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Posts Tagged ‘freedom of expression’

Here are some recent articles on Wikileaks that are worth reading.

Glenn Greenwald:

The WikiLeaks disclosure has revealed not only numerous government secrets, but also the driving mentality of major factions in our political and media class.  Simply put, there are few countries in the world with citizenries and especially media outlets more devoted to serving, protecting and venerating government authorities than the U.S.  Indeed, I don’t quite recall any entity producing as much bipartisan contempt across the American political spectrum as WikiLeaks has:  as usual, for authoritarian minds, those who expose secrets are far more hated than those in power who commit heinous acts using secrecy as their principal weapon.

[…]

Before setting forth why these WikiLeaks disclosures produce vastly more good than harm, I’ll state several caveats as clearly as I can.  Unlike the prior leaks of war documents, there are reasonable concerns about this latest leak (most particularly that impeding diplomacy makes war more likely).  Like all organizations, WikiLeaks has made mistakes in the past, including its failure to exercise enough care in redacting the names of Afghan informers.  Moreover, some documents are legitimately classified, probably including some among the documents that were just disclosed.

Nonetheless, our government and political culture is so far toward the extreme pole of excessive, improper secrecy that that is clearly the far more significant threat.  And few organizations besides WikiLeaks are doing anything to subvert that regime of secrecy, and none is close to its efficacy.  It’s staggering to watch anyone walk around acting as though the real threat is from excessive disclosures when the impenetrable, always-growing Wall of Secrecy is what has enabled virtually every abuse and transgression of the U.S. government over the last two decades at least.

Democracy in America:

I think we all understand that the work of even the most decent governments is made more difficult when they cannot be sure their communications will be read by those for whom they were not intended. That said, there is no reason to assume that the United States government is always up to good. To get at the value of WikiLeaks, I think it’s important to distinguish between the government—the temporary, elected authors of national policy—and the state—the permanent bureaucratic and military apparatus superficially but not fully controlled by the reigning government. The careerists scattered about the world in America’s intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well. The actually-existing structure and strategy of the American empire remains a near-total mystery to those who foot the bill and whose children fight its wars. And that is the way the elite of America’s unelected permanent state, perhaps the most powerful class of people on Earth, like it.

If secrecy is necessary for national security and effective diplomacy, it is also inevitable that the prerogative of secrecy will be used to hide the misdeeds of the permanent state and its privileged agents. I suspect that there is no scheme of government oversight that will not eventually come under the indirect control of the generals, spies, and foreign-service officers it is meant to oversee. Organisations such as WikiLeaks, which are philosophically opposed to state secrecy and which operate as much as is possible outside the global nation-state system, may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy. Some folks ask, “Who elected Julian Assange?” The answer is nobody did, which is, ironically, why WikiLeaks is able to improve the quality of our democracy. Of course, those jealously protective of the privileges of unaccountable state power will tell us that people will die if we can read their email, but so what? Different people, maybe more people, will die if we can’t.

Jack Shafer:

International scandals—such as the one precipitated by this week’s WikiLeaks cable dump—serve us by illustrating how our governments work. Better than any civics textbook, revisionist history, political speech, bumper sticker, or five-part investigative series, an international scandal unmasks presidents and kings, military commanders and buck privates, cabinet secretaries and diplomats, corporate leaders and bankers, and arms-makers and arms-merchants as the bunglers, liars, and double-dealers they are.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the recurrence of scandals, but, of course, we always are. Why is that? Is it because when scandal rips up the turf, revealing the vile creepy-crawlies thrashing and scurrying about, we’re glad when authority intervenes to quickly tamp the grass back down and re-establish our pastoral innocence with bland assurances that the grubby malfeasants are mere outliers and one-offs who will be punished? Is it because our schooling has left us hopelessly naïve about how the world works? Or do we just fail to pay attention?

Information conduits like Julian Assange shock us out of that complacency. Oh, sure, he’s a pompous egomaniac sporting a series of bad haircuts and grandiose tendencies. And he often acts without completely thinking through every repercussion of his actions. But if you want to dismiss him just because he’s a seething jerk, there are about 2,000 journalists I’d like you to meet.

The idea of WikiLeaks is scarier than anything the organization has leaked or anything Assange has done because it restores our distrust in the institutions that control our lives. It reminds people that at any given time, a criminal dossier worth exposing is squirreled away in a database someplace in the Pentagon or at Foggy Bottom.
Attorney General Eric Holder says his Justice Department is going after WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. At first glance, it seems like a straightforward case. Almost half of the 250,000 internal State Department cables Assange has published are classified, either at the confidential or the secret level (no top-secret documents are included), and rarely does the target of a criminal investigation commit his alleged crime so publicly. Holder knows it will not be easy, however. He realizes that as much as we may condemn Assange’s actions, they were not obviously criminal.
[…] The U.S. government has never successfully prosecuted a media entity for a leak. It is typically much easier to bring such cases against the government officials who do the leaking, because they sign nondisclosure agreements surrendering many of the legal protections they otherwise would enjoy.

[…] What law did Assange violate? It will surprise many that there is no statute making it illegal to reveal classified information. There are statutes that criminalize the disclosure of very specific types of classified information, such as the identity of a covert operative (think Valerie Plame) or “codes, ciphers or cryptographic systems.” But there is no catch-all law that simply says, “Thou shalt not disclose classified information.”

Indeed, when Congress tried to enact such a statute, President Bill Clinton sensibly vetoed it. His reason: The government suffers from such an overclassification problem – some intelligence agencies classify even newspaper articles – that a law of this sort would end up criminalizing the disclosure of innocuous information. And even that vetoed statute would have applied only to government officials, not to private individuals or journalists.

[…] The fact that classified information is involved does not preclude First Amendment safeguards. In the AIPAC case, Judge Ellis rejected the prosecutors’ categorical – and dangerous – argument that when classified information is at issue, the First Amendment affords no protection. Of course, the First Amendment is no license to disclose the recipe for the plutonium bomb to Osama bin Laden. But the Justice Department would have to prove that Assange’s disclosures were so dangerous to national security as to override the First Amendment. In the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the prosecution would have to demonstrate that what the defendant did was as immediate and as dangerous as “falsely shouting fire in a theater.” That is a heavy burden to meet.
[…]In 1971, Solicitor General Erwin Griswold asked the Supreme Court to bar publication of the Pentagon Papers because it would cause a “grave and immediate danger to the security of the United States.” Twenty-eight years later, he reversed his position in an op-ed piece in this paper. “I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication” of the Pentagon Papers, Griswold wrote. Moreover, he expressed the view that “there is very rarely any real risk to current national security from the publication of facts relating to transactions in the past, even the fairly recent past.” 

What took 28 years to happen with the Pentagon Papers is already happening with the WikiLeaks cables. Although the State Department is of the opinion that Assange’s leaks have done serious damage to our national security – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called them “an attack on America” responsible for “endangering innocent people” and “sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations” – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a savvy Washington veteran, has expressed a different view.

“I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer and so on,” Gates told reporters at the Pentagon last week. “I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. . . . Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

If Assange is ultimately charged with disclosing information that is potentially damaging to national security, Eric Holder now knows who Assange will call as his first witness: the secretary of defense.

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I do not have much to add beyond the articles quoted above. Suffice it to say that I believe that Wikileaks is playing an invaluable role in improving the world. Anything that acts as a counter-force against State secrecy is a good thing.

There are not many heroes in our era. Julian Assange is one of those rare few.

If you think similarly, or feel strongly about issues like censorship and free speech and government openness, I think it is imperative that you support Wikileaks by donating to them. Here’s the link.

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In a huge victory for free speech, the Supreme Court of the US today struck down a law that banned recording, possession or distribution of videos featuring animal cruelty. The Supreme Court concluded that as written, the statute is overbroad and limits all sorts of speech that the Court believes is protected by the First Amendment.

The decision also strikes down the notion of “serious value” as a legitimate criteria for determining if certain offensive speech is worth legal protection. However, as Eugene Volokh notes, by the same logic, the obscenity law should also go. Will that happen anytime soon? Volokh opines, and I agree that it is very unlikely the Court will go that far. Weight on tradition will probably prevent the Court from overturning Miller and declaring all obscenity legal.

This naturally still leaves the question: How can all this be reconciled with the use of “serious value” as part of the obscenity test? I think that as a matter of logic it can’t be. But the Court isn’t just after logic; among other things, it also gives some weight to tradition, and the obscenity exception is very deeply rooted in American law.

Still, I dare hope. For this court has given us Heller, Citizens United and Stevens — three great decisions in favor of liberty in a span of two years. So maybe, just maybe, it is not completely absurd to hope for a day when the Supreme Court declares the obscenity law unconstitutional. (And such an occurrence will surely make the NY Times readership’s collective head explode. After fiercely criticizing the ‘right-wing’ court for Heller, Citizens United, and to a lesser extent Stevens, they will be flummoxed about what to do with a ruling that the progressive base will applaud and the conservatives will despise. What fun!)

Update: A NY Times commenter, clearly in the minority, expresses exactly what I feel about matters of free speech.

Thank God. The point of freedom of speech isn’t to protect the content that everyone agrees is acceptable or even desirable–there’d be no purpose to an amendment that protected what everyone agreed was worth protecting.

The point of freedom is speech is to protect the content that exists at the margins of society; the things that many people find to be objectionable or even reprehensible.

Without such protections, core values of our civil society are at risk (namely, the free flow of ideas and information).

As a practical matter, it is also worth remembering that the tables can quickly be turned on what is ‘acceptable’ vs. ‘unacceptable’ discourse–in a matter of a few years, the good can become the bad and the bad can become the good. The 1st Amendment offers protections against these vicissitudes of social norms.

In short, despite the terribleness of dog fighting–and I agree, it is a terrible and immoral sport–this was an excellent decision. No, wait, let me change that a bit: BECAUSE of the terribleness of dog fighting, this was an excellent decision.

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I think that Scientology is a creepy, over-commercialized enterprise that feeds on people’s irrationality and does not do any good to anyone. In fact, I think the same about all religions and most quasi-religions.

But what was it that a great Frenchman said once? I do not agree with what you say but I will defend to death

To the point.  A French court has sentenced two Scientology centers of “fraud in an organised gang” and slapped a fine of almost a million dollars.

Here’s a link. They are a bunch of other links on the same story, easily accessible through Google, and the stunning thing is that they all use words like “pressured”, “harassed” and so on. Apparently some former members didn’t like all the money that the Church convinced them to spend on vitamins and such like, and so they sued.  No, they were not coerced in any way, nor were they shown a forged copy of  Nature containing a made-up paper on the virtues of Scientologistic vitamins. Merely “pressured”, and we are not talking about vulnerable body parts either.

I think this is a ridiculous case. But I subscribe to rather quaint notions of free speech and individual responsibility. I happen to believe that individuals and organizations should be allowed to say whatever they wish about heaven, hell or the spiritual succor obtained by eating  round bananas. I also happen to think that a conviction for fraud should meet an extremely high threshold of material misrepresentation of facts; for example by selling a handkerchief belonging to Nancy Pelosi to the customer who had asked for one used by Madonna. Short of such objective misrepresentations, irrational nonsense — whether spouted by religious organizations, new age spiritualists, ideologues, vegans or extreme environmentalists — should never be censored or prosecuted. One ought to take responsibility for one’s choices, and following a belief-system is a choice.

That’s my worldview, and I like to call it freedom. France, as I never tire of pointing out, lost sight of the concept a long time ago. I am glad I don’t live there today, and I do not ever plan to either.

(Here’s a related short piece on soothsayers and fraud I wrote a while back.)

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The diplomat, 47-year-old Rowan Laxton, allegedly shouted “f***ing Israelis, f***ing Jews” while watching television reports of the Israeli attack on Gaza last month.

He is also alleged to have said that Israeli soldiers should be “wiped off the face of the Earth” during the rant at the London Business School gym near Regents Park on January 27. […]

After a complaint from a member of the public, Mr Laxton was arrested for inciting religious hatred – which can carry a seven-year prison term – and bailed to reappear at a central London police station at the end of March.

Here’s the full report.

The wisdom of having a law directed against incitement of racial hatred is questionable; the particular application here borders on the absurd. Or perhaps I am merely arguing from a strictly American viewpoint — courts here have repeatedly ruled that “incitement” must always carry an element of imminence — which might not apply in the land of the Queen.

Anyway, the point is, a person would never be prosecuted for a racial tirade in the US. Reminds me that in many ways, the US still offers free-speech protection far superior to anywhere else. I should do some research on Switzerland law before I move there.

Also read: My short post comparing free-speech protections in some selected countries.

Update: I should add that the free speech protections in this country exist primarily because they are constitutionally granted. If the present public had its way, it would certainly get diluted, as it has in so many other places.

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The Mumbai terror attacks were remarkable, not just for their audacity and horrifying elements, but also for the spontaneous reaction it elicited from the public. Citizens across India demonstrated in massive numbers and expressed their outrage against terrorists and politicians. There were posters and sloguns and an atmosphere of common purpose. The numbers were massive, the intensity electrifying, the cause just.

However I wonder.

I wonder what those protesters, proud Indians all, who presumably are outraged at Pakistani terrorists killing our people and overjoyed about our economic growth and rapid urbanization, feel about Raj Thackeray’s dictats to out-staters, the culture of entitled offendedness that pervades our society and makes people force their beliefs on others, the recent incident where a Pakistani girl studying in Mumbai was assaulted  for having an Urdu tattoo on her body or this other incident where Ram Sena activists beat up pub goers for behaving ‘immorally’.

I wonder if they think twice when they read about Sania Mirza getting harrassed for keeping her feet too close to our flag, Taslima Nasreen being told what she cannot write, M F Hussain’s paintings being vandalized, Tamil movies being ‘banned’ in Karnataka, arrests made for writing derogatory stuff about politicians or Harbhajan Singh being dragged to court for dressing up as Ravana in a TV show. If they do, they certainly do not show it.

So, while I am happy that my country has been recording good economic growth and all that, I fail to muster up enough enthusiasm about the grassroot protests that took place after the Mumbai attacks. There is little to argue about a terrorist attack; we all agree it is horrifying and wrong and that the perpetrators should be punished. Protests and all are fine and good, but there is hardly much moral ambiguity at stake there. On the other hand, the incidents I mention are commonplace and related in that they all involve a complete disregard for individual liberty. There are principles at stake there, principles worth fighting for. So, when I see that my countrymen, who proved their amazing ability to gather together  and protest less than two months ago, display little or no outrage at all these incidents I have mentioned above, it tells me something — their values are not really pro-liberty, their conception of morality not necessarily mine.

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Eugene Volokh has a thoughtful post about the matter. There’s not much I need to add. A sad day for freedom.

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David Bernstein has a fine post where he explains the perils of having ‘reasonable restriction on free speech’ such as hate speech laws:

When I was in law school, advocates of weakening First Amendment protections to restrict “hate speech” pointed to Canada as a shining example of how egregious expression could be banned without threatening freedom of speech more generally. At the time, the Canadian Supreme Court was holding that Holocaust denial and violent, misogynistic pornography are not protected under Canadian constiutitional law. And, really, who wants to defend Holocaust denial and violent pornography? Yet, less than twenty year later, we have Canadian citizens being prosecuted for quoting biblical injunctions against homosexual activity, or for merely reprinting the Danish Mohammed cartoons. (For the latest outrage, see here, courtesy of Instapundit). So the Canadian example hasn’t quite worked out as its prior advocates had anticipated. Instead of being an example of “reasonable” restrictions on freedom of expression, it has become an example of the slippery slope problems inherent in allowing restrictions on freedom of expression based on subjective views of what is sufficiently offensive or problematic to be banned.

I have pointed out the same thing in several old posts. And even leaving aside the slippery-slope argument, there is something fundamentally immoral about censoring someone’s opinions because it is distasteful.

Bernstein’s post also goes into other issues, such as the intrinsic arbitrariness of tribunals that end up enforcing such laws. Read the whole thing.

By now, the most important truth ought to be obvious to all — freedom of speech needs to be absolute in order to mean anything. Thus one cannot have a thing such as a “right to never have your feelings hurt”.

Unfortunately, as Orwell famously said, to see what is one front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.

So I repeat myself, ad nauseum, for that is all I can do really.

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