May 24, 2012

Earlier today, in the course of discussing possible jackass/possible troll/possible mentally ill person George Tierney, Jr., I asked people to consider calling out vengeful would-be censors because they are vengeful would-be censors, not because the victim of the moment is on “our side”:

Political differences are meaningful, and should not be disregarded, but recognition of mutual humanity is often productive, and there are few more common human experiences than encountering crazy douchebags on the internet. In addition, we all have a stake in calling out, and opposing, censorship.

I’d like to expand upon that theme.

Last week I blogged about how convicted bomber and perjurer Brett Kimberlin pursued blogger Aaron Worthing, and linked to Aaron’s story about how he was fired, and falsely charged with a crime, as a result of Kimberlin’s vengeful efforts to silence him. Since Aaron released his story, many people have written about it. This is a good thing. It’s a story that ought to be told. Moreover, there are legitimate partisan political elements to this story — like the question of why certain leftist political activists associate with Kimberlin, and why some entities donate to Kimberlin’s organizations. For that matter, the various people who wrote about Kimberlin and incurred his wrath may have been motivated, at least in part, by partisan politics.

But to me, the core of Aaron’s story is not about partisan politics. It’s about freedom of expression, and how it can be attacked by frivolous litigation, by threats to employers, and by other such contemptible measures. Some of the responses to Aaron’s story recognize that. But others do not — other responses frame this as a story about Left vs. Right.

I’ll cite Michelle Malkin as an example, though she is by far the only one. Fair disclosure: I often disagree with Michelle Malkin and this site has criticized her before. In her post discussing Aaron’s story, she quoted and linked us, which I appreciate. However, I must dissent from her framing of the issue: “Free speech blogburst: Show solidarity for targeted conservative bloggers.” In a better world, this issue should be framed as “Free speech blogburst: show solidarity for targeted bloggers.” Protecting freedom of expression, and condemning its enemies, benefits everyone — conservatives, liberals, and so forth.

We’ve talked about legal (and other) threats against all sorts of expression here, and occasionally been able to lend a hand. We’ve talked about lawsuits against former parishioners criticizing churches, threats against artists criticizing how Etsy is run, Democratic senators lashing out at parody, various legislatures of different political stripes posturing about “cyber-bullying,” junk scientists suing critics, the TSA “cautioning” journalists, colleges threatening alumni critical of their new administrations, twerps threatening me for making fun of them for threatening critics of junk scientists, and and libel suits springing from book reviews. And that’s just 2012.

What this diversity of topics shows is that legal threats — and threats of other forms of retaliation for speech — represent a pervasive problem in our culture, and are a deterrent of all sorts of speech, not just the speech you like. Say that someone sues, or threatens, or abuses someone whose ideas you despise, someone whose good faith you doubt, someone working for political or social ends you are struggling against. If that censor is successful in any measure, are you harmed? Yes. You are harmed because the next censor, the one gunning for you or someone you agree with — is emboldened. You are harmed because people, in general, are deterred from discussing controversial ideas. You are harmed because when censors are successful, censorship increasingly becomes the norm, and the populace’s already tenuous support of principles of free expression ebb a little more.

That’s why decent people ought to be unified behind protecting people like Aaron Worthing, and opposing people like Brett Kimberlin — not because we agree with one of them or the other. When the rallying cry is “protect conservatives from censorship by leftists” — or the reverse — the rallying cry is less effective, easier to ignore, easier to dismiss as mere partisanship. We shouldn’t defend Aaron because of his political stance. We should defend him because in this country you should have the right to express yourself without a convicted domestic terrorist and his cronies harassing you with frivolous litigation and threats.

There is no need to agree with, or praise, or even treat respectfully the people we defend. For instance, when I wrote about Nadia Naffe’s threats against blogger Patterico because of his support of James O’Keefe, I felt free to make fun of Naffe, O’Keefe, and (to a lesser extent) Patterico. And even though I said Evan S. Cohen was right on the law, he won’t be thanking me any time soon for what I said about him. It’s perfectly fine to say “this person is a jackass, this person is wrong, what this person urges is contemptible and awful — but this person should not be censored, and I stand against such censorship.” That should be the message. “Stand against the censorship of our side is the wrong message. I’m disappointed to see so much of it in the wake of Aaron’s posts. I think it is detrimental to the cause of free expression, and a boon to the censors, who will use it to portray the defense of free speech as just another instance of tiresome political bickering.

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