Time for hot dogs, fireworks and the annual New England Muzzle Awards, hosted once again by WGBH News. Believe it or not, this is the 20th time that Harvey Silverglate and I have rounded up outrages against free speech and free expression. There are some good ones here, from Google and Facebook to the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden. Please have a look. It would be un-American not to.
I don’t often find myself in disagreement with the ACLU. But we part company in the case of Michelle Carter, the young woman who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for urging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to follow through with his threats to commit suicide. Here’s what Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, has to say:
Mr. Roy’s death is a terrible tragedy, but it is not a reason to stretch the boundaries of our criminal laws or abandon the protections of our constitution.
There is no law in Massachusetts making it a crime to encourage someone, or even to persuade someone, to commit suicide. Yet Ms. Carter has now been convicted of manslaughter, based on the prosecution’s theory that, as a 17-year-old girl, she literally killed Mr. Roy with her words. This conviction exceeds the limits of our criminal laws and violates free speech protections guaranteed by the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions.
The implications of this conviction go far beyond the tragic circumstances of Mr. Roy’s death. If allowed to stand, Ms. Carter’s conviction could chill important and worthwhile end-of-life discussions between loved ones across the Commonwealth.
Although I don’t think the legal concept of incitement ever came up during the Carter trial, it makes for a good analogy. Over a number of decades, the concept of incitement to violence was refined and narrowed by the Supreme Court, starting with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s assertion in 1919 that you can’t falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theater. Finally, in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), we arrived at the standard we have today: Speech is not protected by the First Amendment and may be punished if it is “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and is “likely to incite or produce such action.” Anything that does not rise to that high level is protected, which is why Brandenburg is an important guarantee of free expression.
I am not a lawyer, so caveat emptor. But it seems to me that Carter’s texts to Roy were directed at inciting him to commit suicide and were likely to lead him to take his life. Yes, I know that this was not an incitement case involving mob violence. But I don’t see how the guilty verdict in the Carter case changes our understanding of what is protected speech and what isn’t. We are not less free today than we were before the verdict was rendered.
Among President Trump’s few animating principles is his deep and abiding belief that the libel laws were created for his personal enrichment. Thus it should have surprised no one when White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said over the weekend that Trump may seek to dismantle a vital protection against libel suits for journalists who report on matters of public interest.
“I think it’s something that we’ve looked at,” Priebus said on ABC News’ “This Week” in response to a question by Jonathan Karl. “How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story.” Priebus added that news organizations must “be more responsible with how they report the news.”
We are at a frightening moment. To refresh my understanding of what the First Amendment truly means, I recently re-read Anthony Lewis’ magnificent 2007 book “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment.” I’m glad I did. The late New York Times columnist, who was married to former Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court chief justice Margaret Marshall, was a giant in his understanding of and reverence for the right to speak and write freely.
President Trump last week promised to repeal a law that prohibits tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing political candidates. As he put it at the National Prayer Breakfast in his characteristically bombastic style, he would “totally destroy” the ban, pushed through Congress in 1954 by Sen. Lyndon Johnson.
The proposal, predictably, was met with opposition by many observers, who argued that such a move would threaten the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.
But religious leaders — and everyone — should be able to speak freely without fearing that their words will cost them money. Somehow the republic managed to survive until 1954 without those free-speech rights being abridged. There is no reason to think that restoring those rights will be our downfall today.
President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier today promised to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits nonprofit organizations from engaging in certain types of political speech lest they lose their tax exemptions. The amendment was pushed through Congress in 1954 by Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, who was under attack by several nonprofit groups back in Texas.
Religious organizations have been complaining about the restriction for years. In 2009 I wrote a commentary in The Guardian agreeing with them, though my main concern was that the amendment prevented nonprofit news organizations from endorsing political candidates. Given that nonprofit news is becoming an increasingly important part of the media landscape, it seemed (and seems) unwise to ban such projects from engaging in what traditionally has been a vital service to their communities. I argued:
Would this mean greater influence for the likes of religious hatemongers such as James Dobson and Tony Perkins? Yes. But the whole idea behind free speech is it’s for everyone, not just those with whom you agree.
I also wrote critically about the Johnson Amendment in my 2013 book “The Wired City,” much of which was an examination of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site.
I have not changed my mind. And thus I applaud our orange leader for standing up for free speech. Leaders of nonprofit organizations, including religious groups, should not have to fear that if they speak out they’ll literally have to pay a penalty.
The detention of a Canadian photojournalist at the US border is a shocking breach of the First Amendment. Ed Ou says he was stopped on October 1 as he was trying to fly to Bismarck, North Dakota, to cover the Standing Rock protests. According to the New York Times, his phones were confiscated so that authorities could look at his photos, possibly endangering the subjects of those photos.
The Obama years have not been good ones for freedom of the press, as I’ve written in the past. They’re going to get a whole lot worse under Donald Trump, with his call for upending the libel laws and with his thuggish manservant Corey Lewandowski demanding that Times executive editor Dean Baquet be locked up for publishing Trump’s partial tax returns.
The United States currently ranks 41st in press freedom, according to Reporters WIthout Borders. We could be considerably lower than that the next time the ratings are readjusted.