By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Anti-free speech round-up

The First Amendment is front and center in this morning’s Boston Globe. Three stories for your consideration:

1. Paranoia and the MBTA. Friend of Media Nation Harvey Silverglate argues that the court-ordered censorship of three MIT students is rooted in post-9/11 paranoia about security. The law is aimed at computer hacking that could put people in danger; now it’s being applied merely to writing about hacking, and not the sort that might endanger lives but, rather, would simply cost the T money. Silverglate concludes that “with the ghosts of 9/11 and ‘national security’ hovering, the students and the First Amendment didn’t stand a chance.” (Silverglate also blogs for the Boston Phoenix.)

2. Criminalizing symbolic speech. An Associated Press news brief reports that a Louisiana teenager has been sentenced to four months in prison for hanging nooses off the back of his truck and displaying them at a civil-rights rally on behalf of the Jena Six. Recently I challenged Peter Porcupine to find an example of a hate-crime law that criminalizes speech. Sadly, I think I’ve just found one. Take a look at this ABC News report on the case against the teenager, Jeremiah Munsen. There are complicating factors, and Munsen does appear to be quite the dirtball. But essentially Munsen is going to prison for his exercise of symbolic speech. “I wish we had a charge in Louisiana for aggravated ignorance,” a police officer is quoted as saying. Apparently that’s unnecessary; the federal hate-crimes statute will do quite nicely.

3. Teaching students they have no rights. In Knoxville, Tenn., a high-school student sued for the right to wear Confederate-flag clothing to school, a violation of the dress code. His case ended in a mistrial, according to the AP. The right of school districts to impose such codes is so well-established that this is scarcely worth a mention, except as a reminder that young people are raised and educated in an environment that’s devoid of constitutional protections. We shouldn’t be surprised that a majority of them grow up to oppose the constitutional rights of others, as you will see in the second entry here.

Yesterday Media Nation commenter Leslie wrote, “For us liberals to reflexively hide behind the free speech banner is too easy.” I hope these three examples show that it’s actually hard. Speech that we like needs no defense.

If you’re going to stand up for the First Amendment, you are invariably going to find yourself standing up for kids whose actions might make it easier for people to rip off the T, or for racist teenagers from Louisiana or Tennessee. So be it.

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  1. acf

    I've read the stories about the case, and yesterday saw Harvey Silverglate, an atty for the MBTA, and tech writer, Hiawatha Bray discussing it on NECN with Chet Curtis. I think the responsible thing for the students to do would be to present their findings to the 'T' for analysis, but that they should be free to present them wherever and whenever they want, under their own terms. What I did find insulting was the attitude of the 'T' atty, saying that the paper was no better than a 'C' paper, and what does that say about MIT & the professor, a natinally known computer security expert, who gave them an 'A'? What it says to me is atty is an example of the reason why talented professionals go into private business, and why the 'T' is such a disaster.

  2. Bill Toscano

    acf: I believe they offered to present them to the MBTA, and the MBTA declined to look at them.Someone more expert than I could explain more.I just don’t get why this is a First Amendment case anyway.If I put together a Power Point showing how to print your own Red Sox tickets, rob a bank or change all the grades of all the students in Dan’s classes at Northeastern to A++, ,I do not think I would be alowed to do that.The school case is even simpler. The school has the right to limit freedom of speech (including clothing), if it can potentially disrupt the learning environment.”If a principal makes a professional decision that a Confederate flag could do that, then he’s got the law on his side.The nooses? Public safety issue. Guy was putting himself at risk.You get out of the media business, and you look at things differently.

  3. Jimbo

    bill: In the instances you mentioned (Sox tickets, bank, grades) the usual recourse is for the party that has suffered damages to file suit to recoup losses. What is extraordinary about the MBTA case is that prior restraint is used despite the clear absence of anything like a threat to national security.As for the nooses, there has got to be a line — murky as it may be — between a physical threat and symbolic speech. Could it reasonably be inferred that the teen was making a threat of violence with the nooses?

  4. Joseph Moroco

    To an extent I agree with Mr. Toscano. If I had worn any t shirt to school, Sister Rosina would have straightened me out.Still, if you let one message t shirt, you can’t in fairness limit the messages.I send my kid to a charter school that prescribes a uniform in part for that reason.

  5. Emily

    I guess I need a little help on #2 – maybe just a link to a decent background article on the case. How does the noose not constitute a physical threat?

  6. Dan Kennedy

    Emily: Sorry, I couldn’t find anything better on the fly. Not to be a wiseass, but how does the noose constitute a physical threat? By charging him with a “hate crime,” weren’t the authorities admitting that there was no physical threat? After all, there are other things you could charge him with if that were the case.

  7. Emily

    True – they should have charged him with something else in that case. The history of violence against blacks in some parts of the country – specifically lynching – can push a noose into the territory of physical threat. If there’s a consistent history of people being threatened with a symbol immediately before being actually murdered with the use of that symbol, I think it’s physically threatening.But, I have to read up on this instance – thanks!

  8. Peter Porcupine

    DK – thank you. I had not ignored you, but was trying to find a concrete statute rather than a blog or news account.Not that newspapers need checking…A county which has a Human Rights commission has a local fine, but I could not find the wording of the ordinance. Also – Canada has explicit hate speech legislation (!) and says tht ‘Freedon of speech is an American concept.’Here is a link to that story -

  9. Dan Kennedy

    PP: I’m well aware of the Canadian case. That the Canadian system has turned a miserable snake like Mark Steyn into a freedom fighter is all the proof we need that “hate crime” laws punishing speech are a bad idea. Blame Canada!

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