Tag: protests

U.S. Bends to Protests in Pakistan

To contain mass protests in Pakistan over a now infamous anti-Islamic film, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appear in a $70,000, U.S.-funded ad on Pakistani television denouncing the film and saying America “respects all faiths.”

This joint White House-State Department effort seems terribly misguided, as I would wager that Pakistanis are angrier with Washington dropping bombs on their domes—both cranial and architectural. But what makes this public relations endeavor particularly ill conceived is that, on a basic level, the U.S. Government should be taking this opportunity to promote one of its core foundational principles: the free speech of private citizens.

The ad does not do that. It instead emphasizes America’s tolerance for religious freedom without reference to other fundamental rights. I recognize that Obama and Clinton not only want to stop the anti-American protests, but also challenge the misconception that private and public speech in America are essentially one and the same. But when demonstrators in Peshawar are burning movie theaters and setting fire to posters of female movie stars, our leaders convey the impression that they are kowtowing to radicals. (It should be noted that the savagery perpetrated by radicals in the Muslim world disgusts many moderate Muslims.)

It is bad enough that Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asked its American counterpart to have the anti-Islamic film removed from YouTube. It would be worse if Washington fulfilled that expectation by obliging. As writer Salman Rushdie has said of the protests more generally, free speech is at risk because “religious extremists of all stripes” attack people who criticize beliefs.

Americans live under a different set of laws and customs and should never be scared into bending to extremists. And, however offensive the film mocking Mohammed was, there is no excuse for the violent behavior on display.

Yawn, Another Round of “Free Trade” Talks

On Sunday, I went to the “stakeholder” part of the ongoing trade negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership. This round of the talks was held at the Lansdowne resort in Leesburg. The “stakeholder” events allow the public—in other words, people without direct access to the actual policy-makers—to have its voice heard.

Back in the late 1990s, trade negotiations caused quite an uproar, with some violent protests in Seattle being the highlight. Things are much calmer these days. I was told there was a protest on Sunday, but I didn’t notice it (and it didn’t disturb anyone’s attempts to catch up on the NFL games going on).

Why has the furor over international trade rules died down so much?

One reason may be that this is the 14th round of talks for this particular agreement, with no end in sight. There may be some protest fatigue setting in, and it may be getting difficult to convince people this is worth worrying about.

Another reason may be that we already have trade agreements with many of the participants in these talks. To some extent, it just consolidates existing agreements into a strange grouping of various countries that touch the Pacific Ocean. Thus, there is nothing radically new here.

Despite the low profile of trade protests these days, there are still people who are upset with the policies the United States is pursuing in these agreements. For the most part, however, it is not the “free trade” parts that are controversial. It is the United States’ quest for ever stronger intellectual property protections, as well as the special provisions that allow foreign companies to sue governments in international tribunals for vaguely defined due process-type concerns, that have people upset.

All in all, it is easy to come away from the experience thinking, what are we doing here and what happened to free trade? This agreement may never be concluded; it covers mostly countries with whom we already have trade agreements; and so-called “trade” agreements are becoming less and less about free trade. At a certain point, you start to think that it may be time to scrap the existing approach and try something new.

Love the Right to Free Speech, Hate the Speaker

As I predicted after oral argument last October, today the Court ruled 8-1 (Alito dissenting) in favor of free speech at the expense of giving a legal victory to a repugnant group.  While the Westboro Baptist Church hates what they view as both the sinner and the sin, the Court properly rebuked the Phelpses while correctly expressing utmost devotion to their right to propagate their wayward message.

Stepping aside from the emotions and bizarre facts, this case implicates all sorts of legal issues aside from the First Amendment.  A private cemetery can and should remove unwanted visitors for trespassing — but the Phelpses didn’t enter the cemetery.  A town can pass ordinances restricting the time, place, and manner of protests — but the Phelpses stayed within all applicable regulations and followed police instructions.  Violent or aggressive protestors can be both prosecuted and sued for assault, harassment, and the like — but the Phelpses’ protests did not involve “getting up in the grill” of people, as their lawyer put it during oral argument. 

As the brevity of Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion confirms, there’s very little to this case and the Phelpses’ actions, ugly and objectionable as they are, are as constitutionally protected as a neo-Nazi parade.  If people don’t like that, they can change state laws to put certain further restrictions on protests near funerals or other sensitive areas — or federal laws in the case of military cemeteries — but they shouldn’t be able to sue simply for being offended. 

See also Josh Blackman’s parsing of the opinion’s highlights.