These aren’t your mother’s civil rights: mob mentality and the end of free speech

Within one month, the nation saw the ousting of two public figures for their stances on religion and race. Those behind the ousting claim they are championing the cause of civil rights in the 21st century. But something is amiss, and it is profoundly disturbing.

Way back in 2008, Mozilla Founder/CEO and JavaScript creator Brendan Eich made what was apparently a horrible, life-changing mistake: he financially supported an initiative (Proposition 8) to protect traditional marriage in California. For perspective, recall that even presidential candidate Barack Obama’s position on Prop 8 was squishy back in those days.  The Twitterverse originally discovered the publicly-recorded contribution in 2012, but it resurfaced upon Eich’s appointment as CEO and led ultimately to his resignation surrounded by controversy and protest.

Another public figure, another sin: In 2013, San Diego Clippers owner Donald Sterling expressed his dislike of African Americans to a female friend. Thanks to a recording that was released to TMZ, those remarks have become public. As a result, Sterling is banned for life from NBA games and Clippers facilities, and has been fined $2.5 million.

Both scenarios present actions that are directly offensive to certain groups in society, and for that reason both individuals faced dire consequences. I agree with Nick Gillespie’s characterization of these events as simply the action and reaction of market forces. When users boycott a product or advertisers pull their support, we are witnessing a company kept in check by the people. If a leader cannot lead effectively because s/he has damaged the brand and severed trust of employees or customers, that person must go. And as far as that point can take us, I have no problem with what happened to these men. But that doesn’t get to the real problem.

Denny Burk argues that the difference between these two events is that Eich did not actively discriminate against gay people, while Sterling was clearly revealed to be—quoting Andrew Sullivan’s words—“a crude, foul bigot.” The rationale here seems to be that the public should be understanding toward offensive actions as long as the offender is not blatant about it. The distinction is perhaps too subtle for my taste.

Nearly everyone finds Sterling’s actions repulsive, while the controversy at Mozilla was merely ideological, but there is more to these stories than the number of protesters. The particular size of the mob bears no moral significance. Even though I regretted what happened to Eich and I enjoy the thought of someone like Sterling getting what was surely coming to him, at some level both events are equally disturbing.

Both of these men have been publicly condemned and punished because they hold unpopular opinions. One believes the state should only recognize marriage between a man and a woman, and the other takes issue with people of a certain skin color. We all acknowledge that these individuals have a right to their opinions. Yet, just because one has a right does not mean the expression of it is appropriate in all times and places. A negative post about one’s boss on Facebook is reasonable grounds for being fired, even if it isn’t outlined in company policy—at some point, common sense must enter the picture. It is naïve to think that one should not have to balance their personal and professional life.

What is most disturbing in both cases is that these men kept their unpopular opinions to themselves—it was others who brought them into public view with the intention to destroy them.

“these men kept their unpopular opinions to themselves—it was others who brought them into public view with the intention to destroy them.”

What should they have done? In order to avoid public lashing, should Eich have refrained from any kind of support or expression in an important political debate, or should Sterling have avoided speaking with friends about his ridiculous views? Perhaps, but that starts to hamper the whole idea behind freedom of expression.

Freedom of Speech in the U.S. has two meanings. From a constitutional perspective, the First Amendment says the Federal government has no power to limit free expression. Since neither of these cases involve a Federal prosecution, the Constitution does not apply, and it may be fully within the right of the public to silence an offender. But the other interpretation of Freedom of Speech suggests that it is a fundamental right, to be not only protected from government, but by government, as part of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This view holds that individuals should not be shut out of the public dialogue because of unpopular ideas.

“Unpopular” should be distinguished from “dangerous.” An early Supreme Court case concluded that Freedom of Speech does not give one the right to falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater because it can threaten public safety. Sometimes, one man’s liberty is another man’s tyranny, so a balance must be struck in the protection of rights.

Who is the victim here, and whose rights should be protected? To the news media and most of the public, the victims are the offended masses. But the men themselves are also victims of self-appointed wistleblowers and a culture that has zero tolerance for the appearance of intolerance.

It is not a crime to be racist, or to be against same-sex marriage, and in a free country that should remain the case. If anything, the government may be used by these individuals to sue for slander. But the court of public opinion obeys no law but its own.

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln—then an up-start attorney and Illinois representative— addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, urging his audience to steer clear of the mob mentality:

“When men take it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake. And not only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down, and disregarded. But all this even, is not the full extent of the evil.–By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained.”

By these words, Lincoln pressed upon his audience that the preservation of a nation of laws, not men, must depend on a respect for reason and order. The hangings and witch trials of today are highly commercialized, driven by a combination of leftist intolerance and media sensationalism.

“The hangings and witch trials of today are highly commercialized, driven by a combination of leftist intolerance and media sensationalism.”

In another example, the narrative built around the Trayvon Martin story within the first 48 hours destroyed the reputation of George Zimmerman, irrespective of his guilt or all evidence to the contrary. NBC went so far as to edit recordings of Zimmerman to hyperbolize the story in order to characterize Zimmerman as a racist, and is now under suit for doing so. What matters here is not whether he was innocent, but whether due process was allowed to operate before the media cast their verdict.

There was once a reining idea among liberals that people should be able to not only hold, but loudly express unpopular, countercultural opinions. From Westphalia to the U.S. Founding, the onward march of humanity had sought not only democratic equality, but freedom of conscience, protected by government—one of its few legitimate roles. We are now seeing these rights challenged by a mob-like intolerance. Without a respect for privacy, personal opinion and due process, we are indeed no longer a free country.

These aren’t your mother’s civil rights: mob mentality and the end of free speech

Freedom, Equality, and Abortion

"Abortion on Demand & Without Apology&quo...

Many in America today passionately support a right to abortion, even after five months into the pregnancy. Perhaps we should all join in and protect this right.

But let’s not be incoherent in our logic and values.

The central premise is that a person’s human value—whether or not an unborn child has rights or deserves to live—is dependent upon the will of the mother. Thus, if she determines that the child is a blessing, we will celebrate, congratulate and support in every way. If, however, she decides the child is a significant obstacle to her plans and desires, we will refer to it as a fetus, treat it as one might treat a tumor, and remind the mother woman that her own strength and independence are what is most important in life.

Our laws should also reflect this premise.

Why base legality on an arbitrary timeline? At minimum, abortion should be allowed up to the final days of a pregnancy. We should also be open to some reasonable grace period after birth, during which the mother can decide whether to keep the child alive. She could also give the child up for adoption—though current trends suggest abortion would be chosen around 90 percent of the time. As the child is the complete property of the mother, the father should have no say in this choice, and should indeed have no legal right or obligation toward either mother or child.

The more profound change must occur in our culture.

Without rights or obligations, men ought to be seen more as sexual objects, only occasionally needed for child-bearing in case a woman should decide that motherhood is something she wants to explore. But even in such a case, it is not necessary to engage in a long-term relationship, since modern science frees the electing mother from such an arcane dependency. This is certainly not to say that relationships are wrong. A tolerant society should always value the choices people make, and two adults ought to enjoy the freedom to establish a traditional family environment. That is what makes America great.

We have already made great strides in breaking down oppressive expectations about what constitutes a “normal” or “healthy” family environment. This is great news on our path toward a free and equal society.

Every year, over one million babies are killed fetuses are removed, without unnecessary pressure on women to demonstrate health risks or other reasons. Aside from safe and legal, abortion is becoming more available and affordable than ever before—especially with governments picking up the tab. This has resulted in tens of millions of American women who are more free today. They are free to engage their sexual pleasures without being tied to one partner, free to pursue the careers they want, and free from all of the curses of motherhood. Instead of worrying about personal sacrifices or taking care of other people, more women—and men—can now focus on themselves. At least until they decide they are ready to settle down.

Like those before us who fought to end the oppressive abomination of slavery and prejudice that devalued human beings to the level of animals, we should all join the fight for the freedom to abort an unwanted child, so we can become a more prosperous, virtuous and just society.

Freedom, Equality, and Abortion

TX School cuts microphone on religious graduation speech

A valedictorian in a Texas high school had his microphone cut off after mentioning God, and the constitutional right of students to speak about their faith.

In april, I wrote about the subtle indoctrination of secular education, through which children are tacitly trained to think of faith as a private matter that should not be discussed in a public forum. The complete absence of references to God or biblical themes suggests that these are not mainstream ideas, and that the default view of an educated person is an atheistic one. Indeed, as the Anti-Defamation League says on its website, “public schools may not teach religion, although religion in a secular context is permitted… in a neutral, objective, balanced and factual manner”—as if these words are incongruent with faith.

As an instrument of government, the public education system has fallen to the mistaken—though widely assumed—belief that it must be strictly separated from religion, which in America is synonymous with Christianity. Thus, time after time after time, stories surface of teachers and administrators purging their classrooms of anything that can be labelled a “Christian” point of view. At universities it’s far worse.

So again, we have a student at the top of his class, who decides he wants to thank God in his commencement address—something not especially uncommon. While schools generally discourage students around the nation from such content, there are probably many more occasions in which school officials let it slide than we ever hear about. Nevertheless, this one was born for headlines.

Apparently, school officials reviewed and disapproved of valedictorian Remington Reimer’s original draft, featuring religious remarks. He turned in a second clean version to their satisfaction and received warning that his microphone would be cut if he deviated, so when he decided to include this threat in his actual speech that is precisely what happened.

The school district maintains that they followed policy, but the details of their statement show just how well discrimination can be disguised within the patchwork of policy:

The District has reviewed the rules and policy regarding graduation speech, and it has been determined that policy was followed at the Joshua High School 2013 Graduation Ceremony. The valedictorian, salutatorian, and class historian speeches were reviewed in advance by the campus staff, prior to the graduation ceremony. Student speakers were told that if their speeches deviated from the prior-reviewed material, the microphone would be turned off, regardless of content. When one student’s speech deviated from the prior-reviewed speech, the microphone was turned off, pursuant to District policy and procedure.

We are supposed to acknowledge the fair treatment of all speakers and walk away from this story thinking that someone just took it too personally—another overly offended family with a lot of facebook friends.

But the term “prior-reviewed” hides the fact that the speech also had to be prior-approved. By not approving the original speech, then relying on a policy that gives them permission to cut off a microphone if a student deviates, the district set up a game in which they could not lose. Effectively, they gave the student an ultimatum: say what we want you to say, or you’ll be silenced and held against school policy.

The student handbook may not say there is a policy against discussing faith, but by placing complete power over expression in the hands of people who believe faith should not be discussed, the outcome is the same.

Likewise, it may not be a policy of our government to discriminate against Christians, but its persistent squeezing out of “religious” dialogue from the public square has the same result.

TX School cuts microphone on religious graduation speech