Tag: free speech

Internet Censorship

On August 24th, the Attorneys General of 17 states sent a letter [PDF] to the founder and CEO of the Craigslist online platform, to “request” that they take down the “Adult Services” section of the site. The link to that section of the site now stands with a “CENSORED” label over the place where the link stood.

On the TechLiberationFront blog, Ryan Radia has a good write-up, including the legal protections Craigslist enjoys under federal law as a provider of an “interactive computer service.” The AGs undoubtedly know that could not directly shut down Craigslist. They wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on if they attacked the site for the behavior of its users. But they also know that publically badgering Craigslist can win them political points and cut into the site’s image, profits, and ultimately, perhaps, viability. Several Attorneys General have doggedly asked Craigslist to patrol the behavior of its millions of users, never satisfied with the company’s efforts.

The turning point seems to have been a CNN “ambush” interview with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark in which reporter Amber Lyon sprung a terrific gotcha line, calling Craigslist “the Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking.” It’s a sound-bite with just enough truth: In a community of millions of people, there may be some such trafficking.

Newmark is an unusual character in any world, but especially in media and politics. He is meek, soft-spoken, and utterly guileless. A part of West-Coast tech’s recent interest in East-Coast government and politics, Newmark sought me ought a few months ago for a wide-ranging, ambling, and—for those reasons—charming chat.

Newmark was utterly caught off guard by the interview with the CNN reporter. The tape rolls through painfully awkward moments when Newmark remains simply silent or paces around, making him look stupid, mendacious, or both. (His comment on the interview is here, to which Lyon responds in the video linked above at “ambush.”)

The AGs smelled blood in the water. Their letter pounces on Craigslist and Craig Newmark’s inartful performance.

So the next step is the “CENSORED” block on Craigslist’s “Adult Services” section. Perhaps it’s meant to engender support for First Amendment rights, and to an extent it has. Early returns show support for Craigslist. But it may also create an expectation that large Web sites on which a tiny minority of people abuse speech rights to plan and execute crime may lose their speech protections themselves.

In case it needs pointing out, shutting down a Web site, or the portion of a Web site, on which people plan crime will only move crime to other places on the Internet. The cost to free speech in the AGs’ badgering of Craigslist vastly outweighs the infinitesimal crime-prevention benefit.

The Attorneys General sacrificing speech this way are: Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut (a candidate for U.S. Senate), Dustin McDaniel (D) of Arkansas, Lawrence G. Wasden (R) of Idaho, Lisa Madigan (D) of Illinois, Tom Miller (D) of Iowa, Steve Six (D) of Kansas, Douglas F. Gansler (D) of Maryland, Mike Cox (R) of Michigan, Jim Hood (D) of Mississippi, Chris Koster (D) of Missouri, Michael A. Delaney (D) of New Hampshire, Richard Cordray (D) of Ohio, Patrick C. Lynch (D) of Rhode Island, Henry McMaster (R) of South Carolina, Robert E. Cooper, Jr. (D) of Tennessee, Greg Abbott (R) of Texas, and Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, II (R) of Virginia.

Kagan Contra Kagan?

The Center for Competitive Politics has sponsored an analysis by Allison Hayward of Elena Kagan’s writings on campaign finance regulation. It should be read widely, not least by the Senators trying to discern her fitness for the Court. Here’s a taste of Allison’s analysis:

In Kagan’s 1996 article, Private Speech, Public Purpose: The Role of Governmental Motive in First Amendment Doctrine, she “explicitly recognized that ‘campaign finance laws… easily can serve as incumbent-protection devices’ and when applied to certain speakers ‘the danger of illicit motive becomes even greater.’ It is impossible to square Kagan’s analysis in this article with her recent comments that the Supreme Court should have deferred to Congress in Citizens United.  Americans deserve to know which version of Kagan’s views will receive a lifetime platform on the bench of the Supreme Court.”

Having Public Colleges Means Limiting Freedom

While we’re all shooting off our guns in celebration of good Supreme Court news, Roger has reported the blow to liberty dealt by the Court’s lower-profile CLS v. Martinez decision. I won’t elaborate on whether the Court made the right decision – on that I stand with Roger (and Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas). I just want to add one thing about the root problem in the CLS case: You can’t have both taxpayer funding of higher education and full freedom. As Ilya Shapiro and I wrote in an April op-ed about the case:

It is impossible to reconcile free speech with governmentally compelled support of speech. Just as public colleges cannot choose both which student groups to fund and avoid discrimination, they cannot pay a professor without privileging his speech over that of the taxpayers who pay his bills.

Quite simply, when public universities decide which groups do or do not get taxpayer funds, and which professors are or are not hired, government is deciding those things, and that is ultimately incompatible with both free inquiry and, more importantly, a free society.

Our Fellows in the News

Cato fellows Nat Hentoff and Penn Jillette have just been profiled in major publications – Hentoff in the New York Times and Penn in Vanity Fair. Warning: the Hentoff profile is mostly about jazz, and the Penn interview contains lots of four-letter words, obscene imagery, and harsh language about religion. So if you have a low tolerance for jazz or for obscenity and blasphemy, be forewarned. But it’s no surprise that both of them talk a lot about the importance of free speech.

Problems Overturning Citizens United

Congress has been trying to overturn the Citizens United decision for the past four months. (Citizens United invalidated bans on speech by groups taking a corporate form). Their effort — the DISCLOSE Act — now seems bogged down in the House of Representatives. The National Rifle Association argues that they should not have to disclose their small donors. The labor unions also have complaints:

Amaya Tune, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg this week that “the final bill should treat corporations different than democratic organizations such as unions. We believe the legislation should counter the excessive and disproportionate influence by big business and guarantee effective disclosure of who is paying for what.”

Here’s the problem: The Supreme Court has ruled that Congress cannot regulate campaign finance to achieve equality of influence.  Ms. Tune is calling for changes in DISCLOSE to “counter the excessive and disproportionate influence by big business.” If Congress enacts those changes, how can the law be defended against the charge that Congress is seeking to legislate a greater equality of influence? Won’t the parts of the law demanded by the unions be unconstitutional?

Remember, the FCC Is Our National Censor II

Last week, I referred obscurely to “folks wanting to install the FCC as the Internet’s regulator,” cautioning that this same Federal Communications Commission is our national censor.

A friendly correspondent points me to an article in Ars Technica about the demand for speech controls coming from the same groups that want the FCC to control the Internet’s infrastructure, groups such as Free Press, the Media Access Project, and Common Cause.

Is there a parry to the charge that this is a demand for censorship? The signatories to the regulatory filing “respectfully request[] that the FCC … inquire into the extent and effects of hate speech in media, and explore possible non-regulatory ways to counteract its negative impacts.”

The filing does not contain the words “First Amendment” or “free speech.” It means “non-regulatory” the way a cop eyeballing someone and slapping his palm with a billy club is “non-regulatory.”

The FCC is experienced with “non-regulatory” coercion. Hearings in Congress have explored how the agency uses arm-twisting to get what it wants outside of formal regulatory processes. As law professor Lars Noah testified in 1999:

Arm twisting refers to an agency’s use of threats either to impose a sanction or withhold a benefit in hopes of encouraging nominally voluntary compliance with a request that the agency could not impose directly on a regulated entity. This informal method of regulation often saddles parties with more onerous regulatory burdens than Congress had authorized, accompanied by a diminished opportunity to pursue judicial challenges.

An FCC with the power to regulate Internet access services would use it to control Internet content.  There’s no place for the FCC in monitoring or administering speech controls, nor in controlling our communications infrastructure, the Internet.

Libertarianism Hits the Big Time

Michael Crowley, late of the New Republic and now with Time magazine, writes thoughtfully about Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and libertarianism. Crowley notes that Rand Paul, “more politically flexible than his father,” has plenty of unlibertarian positions. But both of them are tapping into a real strain in contemporary politics:

But he, like his father, also knows well that a genuine libertarian impulse is astir in America…. polls show an uptick in both social permissiveness and skepticism of government intervention….[Ron Paul] has already waited a long time — and it appears the country is moving his way.

This is a current trend, but it’s also deeply rooted in the American political culture. As David Kirby and I wrote in “The Libertarian Vote”:

It’s no surprise that many Americans hold libertarian attitudes since America is, after all, a country fundamentally shaped by libertarian values and attitudes. In their book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marx write, “The American ideology, stemming from the [American] Revolution, can be subsumed in five words: antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”… Richard Hofstadter wrote: “The fierceness of the political struggles in American history has often been misleading; for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise. However much at odds on specific issues, the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the values of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture.”… McClosky and Zaller sum up a key theme of the American ethos in classic libertarian language: “The principle here is that every person is free to act as he pleases, so long as his exercise of freedom does not violate the equal rights of others.”…

Some people recognize but bemoan our libertarian ethos. Professors Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes complain that libertarian ideas are “astonishingly widespread in American culture.”

Much political change in America occurs within those guiding principles. Even our radicals, Lipset and Marks note, have tended to be libertarian rather than collectivist. America is a “country of classical liberalism, antistatism, libertarianism, and loose class structure,” which helps to explain the failure of class-conscious politics in the United States. McClosky and Zaller argue that many of the changes of the 1960s involved “efforts to extend certain values of the traditionalethos to new groups and new contexts”—such as equal rights for women, blacks, and gays; anti-war and free speech protests; and the “do your own thing” ethosof the so-called counterculture, which may in fact have had more in common with the individualist American culture than was recognized at the time.

In a broadly libertarian country most voters and movements have agreed on the fundamentals of classical liberalism or libertarianism: free speech, religious freedom, equality before the law, private property, free markets, limited government, and individual rights. The broad acceptance of those values means that American liberals and conservatives are fighting within a libertarian consensus. We sometimes forget just how libertarian the American political culture is.

And of course American politics and policy deviate a great deal from those fundamental principles, which leaves libertarians feeling frustrated, even angry, and seeming extreme or radical to journalists and others. But as Conor Friedersdorf just wrote in Time’s longtime rival, Newsweek, the media have a bias toward the status quo and establishment politicians, even when current policies and the proposals of elected officials are at least as extreme as libertarian ideas:

If returning to the gold standard is unthinkable, is it not just as extreme that President Obama claims an unchecked power to assassinate, without due process, any American living abroad whom he designates as an enemy combatant? Or that Joe Lieberman wants to strip Americans of their citizenship not when they are convicted of terrorist activities, but upon their being accused and designated as enemy combatants? In domestic politics, policy experts scoff at ethanol subsidies, the home-mortgage-interest tax deduction, and rent control, but the mainstream politicians who advocate those policies are treated as perfectly serious people.

And Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, made the point a dozen years ago in a review of Charles Murray’s book What It Means to Be a Libertarian (in the Public Interest, not online)

The reason that libertarians seem extreme and odd is not that they are a furious minority, angry at a world that seems to have passed them by, but rather the opposite. They are heirs to a tradition that has changed the world. Consider what classical liberalism stood for in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was against the power of the church and for the power of the market; it was against the privileges of kings and aristocracies and for dignity of the middle class; it was against a society dominated by status and land and in favor of one based on markets and merit; it was opposed to religion and custom and in favor of science and secularism; it was for national self-determination and against empires; it was for freedom of speech and against censorship; it was for free trade and against mercantilism. Above all, it was for the rights of the individual and against the power of the church and the state….

The reason that libertarianism seems narrow and naive is that having won 80 percent of the struggles it has fought over the last two centuries, it is now forced to define itself wholly in terms of the last 20 percent. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice if you were in Prussia in the 1850s, but in America in the 1960s? Libertarianism has become extreme because the world has left it no recourse.

Now, I don’t feel furious, angry, or extreme. I think that libertarianism is the philosophy of the American revolution, the basic ideology of America, and indeed the foundation of Western civilization. The concept of personal and economic freedom – giving people more power to pursue happiness in their own way by restricting the size, scope, and power of government – is not extreme. Nor is it reactionary. In fact, it is the direction in which civilization has been heading, with many digressions and blind alleys, since the liberal revolution of the 17th century. I am a progressive. I believe that the simple, timeless principles of the American Revolution – individual liberty, limited government, and free markets – are even more powerful and more important in the world of instant communication, global markets, and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined.  Libertarianism is not just a framework for utopia, it is the indispensable framework for the future.