Thought of the day

It would be impossible to say one or another right is the utter cornerstone of a free and democratic society – they all work in tandem – but if I had to narrow it down to one right that I value more than any other*, it would be the right of free speech. Interestingly, this is the right that is under the greatest attack every day. From bad actors in positions of power to frivolous libel claims to unpopular groups not getting the support they deserve when their speech is threatened, free speech is one of those rights we all too frequently allow to fall by the wayside when it doesn’t benefit us personally.

*For reasons outlined here, I feel it’s necessary to state that this doesn’t mean I don’t greatly value other rights.

Judge rules homeless people have rights, people lose their minds

A federal judge recently made this excellent ruling:

A Portland, Maine, city ordinance banning people from panhandling in the median strips of roads violates the U.S. Constitution, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.

The ordinance, which passed in August, prohibited people from loitering in roadways unless they were placing political campaign signs, a distinction that U.S. District Judge George Singal said violated the First Amendment right to free speech.

City officials had argued that increasing numbers of panhandlers in 2012 and 2013 had become a traffic hazard along the city’s roadways. They said the ban was necessary to ensure public safety.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine challenged the ban on behalf of two anti-war activists and a panhandler who told the court she collected between $20 and $25 per day from passing motorists.

“The First Amendment protects all of us, no matter what views we hold or how much money we make,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, in a statement.

Heiden said that the economic downturn had increased the visibility of panhandlers in Maine and elsewhere.

“These bans haven’t come about because of an increase in accidents,” he said. “What we’re seeing is more people coming to the streets to ask for assistance.”

No one denies that Portland created this ordinance as a direct response to panhandlers. The city certainly made up the increased traffic accidents excuse, but it was surprisingly open with its disdain for the homeless. And that was its downfall: the government cannot restrict one type of speech while allowing another. In this case, the city banned panhandlers from standing on a median but it allowed political activists to use the median to plant signs. Let’s examine that for even a second.

If it’s true that people in medians are a safety hazard, then it follows that it doesn’t really matter whether they’re standing, pacing, or only there briefly. If the median is dangerous, it’s dangerous, and so no one should have access to it outside a crosswalk zone. Given that the city believes it’s perfectly safe for people to be there, even if only briefly, we have a good piece of evidence that the medians aren’t all that dangerous.

One counter to this point is that the sign planters are only temporary. That actually doesn’t address the issue since people are still in the median while cars are going by them, but let’s pretend it does. Even if the brevity of a person’s median visit changes things, we have to ask why the city has road signs in the median. After all, a road sign that says U-turns are illegal or that there’s no right turn on red is just as dangerous as a standing person. Both are obstructions in the median. Both are there to get the attention of drivers. Of course, there have been zero cries to reduce median signage. Funny that, huh?

Given that traffic accidents have not increased significantly in the area – and given the more important fact that traffic accidents haven’t been caused by people standing in medians, anyway – it is utterly clear the city ordinance was just a way to stop people from begging. Since begging is a clear type of speech, the city ordinance was designed to shut up people who express unpopular speech.

To me this is a really clear cut First Amendment issue. People beg, a city doesn’t like it, an ordinance is passed to curb begging and exceptions are made for desired speech like campaign signs. No brainer. Yet when I saw this link posted on Facebook by the local news outlets, nearly every comment was outrage. Part of that is likely selection bias since people tend to comment more frequently on things that make them mad, but it was still pretty overwhelming. Why, all these grifters are living the high life. Homelessness is a glamorous lifestyle for scammers and drunks! And the number of people who don’t know that begging is a form of speech is astounding. The government doesn’t get to tell me what I’m allowed to ask from people. If I want help pushing my car out of the snow or if I’m raising money for a charity or if I just want a piece of gum, no government should be able to stop me. The same goes for people who are asking for money, food, and other items.

The only semi-legit response to this ruling has been people who complain of the homeless people in Portland that walk between the cars when traffic is stopped. Sometimes they get aggressive, they get in the way, and they often leave trash from the things they’re given. None of that, of course, justifies the government denying them their right to beg in the first place. Violating the First Amendment was never an acceptable solution. What the government should have done was 1) ban all access to the medians, 2) enforce jaywalking and other laws, or 3) redesigned their roads to get rid of medians/make them impossible to stand on. I’m sure there are some other options, but only the options along these lines are legal.

Bravo to the judge, I say. Not only did he make the correct ruling, but he barely even bothered to address the fundamental issue of whether or not begging is protected speech. This is great because there was no reason to address it. It was long ago established that begging was a form of speech, just like flag burning or blogging; the issue is fundamental to the First Amendment, not the specifics of this case. The only issue to be addressed here was whether or not Portland violated the speech that is begging. This correct ruling is a victory for everyone.

Free speech is more important than a feel good story

I recently saw a post somewhere on Reddit about a 1958 incident in North Carolina:

On the night of January 13, 1958, crosses were burned on the front lawns of two Lumbee Indian families in Robeson County, N.C. Nobody had to ask who was responsible. The Ku Klux Klan had risen again in North Carolina, its ranks swelling after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education calling for the desegregation of public schools. While the Court instructed schools to proceed with “all deliberate speed,” the Klan fought — often in the form of anonymous nighttime attacks — to slow the process of integration…

Not content to leave it at this, the Klan planned a rally in Robeson County to be held just a few days later….

The rally was scheduled for the night of January 18, 1958, in a field near Maxton, N.C. The stated purpose of the gathering was, in the words of Catfish Cole, “to put the Indians in their place, to end race mixing.” The time and location of the rally was not kept secret, and word spread quickly among the local Lumbee population.

Reports vary about the number of people gathered on that cold night, but there were thought to have been around a hundred Klan members. They brought a large banner emblazoned with “KKK” and a portable generator, which powered a public address system and a single bare light bulb. When the meeting began, the arc of the dim light didn’t spread far enough for the Klansmen to see that they were surrounded by as many as a thousand Lumbees. Several young tribe members, some of whom were armed, closed on the Klan meeting and tried to take down the light bulb. The groups fought, and a shotgun blast shattered the light. In the sudden darkness, the Lumbees descended upon the field, yelling and firing guns into the air, scattering the overmatched Klansmen. Some left under police protection while others, including [Klan leader] Catfish Cole, simply took to the woods.

Of course, it’s no surprise that Reddit ate this up. Why, those racists deserved what they got. After decades and decades of intimidation, not to mention recent illegal acts like cross burnings, no rational person can sympathize with their meeting being broken up. But this isn’t about sympathy. This is about Constitutional rights. The KKK had a right to gather and talk about their racist stupidity all they wanted. It was never the place of the Lumbee Indians to stop the meeting, attacking people and destroying property. They were cowards.

This is where I have to pause to make a note: this isn’t about defending the KKK or showing any support for its positions. This is about free speech: if you aren’t willing to stand up for the free speech rights of every group – even and especially the ones you dislike – then you simply do not support free speech. I hope you enjoy your association with fascism.

Fast forward to today and we have another instance of racists and, largely, Native Americans coming face-to-face:

Having apparently learned its lesson from its predecessors, the modern [neo-Nazi movement] decided to avoid large cities (where anybody might show up with a full tank of gas and half a pack of cigarettes) and take over the small town of Leith, North Dakota…

Leith lay on the outskirts of Bismarck, North Dakota, evidently chosen for the name’s unsinkable record in Nazi history. Until recently, the town of Leith had a population of 24; and it probably would have forever had [the neo-Nazis] not started buying up property there, intending to install it as a foothold for America’s new Nazi movement…

[But one Nazi leader] and all of his Nazi followers may not get the peaceful Aryan paradise they’re looking for — because about 300 protesters showed up to make life a little less peaceful.

Those protesters included about 200 Native Americans from nearby reservations, who played a pivotal role in organizing the protest. The crowd chanted things like:

“Creepy Nazis, Ku Kluzers, get the Hell out of here!”

All these protestors are to be admired and praised. Instead of acting like the cowards of the Lumbee tribe, they stood up, face-to-face with Nazi scum, and fought the protected speech of the neo-Nazis with their own protected speech. That’s how it’s done.

What I find so frustrating about all this, though, is the political correctness pervading the whole discussion. The entire reason I’m writing about isn’t because of the people who side with the Lumbee tribe. I’m writing because of the people who automatically think it’s racist or otherwise wrong to defend the free speech rights of the KKK. It should be obvious to any thinking person that that is not the case, and here is a perfect knock-down of some real bullshit: If anyone thinks it’s racist motivations that lead one to condemn the Lumbee tribe, then they are left with an incoherent hole in their argument when we see a lack of condemnation of the Native Americans who protested the neo-Nazis in North Dakota.

Anonymous speech is free speech

I don’t remember who said it to me a little while ago, but I heard it argued that anonymous speech somehow, magically, mystically, without regard to common sense or the 1st Amendment, is not protected speech. Of course, it is and SCOTUS cases have confirmed as much. That brings me to this:

An anonymous poster, using the name “Artemis of the wildland” has been attempting to shame some Portland, Ore., residents who use food stamps…

A few weeks ago, similar flyers identified people receiving disability benefits, describing them as “a threat to the Republic.” Police investigators say that message could be considered hate speech.

This is unbelievably offensive. Not the douche threatening to ‘out’ welfare recipients. That’s just run of the mill stupidity. What’s offensive is that some anti-free speech crusader(s) called the (pretend*) Portland police who, in a continuing effort to harm free speech, actually investigated the matter. To make matters worse, they apparently believe that hate speech isn’t also free speech.

It’s pretty unimportant that some d-bag threatened to say who receives a particular type of income. Unless this person obtained the information illegally – and it isn’t even certain he or she has any real information – then there is absolutely nothing to investigate. What is important is that this protected, anonymous speech is being threatened by the government acting on behalf of a few butt-hurt citizens. Fuck them.

*Portland, Oregon is the hipster version of the original Portland in Maine – which, incidentally, is what the pretend West Coast Portland was named after. But I digress.

Free speech is always the answer

I was reading a post at Why Evolution Is True that led me to Pharyngula. At the top of the blog right now is this post:

New Commenting Rules

What are they?

The ongoing meltdown in Thunderdome and the departure of Chris tell me we’ve got something that needs to be fixed. I don’t quite know how to fix everything, so let’s crowdsource it — you people leave comments here telling me what rules you think might work to get the knifey-bitey-smashy atmosphere to lighten up a little. Just a little.

I have no idea what Thunderdome is and I don’t know this Chris fella. However, I do know the answer to PZ’s issue: More free speech. Of course, FtB (and feminism as a general rule) is highly censorious, so this will never happen, but it’s the only reasonable solution. Let people duke it out until they get tired of it. It’s fair, it’s free, and it’s desired amongst those who value variety in ideas.

The trampling of free speech

This is utter horseshit:

The case of teenager Cameron Dambrosio might serve as an object lesson to young people everywhere about minding what you say online unless you are prepared to be arrested for terrorism.

The Methuen, Mass., high school student was arrested last week after posting online videos that show him rapping an original song that police say contained “disturbing verbiage” and reportedly mentioned the White House and the Boston Marathon bombing. He is charged with communicating terrorist threats, a state felony, and faces a potential 20 years in prison. Bail is set at $1 million.

1. Fuck the author of the article, Mark Guarino, for writing as if teenagers need a lesson in why they aren’t allowed free speech rights. Seriously, fuck that guy.

2. I can only imagine the doltish law enforcement officials participating in the quashing of Cameron Dambrosio’s First Amendment rights regret never seizing the opportunity to arrest Johnny Cash for shooting a man in Reno.

3. The biggest issue here is the fact that artistic expression, an entirely protected right, is being violated for obviously and offensively unconstitutional reasons. That said, fuck fuck fuck Mark Guarino.

Supreme Court: Video games are art

Siding with reality, the Supreme Court has ruled against California in a decision regarding the status of video games:

Video games are art, and they deserve the exact same First Amendment protections as books, comics, plays and all the rest, the U.S. Supreme Court said Monday in a ruling about the sale of violent video games in California.

California had tried to argue that video games are inherently different from these other mediums because they are “interactive.” So if a kid has to pick up a controller and hit the B button — over and over again until he starts to get thumb arthritis — to kill a person in a video game, that’s different from reading about a similar murder, the state said.

The high court didn’t buy that argument, however.

I was reminded recently that this case was coming to a head and I wondered to myself how ‘Justice’ Scalia would rule. After a little consideration, I surmised he would come down in favor of the gaming industry. He often makes poor decisions based upon little to nothing, but this case was just too obvious for him to get wrong:

“Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.”

So not only does the interactive medium not make video games fundamentally different than things like music and literature (in terms of being art), it actually is a feature which helps to define it as art. Everyone has been telling this to California all along, but I’m glad the Supreme Court could articulate it so well.

And as much as I dislike Scalia, I’ve always thought he was a decent writer, sometimes even humorous. He doesn’t fail to deliver here:

That’s all well and good. But the most fun to be had in this potentially dry court opinion is when Scalia starts writing about how gory old-school stories are, too. He’s trying to make the point that stories have included violence for as long as there have been stories.

The examples are pretty hilarious:

“Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed,” he writes.

Then there’s this:

“Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves. And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven.”

And, finally, if that wasn’t enough eye-related violence for you:

“High-school reading lists are full of similar fare. Homer’s Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops by grinding out his eye with a heated stake.”

Well done, sir. Now excuse me while I go snipe some Elites.