Free speech – either we all have it or none of us do.

by Pitt Griffin on October 29, 2012 · 0 comments

in Constitution

What to do about Facebook sites like “soldiers deserve to die”

Petitions are circulating to have Facebook shut down a site called “soldiers deserve to die”. They have garnered thousands of signatures.

There is no doubt that the site’s message is deeply offensive and its creator a man with no compassion. But having Facebook shut down a site because the massage is uncaring and offensive is not only contrary to the First Amendment, but a step towards censorship by whim.

Speech is not unrestrained. There are things you cannot say on TV, or in front of minors. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. outlined the most famous restrain on speech, when he wrote in Schenck v the US that,

“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic”

Holmes felt that the First Amendment did not protect words, “of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent”.

(A later court held in Brandenburg v. Ohio that the exception to the First Amendment should be limited to speech directed to and likely to incite imminent lawless action [e.g. a riot]).

Unless the site “soldiers deserve to die” is likely to incite a riot, ignore it. Attention is oxygen to the haters. If it were not for these petitions nobody would have heard of it.

Note – Although much of the backlash against “soldiers deserve to die” is from Americans defending our troops, the site is clearly identified by the Union Jack as referring to the British Army “Regular and Territorial”. So let’s look at  free speech in the UK.

The British take on hate speech

Despite being historically the most democratic of the European powers, the British have no written constitution, no equivalent of the First Amendment. Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, says that a person is guilty of an offense if he uses “threatening, abusive or insulting words” – a phrase that the British authorities have interpreted broadly.

British citizens have been arrested for offences such as asking a mounted policeman if he knew his horse was gay. A senior citizen was warned to take down a sign in his window saying that “religion is fairy stories for adults”. A teenage boy handed a summons for a protest sign saying “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult”.

A street preacher was arrested for saying that homosexuality is a sin. A drunken lout was given 56 days for some vile tweets made about a 24 year-old African soccer player, while the player lay on the pitch, after a heart attack, with his life in the balance. And Azhar Ahmed was sentenced to 240 hours of community service for posting “all soldiers should die and go to hell”.

Ask yourself – do you prefer that all these sentiments be aired, or none of them? In the UK they all might be against the law, but thankfully we are free to say all of them here.

Donald Trump and Ann Coulter 

Both Trump and Coulter have benefited from freedom of speech – especially, as long as you stay away from actual libel, you do not have to prove that what you say is true.

Both have made millions from outrageous remarks, but perhaps they are coming close to “jumping the shark”.

Trump claimed this week that he would make an announcement that would decisively change the trajectory of the presidential race. Then he announced some more birther blather about donating $5 million to Obama’s favorite charity if he would release his college transcripts and passport applications. (Yawn)

Ann Coulter, who has yet to find a claim too outrageous to make – even writing a book trying to rehabilitate Joe McCarthy, of all things – told Piers Morgan that it was a mistake to give the vote to women and the young. She would be fine if women were completely stripped of the right and the young denied the right until they were 26.

Coulter is upset that women and the young are more Democratic than older men – so she is fine with discarding the 19th and 26th Amendments. I wonder why she didn’t also recommend reversing the 15th and 23rd Amendments – after all, they extended the vote to blacks and gave electoral college representation to DC. Those two groups certainly favor Democrats.

Coulter would like to restrict the vote to old white men – preferable fundamentalist Christians. Fortunately for her, she lives in a country that let’s her say so.

Madonna and Pussy Riot

Madonna asked the audience at a concert in New Orleans to vote for Obama. She was booed and changed her remarks to urge the audience to vote for anyone – just vote.

In Russia the all-girl punk band “Pussy Riot” was arrested after posting a video of themselves criticizing a leading cleric for supporting Vladimir Putin. They were playing in a church. They were arrested, convicted, and jailed for blasphemy.

I know I would rather live in a country where you can criticize your politicians and ignore Facebook sites you don’t like, rather than a country where you can be arrested for calling Scientology a sect or imprisoned for questioning your leaders.

Soviet freedoms

An old joke made the rounds during the Soviet era – although it may still be relevant today.

Back in 1970 an American was trying to explain to a Russian why America was a better country to live in than the USSR. “In America,” he said, “the law says we are free to stand in front of the White House and criticize President Nixon”.

The Russian replied, “The law is exactly the same in the USSR. Russians are also allowed to stand in front the White House and criticize  President Nixon.”


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