Commentary Magazine


Topic: freedom of speech

Mozilla Has Rights. Just Like Hobby Lobby.

The forced resignation of Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich over his support for an anti-gay marriage referendum continued to provoke bitter debate over the weekend. After an initial burst of revulsion even from liberal pundits like Andrew Sullivan over the purge of a businessman from a company over his political beliefs by pro-gay thought police, many on the left have recovered their bearings and are reminding themselves that freedom of speech for me but not for thee has always been their guiding principle. Though some are a bit shame-faced to do so, some liberals have decided that punishing individuals for their personal politics is OK because those who hold opinions contrary to their own are not only wrong but so hateful that their mere presence undermines the efforts of those associated with them.

That this is rank hypocrisy is so obvious that it barely needs to be said. If, say, a liberal business executive were to be ousted from a similar position at a Fortune 500 company because a lot of the shareholders or executives at the business didn’t like the fact that he or she was a supporter of gay marriage or had donated to prominent liberal candidates for office, you can bet your stock portfolio and your mortgage payment that the mainstream media and every left-wing pundit in creation would be anointing such a person for sainthood rather than twisting themselves into pretzels in order to justify Eich’s defenestration, as so many have already done.

But in doing so, some on the left have, albeit unwittingly, stumbled into some truths about First Amendment rights that undermine their positions on an important case under consideration at the U.S. Supreme Court.

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The forced resignation of Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich over his support for an anti-gay marriage referendum continued to provoke bitter debate over the weekend. After an initial burst of revulsion even from liberal pundits like Andrew Sullivan over the purge of a businessman from a company over his political beliefs by pro-gay thought police, many on the left have recovered their bearings and are reminding themselves that freedom of speech for me but not for thee has always been their guiding principle. Though some are a bit shame-faced to do so, some liberals have decided that punishing individuals for their personal politics is OK because those who hold opinions contrary to their own are not only wrong but so hateful that their mere presence undermines the efforts of those associated with them.

That this is rank hypocrisy is so obvious that it barely needs to be said. If, say, a liberal business executive were to be ousted from a similar position at a Fortune 500 company because a lot of the shareholders or executives at the business didn’t like the fact that he or she was a supporter of gay marriage or had donated to prominent liberal candidates for office, you can bet your stock portfolio and your mortgage payment that the mainstream media and every left-wing pundit in creation would be anointing such a person for sainthood rather than twisting themselves into pretzels in order to justify Eich’s defenestration, as so many have already done.

But in doing so, some on the left have, albeit unwittingly, stumbled into some truths about First Amendment rights that undermine their positions on an important case under consideration at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some, like the Guardian’s Mary Hamilton, rightly point out that the First Amendment doesn’t entitle Eich to a job at Mozilla. That is true, and I don’t believe any serious conservative critic of the Mozilla lynch mob has said any different. Mozilla and any other company have a perfect right to hire or fire anyone they like. Anti-discrimination laws don’t require liberals to hire conservatives or vice versa even though injecting political litmus tests into job searches are not conducive to hiring the best people. But when New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote that Eich had to be ousted from his position because Mozilla isn’t an ordinary company, that should have unsettled some on the left who have been mocking the idea that corporations have First Amendment rights. If Mozilla should be able to fire Eich because of his politics, how can liberals also argue with a straight face that Hobby Lobby should have to pay for abortion drugs?

The upshot of Manjoo’s piece was to say that rather than a soulless instrument of the technology business, Mozilla is a unique sort of company with a raison d’être that rises above mere commerce and must be nurtured by an individual who shares a vision of inclusiveness that excludes defenders of traditional marriage and other non-liberal concepts. By refusing to “recant,” as Farhad put it, he had demonstrated his inability to lead the company. As Michelangelo Signorile, the editor-at-large of the HuffPost’s Gay Voices wrote, “It’s about a company based in Northern California that has many progressive employees, as well as a lot of progressives and young people among the user base of its Firefox browser, realizing its CEO’s worldview is completely out of touch with the company’s — and America’s — values and vision for the future.”

That Mozilla’s employees and board members actually think it is consistent with American values or even “freedom of speech” (in the words of the company’s disingenuous announcement of Eich’s departure) to hound out of their midst someone who, though a supporter of gay rights in other respects, may disagree with them about marriage or support conservative candidates says something awful about such a group. But if that’s how they feel, then it’s their right to do so even as many on the outside of their cozy left-wing bubble enclave jeer at a version of “inclusiveness” that demands ideological conformity.

Ironically, Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern thinks conservatives are the hypocrites to complain about this because of the Hobby Lobby case. He thinks conservatives are only for protecting the First Amendment rights of companies when they allow people like the religious owners of the Hobby Lobby chain to oppose the Health and Human Services mandate that would force them to pay for abortion drugs for their employees but not for Mozilla to burn Eich at the stake. Wrong.

Conservatives have been consistent about the rights of corporations. It is the left that has always mocked the notion of First Amendment rights applying to corporations, principally in campaign finance law cases. Conservatives have correctly argued that individuals do not give up their right to political speech when they incorporate or engage in commerce. By claiming, as they now do, that the special culture of Mozilla requires it to root out all unbelievers in gay marriage or supporters of conservatives, but deny that Hobby Lobby has the right to protect its particular culture or the beliefs of its owners, liberals are the ones that are engaging in hypocrisy.

It would be nice if liberals were sufficiently self-aware of their inconsistency to cause them to “recant” and grant Hobby Lobby—which has an individual business culture just as special as the one at Mozilla—the same respect it demands for the Torquemadas who rule the roost in the high-tech sector. But I’m not expecting that to happen. The real problem here isn’t hypocrisy but a liberal mindset that views conservatives as not merely wrong, but evil. Eich’s fate shows that the decline of civility in our political culture may have become irreversible. But that makes it all the more important for the courts to defend the Constitution against the left’s crusade against the First Amendment with respect to political speech and faith.

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West Should Not Apologize for Cartoons

The response to the publication of some anti-Muslim cartoons in a French magazine has been swift. The West has quickly condemned the drawings while Muslims are making more threats. France has closed its embassies in 22 countries and the world is bracing for another round of violence in which the hurt feelings of offended followers of Islam will prevail over the right of free speech. But the only proper response to this latest entry in the unending cycle of apologies and atrocities is to say: enough. It is time for the West to stop treating Muslim complaints about their sensibilities as if these were serious arguments. They are not. As even the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman wrote this morning, Arabs and Muslims who are whining about not getting any respect should look in the mirror.

Let’s agree that gratuitous insults directed at any faith are inappropriate at best. At worst, they serve to help stir up hatred against targeted faiths and peoples. But the point of the cartoons published this week in Charlie Hedbo is pretty much the same as the satiric graphics that ran in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005: to skewer the self-censorship of the West in talking about an Islamist world that responds to any criticism with deadly force. That is a very different cup of tea than the vile garbage that emanates from official broadcast media and newspapers in the Arab and Muslim world about Christianity but most especially Judaism, Jews and Israel. It’s time for some Western leaders, especially those whose governments have been bending over backwards to speak of their concern for Muslim sensibilities, to make it clear that they are no longer interested in playing this game.

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The response to the publication of some anti-Muslim cartoons in a French magazine has been swift. The West has quickly condemned the drawings while Muslims are making more threats. France has closed its embassies in 22 countries and the world is bracing for another round of violence in which the hurt feelings of offended followers of Islam will prevail over the right of free speech. But the only proper response to this latest entry in the unending cycle of apologies and atrocities is to say: enough. It is time for the West to stop treating Muslim complaints about their sensibilities as if these were serious arguments. They are not. As even the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman wrote this morning, Arabs and Muslims who are whining about not getting any respect should look in the mirror.

Let’s agree that gratuitous insults directed at any faith are inappropriate at best. At worst, they serve to help stir up hatred against targeted faiths and peoples. But the point of the cartoons published this week in Charlie Hedbo is pretty much the same as the satiric graphics that ran in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005: to skewer the self-censorship of the West in talking about an Islamist world that responds to any criticism with deadly force. That is a very different cup of tea than the vile garbage that emanates from official broadcast media and newspapers in the Arab and Muslim world about Christianity but most especially Judaism, Jews and Israel. It’s time for some Western leaders, especially those whose governments have been bending over backwards to speak of their concern for Muslim sensibilities, to make it clear that they are no longer interested in playing this game.

We don’t agree with tasteless insults aimed at Islam. But the Muslim mobs and those that rationalize their actions as a reasonable response to Western imperialism and Third World powerlessness have no standing to gripe about anybody else’s behavior and must be bluntly told as much. The problem is not just Islamic intolerance that treats their feelings as somehow taking precedence over the rights of others to free expression. It is that pusillanimous reactions to Muslim violence have served to encourage and enable repetitions of this same tired story.

It is understood that perhaps the man in the Arab street who riots when he hears or reads rumors about an insult to Islam being made somewhere doesn’t understand the Western concept of freedom of speech. But the problem with the constant demands for Western apologies and prosecutions of critics of Islam is that the stream of regrets is strictly one way. As we have noted numerous times here at Contentions — and as Friedman writes today — anyone who visits the Memri.org website can see that insulting Judaism and Christianity in the Arab world is part of these countries’ mainstream discourse and not the work of isolated extremists or satirists as is the case in the West. In particular, anti-Semitism is so deeply ingrained in the Muslim media that it is merely a matter of routine more than anything else.

That’s why Western governments should resist the apology game this time.

The Muslim world must understand that it cannot impose its skewed values on the rest of the world. And the way to start that process is for Western leaders to send them a harsh message warning Arab and Muslim governments that we are aware that they don’t have clean hands on this issue. It should be made plain that monitoring Western speech about Islam is not their concern. And it should also be made perfectly clear that violence against Western targets will be punished severely.

We don’t doubt that some on the left will say that a harsh Western answer to Muslim violence will only inflame Muslim feelings. But such arguments miss the fact that terrorists merely use these controversies as a pretext. At some point the cycle has to end. The French cartoons should be the moment when this process must begin.

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WH Asks YouTube to Pull Anti-Islam Video

The White House will obviously argue that it’s not asking YouTube to censor the anti-Islam video per say, but simply asking it to review its policies and see if the video can be construed as a terms of use violation. But that’s a distinction without a difference. “Hey, can you remove this video?” is pretty much undistinguishable from “Hey, can you remove this video as a violation of your terms of services?” — after all, it’s not like the White House can force YouTube to pull the film, and whatever the website does is its own prerogative:

The White House has asked YouTube to review an anti-Muslim film posted to the site that has been blamed for igniting the violent protests this week in the Middle East.

Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the White House has “reached out to YouTube to call the video to their attention and ask them to review whether it violates their terms of use.”

WaPo reports that YouTube already said the video didn’t violate its terms of services on Wednesday, but it has restricted access to the film in Libya and Egypt.

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The White House will obviously argue that it’s not asking YouTube to censor the anti-Islam video per say, but simply asking it to review its policies and see if the video can be construed as a terms of use violation. But that’s a distinction without a difference. “Hey, can you remove this video?” is pretty much undistinguishable from “Hey, can you remove this video as a violation of your terms of services?” — after all, it’s not like the White House can force YouTube to pull the film, and whatever the website does is its own prerogative:

The White House has asked YouTube to review an anti-Muslim film posted to the site that has been blamed for igniting the violent protests this week in the Middle East.

Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the White House has “reached out to YouTube to call the video to their attention and ask them to review whether it violates their terms of use.”

WaPo reports that YouTube already said the video didn’t violate its terms of services on Wednesday, but it has restricted access to the film in Libya and Egypt.

The spokesperson added, however, that the site restricted access in Libya and Egypt because of the unrest. “We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions. This can be a challenge because what’s OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere,” the spokesperson said.

Earlier today, White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated that the administration found the video “offensive and reprehensible and disgusting,” but added, “we cannot and will not squelch freedom of expression in this country.” When a reporter asked whether the White House ever asked YouTube to remove the video, he said that he wasn’t sure and punted on the question.

If the White House believes the video is “freedom of expression” that it “cannot and will not squelch,” then why is it asking YouTube to see if it can remove the film from its website?

This is a result of the dangerous precedent the Obama administration has set. Last year, administration officials personally petitioned a fringe pastor in Florida not to carry out a Koran burning they said would endanger our troops. There was a small public outcry, but not much — probably because many Americans are instinctively uncomfortable with book-burnings, even if they are protected expression.

But now the administration’s efforts to suppress free speech have spread to a YouTube video. A video that is admittedly moronic and offensive, but certainly no more so than thousands of other clips on the website.

Where does this lead? The list of things that offend radical Islamists is long. What happens next time fanatics riot and murder innocents over a film or a picture or a book? Is the White House going to make it a policy to condemn any mockery of Islam that radical clerics exploit to gin up outrage across the Muslim world?

By trying to get the video pulled, the White House isn’t just acknowledging that the film is offensive. It’s taking the posture that the film is illegitimate expression because it offends — and that violent rioting is a logical response to simply viewing the film. That U.S. policy has the potential to become a dangerous tool in the hands of Islamists.

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John Derbyshire and National Review: Why It Had to Happen

Over the weekend, my friend Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, was forced into a parting of the ways with his magazine’s and website’s long-time contributor, John Derbyshire. The dismissal was due to an article Derbyshire wrote for a site called Taki Magazine, taking off from the killing of Trayvon Martin.

I’m not going to rehash here the offense committed by the Derbyshire piece. Suffice it to say that this article, like much of what appears on that website and others like it, purports to take a “scientific” view of race relations according to which, inevitably, black people are helpless against DNA that supposedly causes them at once to be dumber and more violent than white people. These sorts of arguments are usually offered in a specious more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone or with an excruciatingly knowing world-weariness that serves as a secret club handshake with all those who know and are willing to accept the uncomfortable truths revealed by “science.”

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Over the weekend, my friend Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, was forced into a parting of the ways with his magazine’s and website’s long-time contributor, John Derbyshire. The dismissal was due to an article Derbyshire wrote for a site called Taki Magazine, taking off from the killing of Trayvon Martin.

I’m not going to rehash here the offense committed by the Derbyshire piece. Suffice it to say that this article, like much of what appears on that website and others like it, purports to take a “scientific” view of race relations according to which, inevitably, black people are helpless against DNA that supposedly causes them at once to be dumber and more violent than white people. These sorts of arguments are usually offered in a specious more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone or with an excruciatingly knowing world-weariness that serves as a secret club handshake with all those who know and are willing to accept the uncomfortable truths revealed by “science.”

What I think is worth discussing is the issue of what will be inevitably be raised in the days and weeks ahead by people discomfited by National Review‘s decision. First, they will say NR is violating Derbyshire’s freedom of speech. That is simply incorrect; freedom of speech in the United States is freedom from government coercion. It does not guarantee anyone access to a private organization’s ink and paper and server space, especially not when that private organization pays him. As Rich said in the post in which he announced the severing of NR‘s relationship with Derbyshire: “It’s a free country, and Derb can write whatever he wants, wherever he wants. Just not in the pages of NR or NRO, or as someone associated with NR any longer.”

Nonetheless, there will still be those who believe an injustice is being done to a writer who simply was telling the truth as he sees it. But websites and magazines do not exist solely to give writers a vehicle to speak to readers (though this is one of their primary intellectual, cultural, and aesthetic purposes). If they are not run to make money, but are mission-driven instead—as NR is and as COMMENTARY is as well—they exist to give shape and form and heft to a view of the world its writers and editors share. That view may be broad enough to contain contradictory opinions on various matters, but overall it is supposed to encompass a coherent vision of what the world is and what it should be. That is what we provide to our readers, and what our readers expect of us.

When a writer expresses an opinion about things that is not only different from, but in radical contradiction with the mission-driven institution’s view, that writer may be doing what he feels is necessary. But it is equally necessary for the institution to make clear whether that view can still be considered part of its overall vision or it is a pathogen that, left undisturbed, will destroy the institution’s own health.

Finally, they will say NR acted in a cowardly fashion and fell sway to political correctness; that Derbyshire was only exploring questions that discomfit the Establishment. This game of saying “I am only raising questions” has become the three-card monte of the intellectual world in recent years—a way of bringing up things in a glancing and suggestive way without taking responsibility for it. It has been deployed most egregiously by a blogger who has generated millions upon millions of page views “raising questions” for rage-fueled readers about whether Sarah Palin was in fact the mother of her own child.

Everybody makes mistakes. Writers make mistakes. Lord knows I’ve made plenty, and I am mindful of the notion that “there but for the grace of God go you.” What Derbyshire did was not a mistake. It was a coming-out. The noxious seeds that finally blossomed into full poisonous flower with his latest piece had been scattered throughout his writing for years. Recognizing his raw talent and interesting perspective on a variety of issues, Rich Lowry and National Review gave him the benefit of the doubt until there was no longer any doubt.

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Muslims and the First Amendment

For the past several years, there have been two competing narratives about Islam in America. One put forward by groups that purport to represent believers in Islam and the liberal media would have it that in the post-9/11 era, American Muslims are besieged by a wave of hatred and violence (even though there is no statistical evidence to back up such claims). The other is one articulated by critics of Islam who argue that Muslims are demanding and getting accommodations from government and other institutions that are an unconstitutional establishment of Islamic or Sharia law. Advocates of this point of view are the driving force behind efforts to enact laws that would prohibit recognition or use of Sharia law in U.S. courts. This cause has often seemed to be, at best, the result of overblown fears because, unlike in Asia and Africa where Muslim efforts to make Sharia the law of the land, there is little danger of that happening in Oklahoma or other states where anti-Sharia statutes have been proposed.

However, every now and then a story pops up which makes such fears seem more reasonable. One concerns the assault by a local Muslim on a man wearing a costume during a Halloween parade in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, last year. The attacker said the costume depicted a zombie version of the Prophet Muhammad. The attack was recorded on film and witnessed by a police officer who promptly arrested the assailant, who was later charged with harassment. But, as legal scholar Jonathan Turley notes in his blog, the judge who heard the case not only dismissed the case on the grounds that the offense to Islam was not protected speech but also lectured the victim on the wrongheaded nature of his views. Judge Mark Martin’s decision was based on the idea that the assailant, one Talaag Elbayomy, was merely defending “his culture.” Turley, who posted a video of the assault and a partial transcript of the judge’s comments, concludes that Martin’s decision “raises serious questions of judicial temperament, if not misconduct.” But I would go farther and point out that the judge’s behavior seems to reflect a bizarre notion of Muslim entitlement that is by no means unrelated to the attempt to sell the country on the myth of a post 9/11 backlash.

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For the past several years, there have been two competing narratives about Islam in America. One put forward by groups that purport to represent believers in Islam and the liberal media would have it that in the post-9/11 era, American Muslims are besieged by a wave of hatred and violence (even though there is no statistical evidence to back up such claims). The other is one articulated by critics of Islam who argue that Muslims are demanding and getting accommodations from government and other institutions that are an unconstitutional establishment of Islamic or Sharia law. Advocates of this point of view are the driving force behind efforts to enact laws that would prohibit recognition or use of Sharia law in U.S. courts. This cause has often seemed to be, at best, the result of overblown fears because, unlike in Asia and Africa where Muslim efforts to make Sharia the law of the land, there is little danger of that happening in Oklahoma or other states where anti-Sharia statutes have been proposed.

However, every now and then a story pops up which makes such fears seem more reasonable. One concerns the assault by a local Muslim on a man wearing a costume during a Halloween parade in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, last year. The attacker said the costume depicted a zombie version of the Prophet Muhammad. The attack was recorded on film and witnessed by a police officer who promptly arrested the assailant, who was later charged with harassment. But, as legal scholar Jonathan Turley notes in his blog, the judge who heard the case not only dismissed the case on the grounds that the offense to Islam was not protected speech but also lectured the victim on the wrongheaded nature of his views. Judge Mark Martin’s decision was based on the idea that the assailant, one Talaag Elbayomy, was merely defending “his culture.” Turley, who posted a video of the assault and a partial transcript of the judge’s comments, concludes that Martin’s decision “raises serious questions of judicial temperament, if not misconduct.” But I would go farther and point out that the judge’s behavior seems to reflect a bizarre notion of Muslim entitlement that is by no means unrelated to the attempt to sell the country on the myth of a post 9/11 backlash.

Martin called Ernie Perce, the Pennsylvania director of American Atheists, a “doofus” and, citing his own experiences serving in Iraq and other Muslim countries, told him his conduct could be punished by death in such countries. He went on to claim the Framers did not intend the First Amendment to be used to “piss off other peoples and cultures” and therefore did not protect his right to criticize Islam even in the context of a Halloween parade. Martin not only seemed to accept the idea that Elbayomy was conditioned to attack critics of Islam by his background and faith but that the law ought to recognize his need to not be so offended. This “cultural defense” seems to treat Muslims as so inherently aggrieved by living in a country where their religion is not the law of the land that they deserve some sort of special legal protection for their own blatantly illegal behavior.

As Turley states, the fact that the victim was a recognized antagonist of the Muslim faith had no bearing on whether he ought to be allowed to exercise his right to speak his mind without being physically attacked. Though insulting the prophet is a death-penalty offense in much of the world, such behavior is not illegal in a country that recognizes the right to free speech.

It should be specified that this is just one clearly incompetent judge who used his godlike control of his courtroom to vent his personal opinions and perpetrated a miscarriage of justice. But what is really troubling is the way his decision seems to reflect a growing sense that Muslim sensibilities are so delicate they may override the rights of others to comment on their faith. One need not endorse the insult of any faith to understand Perce’s conduct was legal and his attacker was in the wrong.

It is hardly a stretch to point out the connection between this case and something all too common in Muslim countries where insults or perceived attacks on Islam — such as the recent incident in Afghanistan — are treated as justifying riots and murder. For all of the unsubstantiated talk about a rising tide of Islamophobia, critics of Islam are still far more likely to be subjected to attacks than are Muslims. Like all Americans, Muslims are entitled to the full protection of the law for the expression of their beliefs. But attempts to enshrine their notion of what is a sacrilege into secular law are a path to the destruction of the Constitution.

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