Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

May 9, 2017

The First Freedom

Filed under: Free Speech,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:46 pm

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
– First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

At a recent speech at UC Berkeley former Federal Election Commission chairwoman Ann M. Ravel called for regulation of speech on the Internet as a move against “fake news.”

In the current issue of The Wellesley News, the student newspaper of Wellesley College, a staff editorial denies free speech is suppressed at the college but goes on to say there is no place for “discriminatory speech.”

“Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech.”

In other words, we don’t deny anybody’s right to free speech, we just tell them what they can’t say.

And lately there have been demonstrations, often turning violent, by black masked thugs who right up front proclaim there is no right of free speech for “Fascists.” They also proclaim their right to define who’s a fascist.
I wish I could say these were isolated incidences. They’re not.

In 2015, a poll by McLaughlin and Associates found that 95 percent of 800 college students polled said free speech was “very important” to them, and 87 percent said there was educational value in listening to views you disagree with.

Nonetheless 51 percent supported campus speech codes, 72 percent supported disciplinary action against “any student or faculty member on campus who uses language that is considered racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive.” Half said they felt intimidated about sharing views that differed from their professors and classmates.

Note two things about this. One is that in answer to the question “Do you support freedom?” people are likely to respond, “Yes, but…” Followed by an elaborate justification why freedom to do or say something they personally disapprove of isn’t really about freedom.

That’s a common reaction shared by a great many people on all sides of the political divide, differing only in the specifics of what they want to make an exception.

More worrisome is the poll, and the Wellesley editorial, reveal the students don’t just disagree with freedom of speech, they have no conception of what it is.

I am old enough to remember when the major threats to free expression came from the right.

But back then it was mostly about porn. If you wanted to read Terry Southern’s erotic novel “Candy” you had to buy it in Europe and sneak it through customs.

And it was a common comedy schtick that all you had to do to sell out a play, or send sales of a book through the roof was to have reviewers denounce it as “filth.”

It was seldom ever about political speech, and on the rare occasions it was you could count on principled conservatives and classical liberals to defend the rights of people they disliked, to say things they despised.

Moreover, academics who took free inquiry seriously supported the right of people with different and antithetical views to teach in public universities.

Many lived to find out their tolerance was not reciprocated.

For the first time in a long time we have a significant number of people who favor repression of free speech in this country, and what is more are willing to act on it, sometimes personally and violently.

And these are not KKK yahoos but the most educated and affluent in our country. People who often call themselves “liberal” or “progressive” but who are neither liberal nor progressive. Some who call themselves “anarchists,” which ironically means “without rule” – but who mean to rule with an iron hand.

We live in a time when careers are wrecked by a chance remark, a careless joke, or expressing an opinion.

I do not think Americans will put up with this for much longer, it’s just not in our nature to be bullied. But I fear the damage done in the meantime.

April 10, 2017

My letter to the president of Wichitaw State University, John Bardo

Filed under: Academic,Free Speech — Stephen W. Browne @ 2:17 pm

This is an article that appeared on the website of The FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Educaton). It begins:

Wichita State student government refuses to recognize libertarian student group because of First Amendment advocacy

By FIRE April 7, 2017

Student senators quizzed student group leader about her group’s stance on “free speech zones,” “hate speech,” and “safe spaces”
Student senator: “We’ve seen very dangerous statements being said in the name of free speech”
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that viewpoint-based discrimination against a student group is unconstitutional

This is the letter I wrote to the university president.

Dear President Bardo,

It is with some concern that I read of the recent decision by the WSU student government to deny recognition to the Young Americans for Liberty student group. I was particularly disconcerted to read the decision was apparently motivated by the group’s strong support for the First Amendment.

I am a journalist. I got my start in journalism while living and working as an English teacher in Eastern Europe in the years immediately following the fall of communism (1991-2004). I have worked with dissidents and former dissidents in Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus, and was elected an Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights in 1997.

Free speech means a great deal to me, because I have lived in countries where brave men and women spoke out for human rights at considerable risk to themselves.

I strongly urge you to overrule the decision of the student government and recognize Young Americans for Liberty as a student organization.

With regards
Stephen W. Browne

This is the reply I received:

Mr. Browne-
Thank you for your email. President Bardo understands and appreciates your concerns and has asked me to forward them on to the appropriate parties at Wichita State who will review the decision and respond to you shortly.

Anna Lanier Weyers

Director of Operations

Office of the President

March 16, 2016

Free Speech

Filed under: Free Speech,Media bias,News commentary,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:13 am

I think as I please, and this gives me pleasure
My conscience decrees, this crime I must treasure
My thoughts will not cater, to duke or dictator
No man can deny, die gedanken sind frei!
Die gedanken sind Frie (“Thoughts are free”)
– Adapted from a Swiss protest song, 1810

Well, a Trump rally in Chicago on Friday, March 11, was cancelled.

Trump cancelled over security concerns as hundreds of protestors filled sections of the arena and massed outside. Protestors were visibly elated. Supporters simmeringly angry.

This is not good – except for Trump. Some polls indicated astonishing jumps in his support after the incident. Causing some critics to cry hysterically that Trump cancelled as a calculated move.

Trump has been castigated by critics, including some in the GOP, as having incited violence at previous rallies.

I think this is not entirely fair. Protestors at these rallies attend not just to express disagreement but to shut down the speeches via the “hecklers veto.”

True, Trump has a mouth that lives its own life, wild and free. He’s shouted from the podium to throw the hecklers out and expressed a wish to punch them.

But that’s not why his opponents want to shut him down.

On February 22, conservative intellectual Ben Shapiro’s scheduled appearance at California State University LA was cancelled by university president William Covino after protests.

“After careful consideration, I have decided that it will be best for our campus community if we reschedule Ben Shapiro’s appearance for a later date, so that we can arrange for him to appear as part of a group of speakers with differing viewpoints on diversity. Such an event will better represent our university’s dedication to the free exchange of ideas and the value of considering multiple viewpoints,” Covino announced.

Covino’s concern for diversity of viewpoints somehow never emerged during previous appearances by radical leftists such as Cornel West, Angela Davis and Tim Wise.

Shapiro is certainly outspoken, but his speaking style is measured, rational and well thought out. Worlds apart from the Trumpster’s bluster.

Which got him no respect at all, when during an appearance on Dr. Drew On Call in February, large transgendered Zooey (nee Bob) Tur put his hand on diminutive Shapiro’s neck and said, “You’d better cut that out now or you’ll go home in an ambulance.”

Shapiro alleged Tur later said he’d meet him in the parking lot. An allegation given credence when Tur later went on record as saying he’d like to “curb stomp” Shapiro for the crime of calling him “sir.”

So let’s clear the air about what’s happening here.

Trump is no champion of free speech. He’s threatened to sue critics. He’s tried to get journalists fired for writing critical articles about him. But ironically a lot of fed-up Americans are rallying around him because he exercises his own right of free speech.

We all know there are things we can’t say in America, and we all know pretty much what they are.

The left owns academia, entertainment, and most of the broadcast media. Though there is no formal censorship in this country of the kind you’d find in North Korea or Cuba, an awful lot of people are afraid for their livelihoods and even their safety if they express certain unpopular opinions or just tell a joke someone takes offense to.

Listen, I’ve lectured in Belarus and taught in Serbia during the Milosevic regime and I said what I pleased. But I can honestly say the two places I’ve worked where I really felt I had to watch my mouth were Saudi Arabia, and an American university.

It’s been this way for decades now and we’re dangerously angry about it. It is not natural for Americans to be afraid of what we say.

I’ve always known we wouldn’t put up with it forever. I wish free speech had a better champion and I hope its enemies wake up and back off. Because if they don’t, free men who wish to speak their minds are not going to retreat to their safe spaces.

November 22, 2015

Ray Bradbury remembered

Filed under: Culture,Free Speech,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:25 am

Note: This was an op-ed obituary published four years ago. I neglected to post it and am doing so now in light of recent controversies concerning free speech on campus.

Ray Bradbury died on Tuesday, June 5, 2012, which shouldn’t surprise anyone because he was after all, 91, but somehow it does. However, he died during the extremely rare transit of Venus which doesn’t surprise at all.

As Bradbury grew older his hair turned white, he collected the usual assortment of wrinkles and infirmities, but his eyes! He had the eyes of a child to the end.

Bradbury has been eulogized by artistic luminaries such as Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, and on June 6, by President Obama.

“For many Americans, the news of Ray Bradbury’s death immediately brought to mind images from his work, imprinted in our minds, often from a young age. His gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world. But Ray also understood that our imaginations could be used as a tool for better understanding, a vehicle for change, and an expression of our most cherished values,” the White House said in an official press release.

That’s generous considering what Bradbury said about Obama after he made cuts to the space program, “He should be announcing that we should go back to the moon!”

It turns out Bradbury was a libertarian conservative, having migrated from a liberal Democrat to a supporter of both Reagan and Bush, and harsh critic of Clinton.

Or perhaps it was the parties that migrated. The author of “Fahrenheit 451,” one of the most impassioned defenses of free expression and high culture ever penned in English, never wavered in his support for liberty. When the threat to free expression came from the right, he was a liberal. When it was from the left, a conservative.

When Michael Moore filmed “Fahrenheit 911,” Bradbury angrily demanded, “Give me back my title!”

Bradbury was hailed as the greatest living writer of speculative fiction, a catch-all term for everything that isn’t fiction set in known history or the here-and-now, but defies categorization. He wrote in the genres of more-or-less science fiction, but also fantasy, mystery, and historical reminiscence.

The fact is Bradbury somehow never forgot what children know, that the “ordinary” world is in reality strange and wonderful.

His tales of the fictional “Green Town” were directly modeled on his very prosaic home town of Waukegan, Illinois, but imbued with the magic that is all around us unseen.

Though it’s been decades, I still remember a story of an old maid walking to her isolated home after dark, knowing there is a strangler on the loose. Her growing unease as she begins to suspect someone is following her home. Her relief when she enters her home and hurriedly locks the door. And the Hitchcockian twist at the end when a man clears his throat behind her!

Then came the one-two punch after I caught my breath, turned the page, and found the very next story began with three boys grumbling that some of the excitement had gone out of life because the old maid has stabbed the strangler to death with a pair of sewing scissors!

Bradbury loved a happy ending. When Francois Truffaut made “Fahrenheit 451” into a movie with a more upbeat ending, Bradbury was delighted. When publishers bowdlerized the book to remove content they found objectionable, he was outraged. Bradbury knew what his priorities were.

A man of contradictions, he wrote “The Martian Chronicles” and “R is for Rocket,” but never learned to drive and used a typewriter to the end.

He wrote to the end of his life, his talent forever fresh. The ancient Greeks said, “If the gods love you, you die in childhood.”

The gods must have loved Ray Bradbury, for he died still a child at heart.

March 27, 2015

The N-word is the new F-word

Filed under: Free Speech,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 6:54 am

“The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.” – H.L. Mencken

So there I was in southwest Minnesota on a spring break trip with my children when I saw on a restaurant TV, Dr. Phil discoursing on “Nine minutes that shook the country!”

Those nine minutes were a video that went viral, of some frat boys from the Oklahoma University chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon singing an offensive song using what we must call the “N-word” and referencing lynching.

As it happens the day before we left the March 11 edition of The Oklahoman devoted almost the entire front page to “OU students learn ‘a devastating lesson.’”

Well yes they did. They learned that if you are offensive in certain ways the First Amendment and due process don’t apply to you anymore, and you’d better not object if you want to salvage anything at all of your future.

OU President David Boren acted swiftly to expel two ringleaders of the singalong, closed the fraternity and gave the residents one day to pack their bags and get out.
The Oklahoman also announced in a sub-head, “University says it can’t confirm names of two frat members expelled after racist videos.” Underneath it posted two photos with their names in the caption.

I have a confession to make. I have never had any use for frat rats or their sorority sisters. I have generally found them to be shallow, immature, social-climbing little… bastions of everything
I despise in snobbery.

I apologize if I’ve offended anyone who enjoyed their time in the institution and expect to catch some holy heck from members of my family who did.

So it pains me to say, has the whole country gone nuts? Have the lunatics taken over the asylum?

These were FRAT BOYS for heaven’s sake! Who cares what they say?

Why is nobody concerned with the real issue? As stated admirably succinctly by Reason magazine, those boys behaved badly – Boren broke the law.

The boys and their parents penned sincere-sounding apologies, as well they should.

They say they’re not really racists. Maybe so, maybe not. I don’t know and don’t care enough to try and find out.

What I do know is that they’re godawful stupid. With cell phone cameras ubiquitous in our society you have to ask, “You didn’t know this was going to happen?”
Here’s what I think may be the case. When I was a boy the taboo words were the F-word, the two C-words, and some colorful descriptions of people’s alleged manners, morals, habits, and ancestry.

If you used any of those words in polite company you could be cut cold, you might get punched, you could even be arrested if you used them in a performance.

Legendary comedians such as Mae West, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin fearlessly stood up for free speech, even if offensive. Some paid a heavy price for it.

But in doing so they made those words if not respectable at least tolerable. Now we hear them in movies and on TV all the time. As a result there is no “juice” in them, no naughty pleasure in using taboo words to relieve stress.

The only really taboo words left, are racial epithets. The N-word is the new F-word.

But this time few are standing up for the right to offensive speech.

“The First Amendment doesn’t protect hate speech!” say the pious moralizers.

Yes it does.

OU students staged a march against racism on campus and no doubt congratulated themselves on their courage. Any bets anyone is going to stage a march for free speech over this highly unpopular issue?

Those boys and their parents could sue OU down to its underwear for violating their rights to due process.

They’re not going to. They know better than to try.

So it’s up to us who know what we’re going to face for saying this.

Your belief in freedom and the rule of law is tested by how far you are willing to extend it to people you despise.

January 9, 2015

Nous sommes Charlie!

Filed under: Free Speech — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:30 am

charlie hebdo controversy

I will have more to say about this after I’ve calmed down.

In the meantime here is a sample of one of the covers from Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine where 12 of the bravest journalists in Europe were murdered by jihadists.

And here is my message to you.


Forget that at your peril.

June 24, 2014

The went and did it

Filed under: Free Speech,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:22 am

Well, they went and did it.

The Red Mesa High School on the Navajo Reservation in Red Mesa, Arizona, a public school with a student body nearly 100 percent Navajo Indian was forced to change their team’s name.

Their name is “The Redskins.”

Nah, just kidding.

What really happened was the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, acting on orders from On High cancelled six trademarks owned by the Washington Redskins after deeming them offensive.

Note this likely doesn’t affect the football team in any meaningful way. It’s their trademark registration that got cancelled. Trademark registration makes life easier in some ways but there is still a recognized association in common law with the team and their name and logo. The owner can still sue anyone who infringes them with every expectation of winning.

The issue of Indian sports team names has been building for some time now. The only problem is, nobody really took it very seriously before.

I think most people, like myself, just said, “OK, I don’t think it was meant to be offensive but if I’m wrong and you find it so, then let’s change it. It’s just a football team.”

And how do we know if most Indian people find it offensive?

Well that could be a problem. You see, saying “Indian” is like saying “European.” It covers a lot of languages and cultures as different from each other as Scotsmen are from Albanians.

We could ask the various tribal governments to conduct opinion polls. In my youth in Oklahoma that was done over the issue of “Little Red” the traditional Indian dancer who performed at Oklahoma University football games way back when.

The polls appeared to show the majority of Indian people in the state were rather proud of the association, but enough people made a fuss about it that it was deemed not worth the trouble and the institution was abolished.

Incidentally it broke the heart of the young man chosen to be Little Red that year who’d dreamed of it all his life, but he was doubtless suffering from “false consciousness.”

I don’t know what polling Indian people would show these days, if opinions have changed or if they differ from tribe to tribe.

My attitude has been it’s not worth the trouble. Change the names if it bothers you, and if other Indian people disagree, sort it out amongst yourselves.

Maybe it’s one of those things like the N-word, OK for the in-group, not OK for the out-group.

Then the government had to get involved. And make no mistake, it won’t stop at the Patent and Trademark Office. What certain opportunistic white folks on the hard left are after is to cripple the First Amendment protections of free speech.

What this decision does is force free speech advocates to defend something that looks either silly or offensive. And yes it must be defended, assaults on liberty almost always start with issues most people find trivial, or downright distasteful.

I’m old enough to remember when assaults on free speech came mostly from the right, and usually concerned pornography.

So defend this we must, but we’d better realize we’ve been backed into a corner on this particular free speech issue.

Well played lefties, well played.

January 7, 2013

What should we know? What should we tell?

Filed under: Free Speech,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:14 am

Note: My weekly op-ed.

I will venture a prediction; every single person reading this column has things about them they would rather other people did not know.

If you’re lucky, it’s information that would merely embarrass you. If you’re not, you might have secrets exposure of which would put you at risk of losing your job, your friends, your marriage, or your life.

These need not be shameful secrets. You might not want it generally known that you have something worth stealing at home, for example.

Case in point. In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the The Journal News in Rockland County, New York, recently posted an interactive map on their website showing the names and addresses of approximately 44,000 people in the area who had legally registered hand guns. The information was taken from the gun registry database obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.

And that’s when the manure hit the oscillator. The newspaper’s office was flooded with angry phone calls and emails.

And irony of ironies, though police who reviewed the messages found none of them overtly threatening (it’s not illegal to tell someone you are very angry with them) management was so alarmed they hired armed guards for the building. Now it seems those guards are going to be a permanent fixture of The Journal Record’s office.

Opinion about the consequences was mixed at first. On the one hand, it was pointed out that burglars now knew which houses had armed owners waiting inside and could avoid them, to the detriment of unarmed homeowners.

On the other hand, burglars who want to steal guns now know just where to find them.

Burglars after guns are often more dangerous than those who just want your stereo. A thief who steals mass-produced commodities knows overworked police can spare little effort to trace something that is quickly lost in the market of cheap used goods.

But a handgun whose chain of ownership is broken and cannot be traced if found at a crime scene is a valuable item indeed to a certain kind of criminal. The worst kind.

Then an even more sinister development emerged. It turns out about 8,000 active and retired police officers are on that map, and inmates in the Rockland County jail have been taunting corrections officers by telling them their addresses.

One has to wonder what The Journal News Publisher Janet Hasson and Editor Caryn A. McBride were thinking. McBride said she believes knowing where gun owners live is in the public interest.

No, they were indulging an urge to be news makers rather than news reporters, an occupational hazard of the profession. And sell newspapers of course, although that seems to have backfired on them.

And since turnabout is fair play, enterprising bloggers are now creating their own interactive maps showing names and addresses of The Journal News staff.

Way back in 1999, Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, shocked and angered a lot of people by saying, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

Well, “zero privacy” may be a bit of an overstatement, but the fact is McNealy was more right than wrong. Nowadays a lot of your life is an open book and more and more people know how to read it.

That same year author David Brin published, “The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom?”

Brin points out the genie of surveillance technology and openly available information is out of the bottle and is not going back in. But he said the ability to look at your life need not be tyrannical, if it works both ways.

He further pointed out that maintaining the privacy we desire is going to depend on a mutual agreement not to invade the privacy of others in ways we would not want ours to be invaded. A kind of Golden Rule for the Information Age.

I think that point has been made rather forcefully to Janet Hasson and Caryn A. McBride.

February 6, 2011

It can, and does, happen here

Filed under: Free Speech,Media bias,Politics,Terrorism — Stephen W. Browne @ 6:54 am

Good news on the free speech front from Europe. Lars Hedegaard was acquited in Denmark of charges of saying true, but not nice things about Muslims resident in his country.

The hate-speech trial of Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff in Austria is still ongoing though. Frau Sabaditsch-Wolff is facing similar charges stemming from… well it appears that in support of her xenophobic, racist, etc etc rants she (this is shocking but I have to say it) actually quoted the Koran

And in America a big-time Washington D.C. lawyer Paul Mirengoff, who happens to be a conservative blogger was made to grovel in public, take down a blog post, and shut up.

Mirengoff is a partner in the employment law group at the firm of Akin Gump, and one of the founders of Power Line blog.

The offending post was about the Tuscon tragedy. The specific offensive part concerned a prayer offered by a Yaqui Indian shaman. Luckily the post was preserved elsewhere – and now here. Take a half-minute and read the offending thing in its entirety..

In the post immediately below, I praised President Obama’s speech in Tucson this evening in honor of the victims of that horrific shooting spree. His speech was part of a larger ceremony which, on the whole, was rather a mixed bag.

The best thing about the evening, even better than Obama’s speech, was the news he delivered that Rep. Giffords today opened her eyes on her own for the first time since she was shot.

Other good spots: Daniel Hernandez, the intern who helped save Rep. Giffords life, gave a brief and impressive talk in which he insisted that he was not a hero. And Eric Holder and Janet Napolitano used their time at the podium not to deliever speeches but instead to simply reading from scripture. This may have been designed to keep things fresh for Obama’s speech, but it was appreciated nonetheless.

On the negative side of the ledger, I didn’t appreciate the president of the University of Arizona (and master of ceremonies) telling us how lucky we are to have Barack Obama as our president and Janet Napolitano as our homeland security chief. Nor did the frequent raucous cheering by the huge crowd seem appropriate at what was, at least in part, a memorial service.

As for the “ugly,” I’m afraid I must cite the opening “prayer” by Native American Carlos Gonzales. It was apparently was some sort of Yaqui Indian tribal thing, with lots of references to “the creator” but no mention of God. Several of the victims were, as I understand it, quite religious in that quaint Christian kind of way (none, to my knowledge, was a Yaqui). They (and their families) likely would have appreciated a prayer more closely aligned with their religious beliefs.

But it wasn’t just Gonzales’s prayer that was “ugly” under the circumstances. Before he ever got to the prayer, Gonzales provided us with a mini-auto biography and made several references to Mexico, the country from which (he informed us) his family came to Arizona in the mid 19th century. I’m not sure why Gonzales felt that Mexico needed to intrude into this service, but I have an idea.

In any event, the invocation could have used more God, less Mexico, and less Carlos Gonzales.

That’s it. The unforgivable offense was to suggest that prayers for Christian victims might appropriately be… Christian.

I myself cheerfully accept anybody’s prayers for my safety, salvation, or good luck with the lottery. The good wishes of a good person may or may not help, but they certainly can’t hurt.

Of course, that’s not the whole story as you find out when you follow the money.

But that was not good enough for one of Mirengoff’s law partners, James Meggesto, who issued a sanctimonious statement saying he was “shocked, appalled and embarrassed” by Mirengoff’s “insensitive” “web posting” (emphasis mine):

“As an enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation; as an attorney who has dedicated his life and law practice to the representation of Indian tribes, tribal organizations and tribal interests; and as a partner in the American Indian law and policy practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, I was shocked, appalled and embarrassed by a recent Web posting by another Akin Gump partner, Paul Mirengoff, who posted on his personal blog an insensitive and wholly inappropriate criticism of the use of a Yaqui prayer as the invocation to the recent memorial service held in Tucson, Arizona. As soon as I and the firm became aware of this posting, the firm took immediate action to deal firmly with this unfortunate situation. Accordingly, Bruce McLean, chairman of the firm, issued the following statement: “We sincerely apologize for the blog entry posted by Akin Gump partner Paul Mirengoff on his personal blog, Akin Gump is neither affiliated with, nor a supporter of, the blog. We found his remarks to be insensitive and wholly inconsistent with Akin Gump’s values. Mr. Mirengoff regrets his poor choice of words and agreed to remove his post.” ”
Meggesto doesn’t say who dropped the dime on Mirengoff. How this even came to the firm’s attention is surprising. After all, the paragraph in question was pretty mild, part of a larger post and not really much different than a lot of others were saying. Perhaps some innocent concerned citizen just happened to read Power Line that night and call Akin Gump, but it’s equally likely the watchers were behind it, directly or indirectly.

The criticism by Meggesto and Akin Gump was disingenuous at best. There was nothing in Mirengoff’s post which was a “criticism of the use of the Yacqui prayer”; Mirengoff was making a point about the absence of a Christian prayer at a memorial service for religious Christian victims.

And just what are Akin Gump’s “values”? The primary value at stake here seems to be money to be generated from representing Indian tribes and financial interests. Nothing wrong with that, but Akin Gump should have just said what it really meant: “We are afraid that left-wing bloggers and others who hate Power Line will make a big deal about this and try to use it against the firm to disrupt our relationship with clients who pay us millions of dollars in legal fees each year.”

If Akin Gump had justified its actions based on its own financial interests, rather than hiding behind words like “insensitive,” I would have respected its decision (although still disagreed with it). A law firm has a legitimate interest in maintaining client relationships. Instead, Meggesto and Akin Gump chose to portray Mirengoff at best as insensitive and at worst as a bigot, which conclusions were not supported by the blog post in question.

Mirengoff obviously feared for his position at the firm, because he issued a confession/apology worthy of a political prisoner in (insert name of tyranny here):

OK, I have to say I support Mirengoff 100 percent – but I can’t help but think he’s kind of a wuss.

Dammit shyster, couldn’t you have taken the hit and sued the bastards? That’s what lawyers do!

Maybe I should be more charitable, and maybe I’m not in the mood because I’ve just come back from Belarus where a friend and comrade was forced to make public statements by threats on the lives of his partners.

Mr. Mirengoff I’m sure you have a family to support, but that redskin lawyer (yes I’m being deliberately offensive, sue me) isn’t going to scalp your wife and children. “Attorney” is a portable skill you can take damn near anywhere. And if you have sons, wouldn’t you rather they saw their father as a man who stands up for himself, than a provider of new BMWs for graduation?

I’m living a lot closer to the margin of poverty than you are – and I’ll say whatever I damn well please on my blog PRECISELY BECAUSE THERE ARE PEOPLE TELLING ME I CAN’T.

December 14, 2010

Legislating moral indignation

Filed under: Free Speech,News commentary,Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:07 am

Note: I’m cleaning up my “drafts” file and seeing what’s fit to publish. Among other reasons because I’m home with strep throat, losing money but not quite fit to write.

I originally wrote this last year as my weekend op-ed. The case referred to was a disorderly conduct charge against a 14-year-old girl who in Feb., 2009, called a 17-year-old black girl the N-word outside the local teen center. She then followed her into the bathroom at a pizza joint nearby, again used the epithet and said something to the effect of, “You don’t own this town.”

The disorderly conduct case went all the way to the North Dakota Supreme Court.

The 14-year-old got six months probation and had to attend a “sensitivity class.” This was all finished by the time the appeal went to the North Dakota Supreme Court as, “In the interest of H.K., a child.” I’m told there shouldn’t be any long-term legal burden for the girl, since juvenile records are by law destroyed when the juvie turns 18.

I don’t know any of the parties in the incident. I do know the attorneys on both sides.

It was spiked.


Something has been bothering me since the North Dakota Supreme Court ruling in a local case last month, something I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on until recently.

The Supreme Court upheld the disorderly conduct finding in juvenile court of a 14-year-old girl accused of using racial slurs against a 17-year-old African-American girl last year. The defense had argued the juvenile court was trying to criminalize the use of an offensive word, and that even offensive words are protected by the First Amendment.

I realized what was bothering me about this the other day, when I saw my son crying because a young teenage girl told him his T-shirt was “gay.”

(I advised him to suck it up and don’t let them see you cry or they’ll torment you without end.)

In the local case I fully realize there is more at issue than free speech. There are legitimate questions the prosecution raised about what constitutes disorderly conduct, fighting words, and actions likely to result in a disturbance of the peace.

And yet, I wonder if what was decided was less a question of law than moral indignation.

But shouldn’t we be indignant? Shouldn’t we do something?

Sure should, and if my kids used racial slurs like that I’d be pretty indignant on their backsides. But should moral indignation be a matter for the law?

There’s a lot of complicated ways it can be applied, but I think the basic question of whether a rule of conduct should be a law is, does it protect life and property?

The question is not whether it makes people nice, polite, socially conscious, non-smoking consumers of low-cholesterol organic foods.

I’d like to point out two examples of the desire to legislate moral indignation that fall, conveniently enough, on opposing sides of the political spectrum.

Once upon a time, in a state far, far away, I was a welfare bureaucrat for the state’s Department of Human Services. My job involved an awful lot of time spent establishing applicants’ eligibility for services. The department at that time claimed to have disbursement rate of around 60 percent. That is, sixty percent of all the tax money the department received eventually wound up in the hands of single mothers, dependent children, the aged, disabled, and blind.

This was considered very good for any welfare agency, where disbursement rates are more often around 40 percent.

There were of course, a fair number of clients who were con artists and scammers, i.e. “welfare cheats.”

This makes some people livid.

“That money is for the genuinely needy! We need to catch those cheats and make them pay it back, or send them to jail!”

In vain I’d explain that catching all the ineligible recipients would cost more money than the department would save, and actually make less available to genuinely needy clients. Didn’t matter to them, it was wrong and it had to be stopped, whether it would save money or not.

Switch to the opposite end of the political divide and income distribution.

Here live the people who are made livid by multi-million dollar golden parachutes paid to incompetent executives to buy out their employment contracts before they ruin their companies.

Again, it does no good to point out that the money paid them is insignificant in terms of total revenues, does not significantly affect costs of the company’s goods and services, and is in fact money well-spent to get rid of an incompetent or under-performing CEO. (Hat tip to Thomas Sowell for pointing this out.)

“It’s wrong!” and has to be stopped, whatever the damage done to contract law which, like free speech, is one of the foundations of our civilization.

There’s no doubt moral indignation feels good. Research shows feelings of moral indignation can cause a release of endorphins in the brain, resulting in a “natural high.” This would explain a lot about “cause junkies,” whose lives revolve around a passionate quest to set the world to rights.

But passion is a poor basis for deciding questions of law.

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