On Saturday, Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, Pakistan’s railways minister, held a press conference and declared that he would pay $100,000 of his own money to anyone who could capture the maker of a now-infamous YouTube movie trailer that depicts the Prophet Muhammad killing innocent men and juggling underage girls in his desert tent. The clip has careened around the Internet, inspiring violent protests and attacks in some Muslim-majority countries and cities. But it has also inspired bewilderment in the West—how could a trailer so farcically bad be construed by millions of Muslims as representative of the feelings of the majority of Americans toward Islam? Don’t they understand that the video doesn’t speak for the U.S. government? Can’t they lighten up? Don’t they understand freedom of speech?
The short answer is, no, not in the same way that we in the West do.
North American democracy is built upon the ideas of Enlightenment Europe; the sanctity of secularism in government and the free flow of ideas, whether we agree with them or not, is what defines our particular brand. But Western republics can’t expect to see reflections of themselves when they stare, Narcissus-like, into the roiling pool of Middle Eastern governments, still in the infancy of their democracies—at least not yet.
Xavier Alvarez got twin pieces of good news Thursday. First, thanks to the Court’s decision in the Health Care Cases, Medicaid in California may soon be funded to supply mental-health services to crazed compulsive liars like him. Second, and of more immediate interest to him, he won’t be doing a year in the federal slam for falsely claiming to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Discussions of free speech in the United States often call upon the adage—misattributed to Voltaire—that “while I disagree with what you have to say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (The quote in fact comes from Evelyn Hall, who wrote a biography of the French philosopher.) It’s a succinct summary of a the cherished American idea that speech should not be abridged because we find its content objectionable.
But according to New York University Law Professor Jeremy Waldron, it’s severely flawed.
American politics is in trouble. A tsunami of unaccountable, untraceable political money is overwhelming the Republican race for the presidential nomination and threatens to do the same to the fall election. For many people, especially progressives, the culprit is easy to name: the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which swept away any limits on election-advocacy ads by corporations, unions, and “independent” political-action committees (PACs) and issue groups. Many progressives believe that Citizens United “made corporations people” and that a constitutional amendment restricting “corporate personhood” will cure this political ill.
Most Supreme Court arguments last one hour—30 minutes for each side. At unpredictable intervals, however, the Court grants one party several extra millennia of agony as a once-solid case disintegrates in full view of the entire courtroom.
United States v. Alvarez, which I wrote about yesterday, is fascinating in its complexity. The government in this case has asked the Court to hold that it can punish people who lie, regardless of whether they lie to extort money, win political office, or just to impress people at the corner tavern. The principle is breathtaking in its sweep. In the past, the Court has approved statutes that punish knowingly reckless false statements of fact—but only when those statements cause some measurable harm.
Without issuing an explanation, yesterday the Supreme Court upheld a federal law banning resident aliens from making campaign contributions. It is regrettable but perhaps telling that the Court chose not to explain why it agreed with the lower court: The case reveals obvious problems with its penchant for First Amendment absolutism in campaign-finance cases, most notably its decision in Citizens United.
Election Day 2012 looks like it is going to be Groundhog Day 2012. Another election dominated by money. Another series of promises made on the campaign trail, broken as soon as donors and lobbyists come calling when legislatures convene.
I meant to write a post about how Justice Clarence Thomas' dissent from yesterday's Supreme Court opinion striking down a ban on selling violent video games to children didn't involve any actual case law, but Garrett Eppsbeat me to it, and probably did it better than I would have anyway:
For the reasons that TAPPED's Paul Waldmandiscussed earlier today, it's rather remarkable that the constitutionality of Arizona's campaign-finance law is even in question. Actual restrictions on campaign spending present a difficult question, as First Amendment values are put in conflict with democratic equality. Regimes like Arizona's, on the other hand, do not have the same tension. Candidates can spend as much money as they want, but candidates without the same resources are given the resources to compete.
Popular speech doesn't raise First Amendment issues. Where constitutional protections become relevant is when speech is highly unpopular, and in these cases, the Supreme Court historically has had a veryuneven track record. In the modern era -- after the Supreme Court unanimously found that even KKK rallies constituted protected speech -- there was allegedly a consensus, or near consensus, on a libertarian approach to speech.
Andrew Sullivan points us to this rather extraordinary interview Anderson Cooper did with Renee Ellmers, the Republican nominee for United States Congress in North Carolina's 2nd District. Elmers got some national attention by running an ad about the Islamic center near Ground Zero, which conflates "Muslims" and "terrorists," and asserts that the Islamic center is a "victory mosque" meant to cheer the tragedy of September 11. The interview has lots of alarming stuff, including when she implies that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf might be a terrorist ("We don't know).
A federal appeals court struck down a Federal Communications Commission ruling finding that single, "fleeting expletives" in live broadcasts amount to indecent language and can be fined. This comes amid the FCC's indecency crackdown in the wake of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident. The court ruled that the FCC's practices had an unreasonable chilling effect on free speech and is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court. The court could uphold the appeals court, effectively revisiting indecency standards for the first time since the 1970s.
Even more than the other major opinion released by the Supreme Court yesterday, the outcome of Doe v. Reed was no surprise to anyone who witnessed the oral argument. At issue was whether Washington state is within its rights to disclose the signatories of petitions for a ballot initiative, in this case the names of individuals who petitioned to repeal the state's everything-but-marriage gay-rights law. The Court held by an 8 to 1 majority that the signatories of the petition did not have a constitutional right to anonymity.