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Sunday, February 05, 2006


Continuing exploration of the issues that have been raised in this blog over the past few days:

All of these boil down to two questions:

  • What CAN we do? (What level of freedom should a local society offer? What if that local society is in a country with a "first amendment" type law? What if that local society has a majority and a minority, and the minority is offended by the actions of the majority? Or what if the majority is offended by the actions of the minority? What if multiple jurisdictions are involved - an American company in China, a Saudi company in the USA? What if an action consitututes a potential terrorist threat?)

  • What SHOULD we do? (Regardless of the level of freedom that our local society allows us to enjoy, should we self-moderate our behavior?)

I'm going to explore this a little more with more examples - one from Denver, one from Dartmouth, and one from the blogosphere. Apologize in advance for the length, and if you expect me to reach a conclusion by the end, sorry - I didn't.

Let's take a free speech issue regarding requests for a bookstore to cancel a book signing. Should the book signing be cancelled?

Think about that for a moment.

OK, let me provide some additional information. The book was written by a rock star. Should the book signing be cancelled?

Think about that for a moment.

Here's a little more. The rock star was Ted Nugent. Should the book signing be cancelled?

Think about THAT for a moment.

OK, one other little tidbit. The book signing was in Denver, not too far from Columbine. Should the book signing be cancelled?

Stop thinking and read:

Joyce Meskis, the owner of Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store, will tell you she doesn't go looking for trouble-it finds her.

The most recent occasion was...when her Denver bookstore, the Tattered Cover, became a target for protest over a book signing by the aging rock star Ted Nugent. Nugent is a director of the National Rifle Association and an avid hunter who strongly opposes gun control. His book expounds his positive view of guns and argues that hunting can instill discipline in children and provide wholesome family recreation....

Columbine High School, the site of the massacre perpetrated by two armed students...is located in a Denver suburb, so it was inevitable that Nugent would provoke controversy when he came to town. But if Nugent's position on gun control was offensive, what truly outraged people was a statement in his book that suggested that Columbine teachers and athletes were somehow at fault because they did not take the opportunity to rush one of the shooters while he reloaded his shotgun.

The parent of a Columbine student as well as others in the community called Meskis and urged her to cancel the signing. In a town not yet fully recovered from tragedy, there would have been very little criticism of the Tattered Cover had it denied a forum to a man whose views were offensive to so many. Canceling a signing wasn't censorship, the protestors said; Nugent could go peddle his book elsewhere....

As Meskis explained to the Columbine mother, hosting Nugent in no way implied an endorsement of his views, but canceling his appearance, on the other hand, would clearly express hostility toward them. "And make no mistake," Meskis later wrote in her store newsletter, "it is just as much a censorial act to prevent an author signing because one doesn't like the views of the author, as it would be if the book were disallowed on the shelf."

Meskis was not happy when the woman announced that she would no longer shop at the Tattered Cover and would urge her friends to follow suit....

The Tattered Cover is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country, operating from two locations in the Denver area....It has become a beloved Denver institution because of the breadth of its inventory (more than 150,000 titles) and its highly trained staff. It is one of the landmarks on most tours of Denver conducted for out-of-town visitors.

The Tattered Cover has always been more than just a place to buy books. In 1989, when violence was threatened against bookstores that sold Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, Meskis and the owners of most independent booksellers in Colorado paid for a newspaper ad that announced their intention to continue to sell the book. The Tattered Cover went further, donating profits from the sale of Satanic Verses to several anti-censorship groups. The Denver Post took note in an editorial, pronouncing the store "a cherished resource for Coloradans who think. . . . Turning a threat to freedom of expression into money to defend our right to read and write as we see fit is the kind of deft response Coloradans have come to expect from the people at the Tattered Cover," it said.

So no one in Denver was surprised to learn that in April of this year, Meskis was in trouble again. This time she had refused to allow police officers to execute a search warrant in her store for records of books purchased by a man who was suspected of illegally manufacturing methamphetamine. In a raid of the man's home, the authorities had found an empty envelope from the Tattered Cover and were hoping to prove that it contained books about the manufacture of methamphetamine to tie their suspect to drug-making paraphernalia found in his house.

Initially, the police had hoped Meskis would turn over the records voluntarily. But she declined their request, explaining that her customers would be reluctant to buy controversial but First Amendment-protected books if the police could easily discover their titles....As a member of the board of directors of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), Meskis had been involved in the successful defense of Kramerbooks, a Washington, D.C., bookstore that was subpoenaed by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr for records of Monica Lewinksy's book purchases. "I know a challenge to the First Amendment when I see one, and I am not going to stand aside and let it happen," Meskis said.

The police persisted. An agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration sent her an administrative subpoena. The Tattered Cover's lawyer, Dan Recht of Denver, objected, urging the police to seek an enforceable subpoena from a judge who would weigh the First Amendment issue involved in the case. Instead, the police, who are part of a multi-county anti-drug task force, sought a search warrant from the district attorney of a suburban Denver county. When he, too, raised objections, they asked the Denver district attorney for the warrant, without telling him that they had already been unsuccessful, and he issued the warrant.

Meskis was surprised and a little frightened when five plainclothes police officers showed up at her office with a search warrant and demanded her records. She stalled for time, contacting Recht, who ultimately was able to obtain a temporary restraining order....

Censorship pressures grew significantly during the 1980s, as critics on the left like feminist Catherine MacKinnon and crusaders on the right like the Reverend Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association demanded a crackdown on sexually explicit speech.

Except, of course, on college campuses. Let me continue:

Meskis...played an important role in the defeat of federal legislation that authorized civil suits against producers and distributors of nonobscene but sexually explicit material that was allegedly linked to sexual crimes. The Pornography Victims Compensation Act was introduced in 1991 and had significant bipartisan support from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. As president of the Association, Meskis testified against the bill and succeeded in securing the support of Senator Hank Brown, a Colorado Republican and member of the committee.

The Tattered Cover provided important political cover for Brown when he was attacked by James Dobson, the president of Focus on the Family, a conservative family group that had recently relocated to Colorado Springs. Dobson criticized Brown on the state's Christian radio stations, and pickets outside the senator's Denver office accused him of being soft on pornography. Meskis and other Colorado booksellers countered by soliciting signatures on a petition urging Brown to oppose the bill.

As a result, Brown continued to raise questions about the bill that delayed its final consideration for many months. With the support of Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the chairman of the committee, he was finally able to remove the worst features of the bill. Although it was finally approved by the committee, the Pornography Victims Compensation Act never received consideration by the full Senate and died at the end of the session. It was never reintroduced....

Obviously these issues - what we can do, and what we should do - have been at the root of a lot of discussion lately, including something that I don't even believe that I've mentioned in this blog (unless in passing) - the whold Danish cartoonist issue. Let me take a religious stand on this issue, referring to the most common religion in the Western World. I speak, of course, of the religion of Secularism. From Inside Higher Ed:

Each year, the president of Dartmouth’s Student Assembly has the honor of delivering a speech at the convocation, the formal opening of the academic year and an event specifically designed to welcome incoming freshmen. Dartmouth’s president also speaks — this year, James Wright, urged students to understand how privileged they are and to use their good fortune to improve the world — and in his or her 3-5 minutes, the assembly president is encouraged not to lay out an agenda for the student government but to aim higher and broader.

Dartmouth, [Noah] Riner told his peers, has turned out many very special people — and many corrupt ones, too, he said, launching into a list of examples, historical and recent, of alums and bad citizens: a Soviet spy, a murderer, a history teacher who sexually assaulted a 15-year-old student.

Lack of character is everywhere, he said — among the looters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and in “all of us.” “Character is what you do when no one is looking, but I’m afraid to say all the things I’ve done when no one was looking,” Riner said. “Let’s be honest, the differences are in degree. We have the same flaws as the individuals who pillaged New Orleans. Ours haven’t been given such free range, but they exist and are part of us all the same.”

Riner spoke a little more and then ended his speech.

Riner’s point, in closing, was that students should focus on more than achievement while at Dartmouth. “As you begin your four years here, you’ve got to come to some conclusions about your own character because you won’t get it by just going to class. What is the content of your character? Who are you? And how will you become what you need to be?”

Here's what happened next:

The next day, the Student Assembly’s vice president of student life, Kaelin Goulet, resigned her position in protest. In an e-mail message reported by The Dartmouth, the student newspaper, she called “his choice of topic for the convocation speech reprehensible and an abuse of power.” And in her letter of resignation to Riner, who had chosen her for the position, she wrote: “Your first opportunity to represent Student Assembly to the incoming freshmen was appalling. You embarrass the organization; you embarrass yourself.”

Students from a range of perspectives chimed in on the student paper’s op-ed pages. One junior wrote that “it is truly a shame when a Dartmouth student can no longer express his or her moral convictions without bringing down a sea of criticism and censure upon themselves. In a world where moral relativism has become the norm, even the expected attitude, it is very refreshing to see and hear a fellow student express their convictions in a forthright and uncompromising manner.”

Why such a violent reaction? Remember above when I said that "Riner spoke a little more"? I kinda sorta left the details out above. However, you can surmise the details by reading the next set of protests about Riner's speech:

Leaders of the campus Jewish and Hindu groups complained that Riner had implied that “all of us should look to Jesus as our Savior... Invoking imagery of the cross, using the word ‘us,’ but not me — these are inappropriate for a speech opening the new school year and welcoming all students.”

For the record, another Jewish student "weighed in on behalf of Riner’s First Amendment rights, saying that 'while his speech may have been preachy, he certainly has the right to make his point.'"

So what was the administration response?

On a campus that has sometimes been accused by conservative alumni of shunning non-liberal points of view, a controversy like this one might be expected to bring out the college’s external critics like dogs to raw meat. But Dartmouth officials are staying on the sidelines in this dispute — “the speech and the dialogue following it show that free speech is clearly alive and well at Dartmouth. The administration applauds the responsible ways in which students have addressed this important matter,” said William N. Walker, the college’s chief spokesman — and Riner says the criticism he’s faced is a credit to Dartmouth and its students, not a condemnation of them.

“This proves that Dartmouth students are very engaging and they want to consider and challenge ideas,” Riner said. “They want their views to be heard, but they’re willing to grapple with all sorts of viewpoints.”

In another forum, Fearless Philosophy for Free Minds speaks of personal responsibility:

This post is in response to a comment made on Gary Borque’s article Why I am a Conservative on his blog Both Worlds. I feel that my response bears repeating here because personal responsibility is a Libertarian virtue which often goes overlooked....

Rather than making 'society' pay the price, we ought to be moving in a direction which requires individuals to be responsible for their actions (sadly we seem to be going the opposite direction). The intent of blaming society is to make everyone responsible but has the effect of making no one responsible, especially the person(s) who should be held responsible....

The fact is that you do have to 'monitor everything' your child does; that is what you signed up for when you decided to be a parent. Don't buy into this Hillary Clinton 'It takes a village' nonsense. It takes a parent. Speaking as a parent myself, I understand this. My children are not the responsibility of 'the village' but mine alone. If I am negligent while raising my children, then I should be held accountable; not Hollywood, not the music industry, not pop culture. I do not wish to change these things. Before we decide we want to restrict other's freedoms, we should take a good look in the mirror first.

For the record, this was in response to a post by Linda. She then responded to the response:

Sometimes the result of "sexual freedom" (or is it bondage?), are innocent children who are either aborted, abused or neglected. Women who are treated like objects. Young girls who think they have to sleep with a guy to keep him interested. And look at the number of young women - single mothers - in poverty as a result. Believe me, it has not always been this way. And one way or another, there is a price to pay.

So who is responsible? The individuals involved? The pornographers? The ALA which thinks no knowledge is bad for children? Our public school system which thinks teenagers can be equated with animals in heat and are not able to rise above their hormones? Or a public which is afraid to stand against this and thus allows it to continue in the name of individual freedoms.

And I do understand that it is my responsiblity to parent my child. But let me whine about it just a little. When I was growing up our popular culture had a sense of decency, so my parents never had to worry too much about it. The culture supported their values. Now, as a parent I feel at war with the culture (the village) so it makes it difficult at best. I can't follow him everywhere - I can only teach him values and hope that when he is confronted with a culture that tells him differently, he will want to do what is right.

As for anything Hillary might have to sell, I'm not buying.

Comments ensued. From Stephen Littau:

You asked the all-important question: “Who is responsible?” Maybe I should ask you, who do you think should be responsible? The individuals involved? Yes. The pornographers? How? Everyone who participates in the porn industry is (should) also be responsible for their own actions from the producer, director, the ‘actors,’ and the end customer who buys the video. If Peter Pervert buys a XXX video which angers his wife and results in a divorce, should ‘the pornographers’ be held liable? How do you figure ‘the public’ should respond; pass more laws? Maybe we should go back to the days of scarlet letters for all sexual deviants as defined by ‘the public’ or ‘the village.’

Linda offered a clarification:

Allow me to make one clarification. Being responsible and being held accountable are two different things. For example, a person (consenting adult) who purchases pornography encourages the making of pornography and is in a way "responsible" for its effects. And part of personal responsibility would be to conduct ourselves in such a way that we know our actions will ultimately have an impact on someone else.

Being held accountable is another story.

What would I like the public to do?
Stop being so silent about it.
Stop heralding Hugh Hefner and Larry Flint as champions of free speech. Speak out against it.

As for passing laws, that's where it get tricky. At the very least, we should do everything in our power to protect children from accessing the stuff. For an example, if someone needs to use the library to access pornograpy, why not require a separate room - adults only - and let them pay for it. (Better yet, keep it out of the public libraries).

Ah, the scarlet letter. what a great idea. Seriously, it might not be a bad idea to bring back shame, though.

Gary B entered the picture:

One problem is we separate personal freedom and personal responsibility/accountability. Another is that fans of personal freedom like to say they accept personal responsibility, but usually they mean they accept responsibility for their behaviors' effects on themselves. Few truly accept the effect on others, or, if they say they do, really fathom the extent to which our behaviors actually affect others or even want to think about it. They are too caught up in reveling in their freedom.

For example, a [person] who frequently indulges in pornography is going to affect his or her character in a detrimental way, which is ultimately going to have an effect on other people. If someone through cultivating certain mental habits transforms himself into a selfish jerk, that's going to affect other people, too. You just can't avoid it.

It requires a keen moral sense and wisdom to navigate these waters.

Certainly some issue emerge from all this, which I hope to explore.

From the Ontario Empoblog (Latest OVVA news here)

Great post. Such a tricky thing, free speech. You do a great job of showing how easy it is to make knee jerk responses to issues on which we are only given part of the picture. When you fill in the details, it becomes clear that the issue is, well, not so clear. I don’t have any answers, either. I agree with your last paragraph -. A society is made up of individuals, is it not? So if we individuals clean up our act, we will be ultimately cleaning up society. I will add a personal note: someone very close to me, a mature, stable adult, used to enjoy renting porn movies. He watched these in the privacy of his own home, was not sexually deviant in any way, and assumed there was no harm in it. Until the day he saw his niece in one of those movies. He suddenly realized that every girl in every XXX movie is someone’s niece, or sister, or daughter…
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