seattle, USA, on Thursday…

The study found that circumcision coverage in non-Muslim men increased from 9% during the Rakai circumcision study to 26% by 2011, four years after the trial concluded. Every 10% increase in circumcision coverage was associated with a 12% reduction in HIV incidence (0.88, 95% confidence interval 0.80-0.96).

HIV incidence reduction in women lags behind but is expected to catch up in coming years.

We’ve known for the better part of the past decade that circumcision literally saves lives by acting as a high efficacy vaccine that reduces female-to-male HIV transmission by 60% (which is better than the flu vaccine most years). That we’re seeing the positive results of implementing it as a policy isn’t surprising. Science just works.

Scalia, as predicted

Three years ago I made a prediction about Political Figure Antonin Scalia regarding his professed adherence to stare decisis as it relates to same-sex marriage:

Lawrence v Texas established adequate precedence for the constitutional legalization of same-sex marriage. At least it did in political figure Scalia’s view. (In reality, the 14th Amendment established it.) That means that once same-sex marriage makes it way to the Supreme Court in the coming years, Scalia is going to rule in favor of it. That is, if he really does care about stare decisis. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

I hope I’m wrong, but here’s my prediction: Scalia is going to rule against same-sex marriage in overt defiance of the principles he pretends he holds.

What I was arguing here was that Scalia had whined in Lawrence that the Court’s decision to disallow governmental interference in the bedroom of consenting adults had, effectively, established precedence for same-sex marriage. That is, Scalia wrote in his dissent that if the Court could overturn a state’s ability to legislate against something based upon a moral opposition to homosexuality, then it would also have the power to overturn a state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Since Scalia is a self-professed lover of stare decisis – he believes past decisions must be taken into account in new decisions – it would only make sense for him to side with same-sex marriage proponents. Even though he dissented in Lawrence, the decision set precedent that, according to Scalia himself, the Court had the necessary latitude to strike down any ban on same-sex marriage that was premised on moral opposition. Today, however, he dissented in Obergefell v. Hodges, in blatant violation of his alleged principles and in full satisfaction of my three year old prediction.

Stuart Scott

Every so often an icon emerges in the media. Usually, these people were never meant to be the story. We simply expected them to report the stories. If they did that, we would find ourselves discussing what they had told us, not giving a second thought to where we heard it. That is always good enough. That’s the job. But every so often one of these personalities will shine through the morass. Stuart Scott was one of those people. And now he has died at the age of 49.

Scott had been fighting cancer for the past 7 years. I had no idea this was his third bout with the disease. Hell, I had no idea he was ever even sick. Insofar as this was well-known news (and it was), I managed to miss it. Part of that is sheer chance. I simply didn’t happen to see the news stories. But most of that is because Scott never let it show. Looking back I can see some of the weight fluctuations now, but the strength of his personality always hid whatever physical weakness he may have been experiencing at a given time. He always said to keep fighting – fight, fight, fight – and he lived that. The images and tributes over the past day have made it wildly clear that he was speaking more than mere platitudes. He meant what he said and he lived it entirely.

I only ever mention a celebrity death here once in a great while. Sometimes it’s because I feel bad for the odd life the person had (such as when I mentioned Gary Coleman). Most times, though, it’s because I deeply respected the person (such as with Christopher Hitchens). This is like most times. Stuart Scott stood out as one of the good guys. There are a lot of sportscasters I like and I’ll be sad to hear if any of them die, but Scott’s passing is especially heartbreaking. I wish his family the best.

Here are two videos. One is of Rich Eisen giving his on-air farewell only 10 minutes after hearing of his friend’s death. The other is of Stuart Scott delivering one of the best speeches I’ve heard in a long time.

Circumcision: The evidence still isn’t vanishing

Increasingly, circumcision is becoming a health policy in places where it is needed most. WHO, UNAIDS, and especially The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are some of the groups at the forefront of this fight against deadly diseases and infections. More recently we’ve seen American groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics come out in favor of circumcision. This is in large part due to three extremely strong studies that came out in 2006, but those were really just the final straw. Evidence has been building for the effectiveness of circumcision in fighting disease and infection since the late 70’s, and more specifically it has been building against fighting HIV since the late 80’s. The evidence is in: Circumcision helps protect against infections, penile cancer, and STD’s, including HIV. It’s an extremely important tool that should be promoted around the world. And so, as the debate quickly pivots from whether or not circumcision is effective to figuring out why it is so damn effective, more organizations are coming out in favor of it in ever stronger terms:

U.S. health officials on Tuesday released a draft of long-awaited federal guidelines on circumcision, saying medical evidence supports the procedure and health insurers should pay for it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines stop short of telling parents to have their newborn sons circumcised. That is a personal decision that may involve religious or cultural preferences, said the CDC’s Dr. Jonathan Mermin.

But “the scientific evidence is clear that the benefits outweigh the risks,” added Mermin, who oversees the agency’s programs on HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

I went into the circumcision debate many years ago without a dog in the fight. I was neither passionately against the practice nor fervently in favor of it; my general indifference parted greatly with what any Google search will show. However, as I began to hear more and more about the topic, and as I began to study global health issues more and more (especially during the time I was studying and volunteering my time in Haiti), I found my position slowly shifting. But it was indeed a very slow shift. With degrees in both biology and philosophy it was easy to be torn. The evidence had clearly tilted – at the least – in favor of circumcision, but what about the ethical arguments against it? I would need to resolve those concerns before I would support circumcision as a health policy. And that I did. The sole argument the anti-circumcision crowd has against circumcision is that it violates bodily autonomy. But so do other things which many in that crowd clearly support. Namely, vaccines can and do permanently change a person’s body for life without their consent. Looking at circumcision and vaccines, then, under the isolation of the argument from bodily autonomy, what’s the difference? They both change the body forever and neither is done with consent when done to infants/toddlers. The only responses I ever get to this is that vaccines are more effective or that the changes aren’t visible. Pshaw. They aren’t always more effective, and even where they are, so what? The argument from bodily autonomy doesn’t get to be put on the shelf when it’s convenient to ignore. The effectiveness of a procedure is irrelevant; all that matters is the necessity of the procedure. Vaccines and circumcision are both necessary to a healthier world, but neither is an absolute necessity to survival. Yes, more people will die without either, but that’s immaterial. And as for the changes being internal, I guess I wasn’t aware how aesthetics-focused the anti-circumcision crowd was.

I went on a bit of a rant there, but I hope it was effective. The ethical argument – singular, not plural – is weak. Yet the biological argument is strong. And as I learned more, it became quite clear that it was stronger than I initially thought. I freely admit that by the time I became involved in this debate (likely 2009, and as early as 2010 on FTSOS) I should have done all the proper research; I could have easily found myself where I am right now rather than going through a slow shift.

One of the things which always kept me tilted towards being pro-circumcision was the dogmatic attitude of the anti-circumcision crowd. It didn’t matter what evidence was presented to them, their ethical stance trumped everything. That would be fine, of course, since it would be a valid basis for opposition (even if I or anyone else disagrees with it). Unfortunately, this crowd has a habit of attacking perfectly valid science. PZ Myers did this back in 2011 when he said the following:

The health benefits. Total bullshit. As one of the speakers in the movie explains, there have been progressive excuses: from it prevents masturbation to it prevents cancer to it prevents AIDS. The benefits all vanish with further studies and are all promoted by pro-circumcision organizations. It doesn’t even make sense: let’s not pretend people have been hacking at penises for millennia because there was a clinical study. Hey, let’s chop off our pinkie toes and then go looking for medical correlations!

Emphasis mine. Clearly, whereas the organizations promoting circumcision as a health policy or recommendation have had a history of different positions on the matter, it’s ridiculous to say they’re inherently pro-circumcision. Moreover, the irony meter here is off the charts. The anti-circumcision crowd is incredibly vocal, despite being a scientific minority. Indeed, whereas the pro-circumcision groups came to their conclusions only after being presented with evidence, the anti-circumcision groups are composed entirely of people who oppose the practice on ethics first; they cherry-pick the science after the fact.

But that isn’t the important point here. As the title of this post says, the evidence of the benefits is not vanishing. It’s not vanishing with further studies. It’s not vanishing with time. It’s not vanishing at all. All we’ve been seeing is 1) more and more groups coming out in favor of the practice and 2) research focused on why it’s so effective. Myers is plainly wrong. (Of course, all the criticism by Myers is coming from a guy who once had a debate with Jerry Coyne where he said that no evidence could ever convince him of the existence of God. While I share his lack of theistic belief, I don’t share his position here. I can’t imagine a more anti-scientific thing to say than that there is no possible evidence that could convince me of something. I could be convinced unicorns exist. I greatly doubt that will happen, but it’s possible; denying these possibilities when speaking in abstract terms is doltish.)

Anyway.

[The new guidelines] are likely to draw intense opposition from anti-circumcision advocacy groups, said Dr. Douglas Diekema, a Seattle physician who worked on a circumcision policy statement issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2012.

“This is a passionate issue for them and they feel strongly that circumcision is wrong,” said Diekema, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.

Indeed, the head of one group did argue against the CDC’s conclusions on Tuesday, saying they minimize potential complications from the procedure.

The guidelines “are part of a long historical American cultural and medical bias to attempt to defend this traumatic genital surgery,” said, Ronald Goldman, executive director of the Circumcision Resource Center.

Notice the name of the anti-circumcision group in that quote: Circumcision Resource Center. Hmm, what other group of people try desperately to sound legitimate despite everything they hold dear? Perhaps it’s the people who run sites and groups like Evolution News and the Discovery Institute and the Geoscience Research Institute – creationist groups. Honestly, I’m not sure who should be insulted more by this association.

Anti-science quacks find success in Maine in their fight against health and vaccines

Vaccine rates for young people entering school has been declining in recent years:

The rate of unvaccinated kindergartners in Maine continues to climb and is now the fifth highest in the nation, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Friday.

The percentage of Maine parents voluntarily opting out of vaccines for their children is alarming state public health officials who have been working to bolster immunization.

Nearly 800 public school kindergartners in Maine started the 2013-14 school year without receiving the required vaccinations for diseases such as whooping cough and measles because their parents opted not to immunize. That represents 5.2 percent of all kindergartners in the state, up from 3.9 percent the previous year.

This is in large part due to the anti-vax movement that has been steadily gaining ground since the 90’s. Indeed, although disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield had his 1998 study linking vaccines and autism debunked – no one ever reproduced his results, and it was no wonder since he outright made them up – he remains a hero of the anti-vax crowd.

One of the more favored canards of anti-vax quacks is to call herd immunity a myth. Do a quick search and one is liable to find any given quack claiming that herd immunity makes no difference to the health of a state. I recall reading some random anti-vax nobody argue that because vaccines are between 60-80% effective, even with 100% compliance, we could still see an epidemic. Of course, while he spoke of vaccines at-large in an intentionally general sense, he actually linked to CDC statistics on the flu vaccine. I guess it was a coincidence that he found it inconvenient to tell his readers that he was talking about one specific vaccine, huh? So is the high bar set by quacks.

At any rate, for herd immunity to be effective, there needs to be about a 95% vaccination rate. Of course, 100% would be the ideal because we’re talking about saving human lives, but with all the anti-government and anti-science kooks out there, 95% is actually a very achievable number that allows for some bumper space. Unfortunately, sometimes we see areas that fall well below that bumper space. For instance, when vaccine rates for whooping cough fell to 91% in California, communities there saw an outbreak in the disease. Thousands got sick and at least 10 infants died. What makes this all the more heart-breaking is that these infants were too young to be vaccinated, meaning they relied upon the herd immunity around them to remain safe. Anti-vax parents and the quacks they trust are at fault for these deaths. Frighteningly, Maine is on a similar path.