10 Comments

Online interaction and free speech

What John Scalzi said, after noting that despite the opinion of some people, not everywhere in the world is covered by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America:

this person is just absolutely, completely, ice-pick-to the-eyeballs wrong in their understanding of the First Amendment, how it applies to my site, and how it applies to the Internet. Reading this person’s understanding of how the First Amendment applies in these instances is like being slathered in a thick coat of ignorant, and then being put out into the sun to dry out before a second coat is applied, which itself will be topped off by a sealant of complete and utter stupid, and lightly drizzled with a glistening varnish of epic fail.

He then goes into detail about exactly why the particular person is so monumentally wrong, but it basically comes down to the difference between interactions between private persons and interactions between private persons and persons acting as agents of a government. Freedom of the press (in those countries where such a principle is accepted) is the freedom of persons to obtain a press and operate it without censorship or other interference from the government: there is no obligation upon the owner/operator of a free press to publish anything that they find unacceptable.

Private individuals are NOT obliged to suffer the free speech of others whenever those others wish to inflict it upon them (one can always walk away from such a person in public, or eject them from one’s private property), and neither are private individuals obliged to post the free speech of others expressed on flyers or posters on their front door. A website has no obligation to publish the free speech of others either – those others can always obtain their own free press/blog and publish their own speech to their heart’s content.

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About tigtog

writer, singer, webwrangler, blogger, comedy tragic | about.me/vivsmythe

10 comments on “Online interaction and free speech

  1. ‘Freedom of the press (in those countries where such a principle is accepted) is the freedom of persons to obtain a press and operate it without censorship or other interference from the government: there is no obligation upon the owner/operator of a free press to publish anything that they find unacceptable.’

    Actually, this is an internal dilemma that I, as a feminist, often have to grapple with. This is because the ‘press’ – or, as per current vernacular, ‘media’ – is one of the main cultural instruments that maintain women’s social status as inferior to men’s.

    Whenever I criticise prevailing attitudes and conventions regarding the portrayal women in the media, I automatically invite accusations that I am interfering with freedom of the press and/or freedom of speech.

  2. What, Marian? That’s absurd. Criticizing things isn’t interfering with freedom of speech, unless (and this is a maybe) that criticism exerts enough coercive pressure against the target creator to work as de facto censorship. Freedom of speech means you can say whatever you want, freedom of speech does not protect you from other people calling you a dumb jackass for saying it. Calling people dumb jackasses is freedom of speech too.

    There’s a difference between telling someone to stop saying something, and changing the laws so as to prohibit that person from saying that something. If you’re not advocating the latter, then I don’t see how you could honestly be accused of interfering with freedom of speech.

  3. That’s the other common free speech fallacy – that somehow one person’s free speech is immune from either criticism from others or the consequences thereby.

    Q: Is a member of the KKK free to write as much as they want about how they’d like to drive all non-Whites out of America by force?
    A: A series of court cases in the USA says that they are. That doesn’t mean that their free expression constrains the free expression of others in response!

    Others are free to respond to a person’s speech with criticism of their own, and to encourage others to ostracise/boycott a person or organisation whose expressions are offensive to them.

    Freedom Of Speech has never meant Freedom From Criticism.

  4. Huitzil, tigtog

    ‘There’s a difference between telling someone to stop saying something, and changing the laws so as to prohibit that person from saying that something.’

    As a matter of fact, there are times when I get so exasperated with routine media portrayals of women that I wonder if there is a case for crossing that line – at least to some degree.

    In Australia, where I live, what few media watchdogs exist are paper tigers when it comes to monitoring and regulating editorial attitudes on most issues, let alone the media’s treatment of women as inferior to men. The watchdogs’ so-called guidelines are written in such a nebulous way that they can rarely ever rule on any unethical journalistic behaviour other than plagiarism. In fact, the more publicized complaints against the media regarding specifically negative portrayals of women are routinely treated with disdain, often arrogance, by the media itself.

    My dilemma is that, when the media refuses to self-regulate on the issue of treating women as the inferiors of men – despite living in an era in which women are struggling to consolidate the hard-fought gains already made – is there an ethical case for feminists to want to push the boundaries of freedom of the press to lobby for more gender-specific regulations on the media industry?

    I’m not saying that I know the answer to that question. I’m just putting it out there.

  5. No, there is no ethical case for feminists to want to push the boundaries of freedom of the press to lobby for more gender-specific regulations on the media industry.

    If the more publicized complaints are treated with disdain and arrogance, the solution is not to pass laws regulating the portrayal of women in media. That would not only be unethical, it would be unproductive and a regulatory and enforcement nightmare. There’s going to be no way to have objective criteria of what’s over the line of degrading to women, so whose judgment gets used? How do we know that judgment is sound? What happens when that person or body starts getting things wrong, like everyone eventually will? Where’s the line going to be between, for example, having a character that portrays women as stupid, and having a character who is a woman that’s stupid? Is this going to piss off every single person, misogynist or not, involved in it? (The answer to the last one is “yes”.)

    Banning/regulating negative portrayals of women is not just treating the symptoms rather than the disease, it’s running to third base and back and calling it a home run. The point is to make it so people don’t want to portray women negatively because they understand and accept gender equality, not to prevent them from portraying women negatively.

  6. Huitzil

    Yes, I accept all your rhetorical questions as valid arguments – as would anyone in the population who ever thinks, reads or writes about this issue, especially mothers of young girls.

    However, (and with a plea to the patience of readers in other countries) to further extend the Australian example … the Australian Press Council guidelines only make a passing reference to gender as being one of the things that publications should not report in any ‘gratuitous’ way – along with race, religion, nationality, colour, country of origin, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness, or age of an individual or group. [http://www.presscouncil.org.au/pcsite/complaints/sop.html]

    In monitoring an industry that routinely and increasingly objectifies, glamorizes and sexualizes women and young girls (arguably more so than any other social group), this is the national watchdog’s only mention of ‘gender’. It’s so nebulous as to be an insult.

    In stark contrast to this, the APC has managed to upgrade and revise its overall principles to create much more specific guidelines on some social issues otherwise deemed too subjective to adequately regulate – e.g. the portrayal of race and religion, even the reporting of suicide.
    [http://www.presscouncil.org.au/pcsite/activities/gprguide.html]

    I suspect that arguments about problems with subjective judgement and enforcement are copouts. The portrayal of women in the media can be much more specifically regulated. The political will is just not there.

  7. Okay, it looks like the APC is not the government. It’s a private, self-regulatory, voluntary agency. It is not governmental nor political, which makes it a different creature altogether. The reason the “political will is not there” is that we should not “more specifically regulate” the portrayal of women in media, no matter how much we want to or how much good it would cause. It’d cause a lot of good to outlaw the Republican Party in the US and ban the speech of people like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, but we won’t, and shouldn’t want to. But a voluntary organization issuing guidelines to its members on how to behave is totally, totally different.

    As to the APC pages, those guidelines look… uh… asinine. It reads like in places like it was drafted by the town from “Footloose”. So maybe I don’t understand your position, not “getting” the positive impact of most of these regulations. What more specific regulations would you have them add, what problems would they solve, and how would they solve them? Are you concerned with objectifying, reporting of sex crimes, equal time issues of women’s viewpoints, what?

  8. My dilemma is that, when the media refuses to self-regulate on the issue of treating women as the inferiors of men – despite living in an era in which women are struggling to consolidate the hard-fought gains already made – is there an ethical case for feminists to want to push the boundaries of freedom of the press to lobby for more gender-specific regulations on the media industry?

    As a fellow Australian, I agree that the APC is just a paper tiger that the industry essentially created as their own version of that old governmental Yes Minister stand-by, the Royal Commission: an external body that can be ordered to study an issue to defuse a public outcry and then produce a report that says what the government/industry wants it to say. As such it should essentially be ignored, IMO, along Christine Keeler lines: “well they would say that, wouldn’t they?”.

    Unfortunately, the problem with encouraging any government restriction of freedom of the press is that no government will stop at simply restricting the people we loathe, they’ll also use it to restrict people we find agreeable.

  9. The way to bring a check against the media is not via regulation. It’s through organization, followed by boycott. Not of the offending publication or broadcast, but of that entity’s sponsors. When enough people get mad enough to stop buying the products of people who advertise on a particular program, the makers of products will choose to stop sponsoring those programs. Enough advertisers pull out, and the show will be dropped, or the publication will go out of business. A boycott by gay-rights activists kept Dr. Ruth from getting her own TV show here in the States.

    Key to a successful boycott is to organize, and then stay focused. Pick a single target at a time, and only boycott those advertisers. If you try to go after everyone who advertises on every misogynistic program, you’ll end up with a list as long (and unreadable) as the average government commission report.

    And yes, government censorship is a case-study in the law of unintended consequences. I think it was in Canada where a law intended to prohibit degrading images of women was first used to shut down a feminist bookstore (they happened to have a selection of lesbian bondage erotica).

  10. Wikipedia’s not clear on what actually happened in Butler, but I seem to recall that’s the one. The Little Sisters case in Vancouver was about a gay bookstore suing Canadian customs for blocking imports under the obscenity law.

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