Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Censorship Is Worse Than Fake News

A big story on the front page of the Washington Post Style section is illustrated with a beautiful, stylized photo of new CBS anchor Katie Couric. In tiny letters almost invisible to the naked eye, the photo source is identified as CBS. In other words, it’s a publicity photo, not a news photo. There’s another glamorous CBS photo dominating page 8, where the story jumps.

Would the Post print a corporate news release? Not likely, though smaller papers do. Is that different from using a corporate photo? Perhaps. Should the Federal Newspaper Commission look into the use of corporate photos and corporate news releases? Oh, right, we don’t have a Federal Newspaper Commission, because we have a First Amendment.

Why, then, is something called the Federal Communications Commission investigating the use of “video news releases” by television broadcasters (as reported on the front page of the Business section the same day)? Oh, right, because somehow the First Amendment doesn’t give broadcasters the same free speech rights that newspapers enjoy. Prodded by the anti-free-speech lobby Center for Media and Democracy, the FCC wants to know if broadcasters clearly label “video news releases” produced by corporations when they are used on local news programs. CMD is well within its rights to criticize the use of VNRs. But when it calls for government regulation of what can and must be shown on news broadcasts, it’s calling for censorship. And censorship is far worse than “fake news” about new products on local television broadcasts.

“Abolish Religious Schools” — Guardian Columnist

In response to the latest Islamist terrorist plot, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee makes the following recommendation:

A new Commission on Integration and Cohesion, launching this month, will be worthless unless its first recommendation is to end religious and ethnic segregation in schools. That means no Church of England or Catholic schools, no Muslim or Jewish schools.

Ah yes, social cohesion through religious tyranny, a winning strategy down through the centuries. Nyet.

A nation that fought a number of civil wars over (among other things) the repression of religious freedom should have learned that compulsion in matters of faith does not breed social harmony. I would have thought Ms. Toynbee particularly well equipped to pass along that historical pearl, given that she is the descendant of not one but two well known British historians. Apparently the nut does sometimes fall far from the tree.

The Evolutionary War, Part Deux

In response to an earlier post, a reader e-mails with the following comment: “Intelligent Design is fundamentally a religious theory and thus cannot be taught in public schools according to the First Amendment.” 

Regrettably, it’s not that simple. For the first century of their existence, state schools engaged in official prayer and Bible reading in bald defiance of the First Amendment. That official religiosity was only discontinued after a 1963 Supreme Court ruling. There’s no reason it couldn’t come back. The sad truth is that our Constitution and Bill of Rights are regularly trampled over by legislators who find their content inconvenient (viz., the 10th Amendment). 

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that all courts, in perpetuity, will see Intelligent Design as a religious theory, as happened to be the case in last year’s Pennsylvania District Court verdict [.pdf]. 

Even at present, public schools in many parts of the country have watered down their coverage of the theory of evolution to avoid rousing the ire of adherents of ID or creationism. This is perhaps part of the reason that only 13 percent of Americans think humans evolved through entirely natural processes, while the rest think they were created in their present form (46%), or guided in their evolution (31%), by the god of their choice.

Natural human evolution has been public schools’ sole explanation for human origins for three generations, and that is the result. The official knowledge thing has thus already been tried, at length, and it has failed on its own terms.

Parental choice is a better approach. Those who want their children to receive a high-quality secular scientific education will be able to get it – which many cannot do in our current public schools. And those who want to pass along their religious beliefs about human origins to their children will be free to do so, without being forced to wheedle those beliefs into the official government schools for which they are compelled to pay. 

Most important of all, in a country founded on freedom of conscience and individual liberty, it is not the government’s proper role to indoctrinate children with the majority’s views (or, in this case, a tiny but influential minority’s views) – whether or not you or I happen to think those views are correct. 

Still more here.

Fomenting Hysteria

Scotland Yard should rein in Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson.

Last week, discussing the foiled attack on passenger air transportation, Stephenson stood before cameras, flash-bulbs popping, and read the following from a prepared statement:

We cannot stress too highly the severity that this plot represented. Put simply, this was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.

Stephenson quite badly over-stressed the severity of the plot. It is easy to comprehend in terms of both execution and anticipated result. The planned attack would have killed many people in a very dramatic way - everyone should be glad that it was defeated - but it wasn’t anything near “unimaginable.”

Is this a quibble about semantics? No. Stephenson’s overwrought statement is a form of incompetence.

As I wrote last week (citing national security expert John Mueller), it is the reaction to terrorist attacks that inflict the most damage. Controlling the reaction through even-handed public communications is the best thing officialdom can do when an attack has succeeded - to say nothing of the opportunity for confidence-building when an attack has been thwarted.

The fact that this embarrassing public display was part of a statement written in advance is reason for Scotland Yard to fully review its communications strategy. Stephenson’s overreaction splashed across America’s television screens numerous times over the weekend.

Fortunately,the public doesn’t appear to be falling for it. A poll appearing in this morning’s Washington Post Express found that 72% of people feel safe flying. USA Today reports that air travelers are adapting quickly to measures that foreclose the threat of a liquid bomb attack. Let’s hope that the measures are quickly minimized to reach what attacks are actually possible, rather than those that are only speculative.

My colleague Gene Healy’s post here last week (preceding news of the foiled terror plot) and his citation to James Fallows’ article ” Declaring Victory ” are even more solid and relevant now than they were before. We do not face an existential threat from terrorism. The “War on Terror” is effectively won. All that’s left is for someone to declare it so.

Importing Ideas

In the new Afghanistan, which seems uncomfortably like the old Afghanistan, the cabinet has revived the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Discouragement of Vice. The government will once again be able to keep an eye out for short beards, chess playing, slipping veils, alcohol, and other vices.

An official tells the Washington Post that he’s “swamped with job applicants” for the department.

Perhaps if they lose in the fall, Sens. Rick Santorum and Joe Lieberman could team up to lobby for such a department in the United States. And future president Hillary Clinton just might endorse the effort.

“Chaoulli has brought Canadian Medicare to a fork in the road”

Colleen Flood of the University of Toronto law school has a working paper out on the impact of the Canadian Supreme Court’s ruling in Chaoulli v. Quebec. In that case the court basically said that if the government prohibits private health insurance, but then threatens people’s lives by making them wait for care in the state-run health care system, it is violating the people’s rights to life, liberty, and personal security.

Prof. Flood’s paper is titled, “Chaoulli’s Legacy for the Future of Canadian Health Care Policy.” From the abstract:

The decision was initially considered of limited importance by many given that technically it applied only to Quebec. In the six months since the decision was released, however, it has become clear that the legal impact of Chaoulli will be dwarfed by its normative impact on policy debates across the country. Chaoulli has brought Canadian Medicare to a fork in the road. At the time of writing, critical decisions are about to be taken across the country.

Flood’s paper is available from the Social Science Research Network here (subscription req’d).

Dr. Chaoulli – the chief litigant in the case – authored a paper for Cato on the ruling and its potential impact, available here.

Lamont’s Victory Exposes the True Nature of Campaign Finance “Reform”

There is not a line in McCain-Feingold that isn’t designed to protect incumbents. The so-called Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act makes it a crime to even mention the name of a candidate for federal office in a radio or television ad within 60 days of a general election. No criticizing incumbents! But the worst part of these laws came with the 1974 Amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act, which instituted a $1000 contribution limit to candidates running for federal office (now slightly more than $2000, but less in real terms than the ’74 limits). Incumbents have earmarks to pass around and large mailing lists. Challengers do not. Advantage, incumbents.

Ned Lamont’s remarkable victory over three-term incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman yesterday exposes the true nature of contribution limits. They aren’t about the “appearance of corruption.” They’re about preventing a challenger from having a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. The one “loophole” the Supremes created with their incoherent 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo was that candidates have rights the rest of us don’t have. Apparently, they can’t be corrupted by their own money, so there are no limits on what they can spend on their own campaigns.

More than 60 percent of Ned’s campaign expenditures came from Ned. Without Ned, Ned loses. In fact, no political observer thought any candidate dependent on a $2000 contribution limit had any kind of chance of ousting Lieberman. Ned was a very poor candidate. Inarticulate with zero charisma. But by spending his own money he enfranchised the Democrats of Connecticut who otherwise, given the contribution limits, were disenfranchised. The Democrats in Connecticut hate the war in Iraq, Lieberman has rather energetically endorsed it. Yet the federal election laws would have assured Lieberman reelection were it not for the “loophole.”

This anti-war election is directly analogous to my late friend Gene McCarthy’s race for the presidency in 1968. Gene used six-figure contributions from wealthy liberals like Stewart Mott who opposed the war in Vietnam to fund a campaign that ousted a sitting president from his own party. Gene often said that had the ’74 amendments to the FECA been in place in ’68, he would not have run. Campaign finance laws should not have the power to change American history. But they do. Give everyone the “loophole” of being able to spend as much of their own money to promote their political beliefs and we’ll throw a remarkable number of incumbents out of office. And with good candidates instead of bumbling millionaires.