- The American Conservative - http://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Free Speech Is For Jokers

Rod Dreher asks [1], apropos of this clown [2]:

Let me put it like this: if some alt-right joker played Pokemon Go at the Auschwitz site just to get a rise out of people, how would you feel about Polish authorities jailing him?

If some alt-right joker did that, I’d expect him to be evicted from the site, and have no other sanction applied. If he refused to leave, I could understand him being forcibly removed, even arrested for creating a disturbance or some other misdemeanor if his resistance was serious enough. In terms of legal sanction, I’d expect at worst that he’d be assessed a fine. Anything more severe strikes me as clearly excessive. And even those sanctions are only appropriate because free speech is not a license to disrupt, and I’m assuming that the hypothetical alt-right joker was being actively disruptive. If he’s minding his own business, then even eviction sounds excessive.

When the American Nazi Party marched through Skokie, they were entirely within their rights. Those Westboro Baptist jerks who brandish signs saying “God Hates Fags?” That’s protected speech, provided they are not directly harassing individual people. Ditto for anti-abortion protestors waving graphic images of dismembered fetuses; if they don’t disrupt access or harass individual people, they are wholly within their rights. Ditto for cartoons depicting the founding prophet of Islam as a pedophile, or Ronald Reagan as a zombie cannibal, or Hillary Clinton being raped.

Of course, Russia is not obliged to be absolutist about free speech; few countries are. But that’s the way free speech works: the test cases are jokers, clowns and jerks, and if you don’t pass the test when your personal god is being blasphemed against, then you don’t really believe in free speech [3].

UPDATE: So, based on the comments, the main objection to the above is that playing Pokemon Go isn’t speech, but action. Granted: playing Pokemon Go in a sacred space (whether a church or a Holocaust memorial) is not a statement of any kind; it’s just being rude. The appropriate thing to do with somebody rude is to ask them politely to stop being rude. How would I feel about jailing somebody for rudeness? I would feel like the jailers were completely out to lunch. My bottom line remains: what we’re talking about is laws against blasphemy, and I’m categorically against blasphemy laws.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Free Speech Is For Jokers"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 8, 2016 @ 11:49 am

” . . . the test cases are jokers, clowns and jerks, and if you don’t pass the test when your personal god is being blasphemed against, then you don’t really believe in free speech.”

While time and place matter, I generally might wince, but taking up arms against a slight against the Almighty, suggests some doubt about his almightiness.

Jesus could have called ten thousand angels and didn’t.

I think God can certainly handle the offensive lights with less than a grain salt care. When the time comes, I am sure he will work it out much better than I.

#2 Comment By KD On September 8, 2016 @ 11:55 am

How is playing Pokemon Go “speech”?

If it is, then why isn’t public copulation in front of a public school “speech” too? If that’s speech too, then I don’t want to raise my children in your society.

But on the topic of speech, I heard a rumor that the National Press Club repudiated a contract to allow a certain group to speak in the so-called “First Amendment Room”. I think in this case, it is clearly a case of speech, and clearly a case of censorship. But you know, free speech is only for giant media companies pushing garbage for dough, not for the little people.

P.S. France has a comedian in jail over purported “Anti-Semitic” jokes and Germany routinely jails people for publishing objectionable historical interpretations, making Russia and Hungary seem like bastions of tolerance in contrast.

#3 Comment By SDS On September 8, 2016 @ 1:24 pm

Russia is not obliged to be “anything” about free speech….

He was warned about the consequences and chose not to pay heed….

Appreciate your Bill of Rights; even as abused as it is these days….

#4 Comment By Matt On September 8, 2016 @ 2:55 pm

Is playing Pokémon in a church analogous to free speech? Im an atheist who visits churches from time to time, and Id find it disruptive. I suppose one could catch pokemons quietly, but a church is supposed to be a place of worship, sanctuary, and repose. The bar for disruption being appropriately lower than in a public park, say. Wondering around inside of a church staring at ones phone oblivious to others would be over the bar, in my view.

Also, there is no such thing as ‘universal’ human rights. We Americans need to remember this when occasionally visiting outside our protected lands.

#5 Comment By Rod Dreher On September 8, 2016 @ 4:19 pm

To me, the key difference is that it happened inside a church, which is a sacred space. Had he done it on the street outside, it would have offended me, but I would have said, “Leave him alone.” I believe that houses of worship — churches, synagogues, mosques, temples — are, well, sacred, and deserve special protection under law. I am certainly illiberal on this point. I also believe that historic and local context has to be taken into consideration. If a skinhead walked into a synagogue in the US and made some demonstration of contempt for Judaism, I would find it offensive, and wouldn’t much mind if he had added penalties for doing that in a house of worship. If a skinhead did the same thing in Germany, France, or Poland, I would hope for much stronger penalties. If someone played Pokemon Go in a church in the US, knowing that it was offensive to the worshipers, but trying to provoke them, I would expect him to be thrown out, and at most charged with a misdemeanor. Sokolovsky did what he did to make a statement as an atheist — and did it in a country in which 12 million or more Christians were murdered by the atheist Soviet state, including the royal family, on that very site. It really stuns me that this context is not taken into account when assessing why the Russians feel so strongly about what Sokolovsky did. You don’t have to agree with the severity of their reaction (I don’t), but given the terror, persecution, and mass murder Christians suffered in Russia, well within living memory, it is extremely obtuse to discount that.

#6 Comment By Behnbridge On September 8, 2016 @ 4:36 pm

The right to PLAY a video game wherever one chooses, may be related to freedom generally, but I fail to see how it is an example of the exercise of free SPEECH.

Being able to MAKE and DISTRIBUTE a video game: clearly a free speech issue. But PLAYING one in any location? Now you’re pulling my arm.

#7 Comment By mdc On September 8, 2016 @ 4:52 pm

Perfectly cogent analysis, but the question was “how would you *feel*?”

#8 Comment By Acilius On September 8, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

Oliver Wendell Holmes had it right when he said “Freedom of thought is always freedom for the thought we hate.” It’s pointless to guarantee freedom to express a thought that no one is going to be strongly motivated to suppress.

Now, there is a question of trespass. Both Auschwitz and the Yekaterinburg Church on the Blood of All Saints are open to the public, but on the understanding that those who come in will either express reverence for those who died there or will at least restrain themselves somewhat while those around them are expressing such reverence. Even in a legal system where free speech is an absolute right of the citizen against the state, it is not a right that guests have against property owners. So, when either Mr Sokolovsky or the hypothetical guy being a jerk at Auschwitz refuse the first request to leave the premises, it is reasonable to arrest him for trespass.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 8, 2016 @ 8:02 pm

“Perfectly cogent analysis, but the question was “how would you *feel*?”

Well, time and place matter. The circumstances provide some context.

Sure game playing as a means of expression are an exercise of free speech. How, when, and where made said exercise in the US bound some limits. If at Auschwitz and I am seeking some quiet to take in the magnitude of what it represents, a cell phone ring tone or conversation is going to be more offensive than a person wandering around silently.

Whether any of these are personal interpretation or the a violation of the sites rules also matters

#10 Comment By Skokier On September 8, 2016 @ 9:25 pm

Ultimately the NSPA failed to carry through its march in Skokie. (Gaining permission in Chicago, they marched there instead).


#11 Comment By Noah Millman On September 9, 2016 @ 8:26 am

Rod: I don’t discount that context at all. I’m accepting your analogy for the sake of argument — that an atheist playing Pokemon Go in this church to make a statement about atheism is like an alt-right jerk playing Pokemon Go at Auschwitz to make a statement about how he doesn’t care about the mass murder of Jews. A jail sentence for that kind of behavior is outrageous, not just excessive. He should be asked quietly to stop playing or leave, and, if he refuses to leave and creates a disturbance, he may be ejected, and, if he uses force to resist being ejected, he can be arrested for that.

I specifically reject the notion that extra legal penalties should apply when you disrespect sacred symbols or places. That applies to my sacred symbols and places as well as yours.

We should all be respectful of what we variously hold sacred, and we should all refuse the poisoned chalice of using force to punish people for not being sufficiently respectful.

I assume we just disagree on this.

#12 Comment By Captain P On September 9, 2016 @ 12:21 pm

Earlier this year The New Yorker ran an article on how ISIS propaganda is taking hold in Chechnya: [5]

Considering Russia’s history with Chechnyan terrorism, I’m QUITE confident that Russia is aware of this, and wants to crush ISIS as much as — or more than — the US does. Now, as a tactical matter, Assad is currently focusing many of his attacks on non-ISIS groups, but to pretend that Russia has no interest in defeating ISIS is laughable.

#13 Comment By Captain P On September 9, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

Ah, sorry, my previous comment was meant to go on the Aleppo article.

#14 Comment By Anne Mendoza On September 9, 2016 @ 11:43 pm

I am very grateful that blasphemy is neither a crime nor a civil offense in this country. The same goes for heresy. It’s all good.

It is tragic that the Russian Church cannot bring itself to turn the other cheek but rather relies on state power to punish blasphemers now that state power is done punishing the church.

#15 Comment By Erik On September 10, 2016 @ 12:01 pm

Protecting a right to set aside particular spaces for particular purposes is in the interest of free speech. The method of enforcement in this case strikes me as unnecessarily severe, but I don’t see how anyone who believe in property rights can deny that people have a right to make rules for the spaces that they rightly control. Christians have the right to set rules of conduct in their houses of worship just as I have the right to set rules of conduct within my home.

#16 Comment By CharleyCarp On September 10, 2016 @ 12:17 pm

He wasn’t playing the game to play the game, but playing it in a particular place to make a statement. This is as much expression as burning a flag.

Which, if done indoors, likely violates speech neutral fire codes, and can be punished accordingly.

Russia is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 19 of mandates freedom of expression. Chapter 1, Article 15 of the Russian Constitution makes such international agreements “a component part of [Russia’s] legal system. There are exceptions to freedom of expression — and I would say that the public morals exception would apply to copulation on the altar — but it would seem to me that in a fair court system, this prosecution would be open to serious challenge.

#17 Comment By CharleyCarp On September 10, 2016 @ 12:18 pm

[close quote after ‘system’.]

#18 Comment By CharleyCarp On September 10, 2016 @ 12:55 pm

One might even take a run at it with article 14, which enshrines separation of church and state.

I think, though, that now I ought to order the t-shirt I see advertised on Facebook: Don’t confuse your Google search with my law degree.

#19 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 11, 2016 @ 12:49 pm

“It is tragic that the Russian Church cannot bring itself to turn the other cheek but rather relies on state power to punish blasphemers now that state power is done punishing the church.”

Tragic seems a tad harsh to me. Each state creates the society that works for it. But I find this comment,

“I am very grateful that blasphemy is neither a crime nor a civil offense in this country. The same goes for heresy. It’s all good.”

In accurate. Whether language is a criminal act is matter of local, regional and state policy. There are ordinances against certain forms of expression in certain places.

Trying challenging the legality of the behavior of the police and dependent on how, where and who is involved, your liable to get your head broke, before trial and before incarceration.

Enforcing speech codes com in many guises. And the entree’ of microaggression, and safe space speech models make that clear.