Bob Chipman (@the_moviebob) and free speech

I saw this series of tweets, which I’ll block quote, and had to say something (emphasis mine).

Picking your battles is tremendously important. “Free Speech” is devalued as something to fight for when too many people claim it. [sic] when they’re really just “fighting” to abuse people without consequence. That’s dangerous. As a result, there’s a perception that “the left” doesn’t fight for speech, when the reality is that it DID – and largely won. Speech, particularly in the U.S., is freer today than its ever been. And that’s the “problem” – when everyone can speak, no one voice can shout all others down. And the people who used to have that power call any pushback “oppression.”

Bob, let me tell you a little story.

In 1977, the leader of the National Socialist Party of America announced plans to march through the town (well, suburb) of Skokie, Illinois. Skokie, at the time, was a majority Jewish community (approximately 40,000 of the town’s population of 70,000 were Jews), and one out of every six residents in the town were Holocaust survivors. As you can imagine, such an announcement was just a little controversial.

So, the town sprung into action, decreeing the NSPA post $350,000 liability insurance (a purely punitive amount) before obtaining a permit, and banning the exhibition of Nazi imagery, with the argument free speech protections were outweighed by potential violence and danger to life and health. All of which to stop the Nazis from marching in Skokie.

The Nazis appealed. It actually went straight up to the Supreme Court, who eventually ruled in their favor, allowing the Nazis to march in Skokie and overturning punitive action by the municipal government. In the end, only about twenty Nazis actually showed up, loitered by ten minutes surrounded by counter-protesters, and left. As a movie buff, you should know the story well:

But, the outcome isn’t the interesting part of this story. It’s how we got to the outcome that’s the interesting part. See, the American Civil Liberties Union — an organization of which I was a proud member for six years, until withdrawing my support in 2009 — took the case. And, they took the case at the urging of an attorney by the name of Burton Joseph. Burton Joseph was Jewish, and he came from a Jewish firm (Joseph, Lichtenstein and Levinson). So was the national director of the ACLU at the time, Aryeh Neier, who was actually born in Nazi Germany.

The ACLU was in for a hell of a fight even before Joseph set foot in the courtroom. The ACLU drew heavy criticism from the Jewish community, in Skokie and without, up to and including the Anti-Defamation League. Even the ACLU’s own members protested; the ACLU lost membership and funding over Skokie. Yet, it persisted — and prevailed, in defending the right of one of the most-hated political organizations in global history to exercise its right to assemble and speak freely.

The Skokie case is now regarded as the ACLU’s finest hour, and perhaps the greatest victory for the First Amendment in the 20th Century. Skokie was when “the left” fought for free speech and won, when it was as you put it, “fighting to abuse people without consequence”. And, in the wake of the Skokie case, the Holocaust Memorial Foundation was formed, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center built. As it turned out, twenty morons in jackboots posed no palpable threat whatsoever to Skokie or its residents, nor was it cause to put on jackboots of their own in response.

I wonder if Skokie would have turned out differently today. You, Bob, definitely seem to be of the opinion here Skokie should have turned out differently.

No, Bob, “one voice [shouting] the others down” is not the “problem” with free speech. The “problem” with free speech is when majorities shout down unpopular voices, informally (the “heckler’s veto”) or formally (legislation, executive action, or jurisprudence). It is when majorities dehumanize the speakers of unpopular voices for simply speaking. It is when majorities inflict harm, physical or emotional, real or perceived, on those speakers. It is when majorities silence by way of fear. That is oppression.

And yes, that applies to everyone, period. Of course, free speech is neither guarantee of audience, license to speak unopposed, immunity from criticism, or consequence for engaging in particularly stupid, meaningless, or false speech. It as much my right to call you an asshole as it is your right to say or do something assholish. That’s something you damn well know, since out the other side of your mouth you use that very argument in defense of cultural criticism and cultural critics in gaming.

That is something I damn well know, considering in 2003 I was put in cages and surrounded by armed law enforcement for speaking my mind that invading Iraq may not have been the best idea — entirely legally. I also was called a traitor, appeaser, inhuman, and worse, receiving death threats myself, online and in person. And, at times I did genuinely fear for my life and safety.

I wasn’t at Zucotti Park, or Pioneer Courthouse Square, in 2011. Nor was I at Ferguson last year.

So, “freer today than it’s ever been”? Fuck you, asshole.

Those who call for censorship in the name of the oppressed ought to recognize it is never the oppressed who determine the bounds of censorship.

  • Aryeh Neier