Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Silent Night

War on Christmas? Somalia, show us how it's done!
A directive released on Tuesday by the Ministry of Justice and Religious Affairs stated that no Christian festivities could be held in Somalia….

“We alert fellow Muslims in Somalia that some festivities to mark Christian Days will take place around the world in this week,” said [the Director of the Religious Matters] during [a] press conference [to announce the ban], adding: “It is prohibited to celebrate those days in this country.”

[The Director General of the Ministry of Justice and Religious Affairs], on his part, stated that all security and law enforcement agencies had been instructed to counter any such celebrations….

The officials did not say anything on whether non-Muslim foreign workers or residents could celebrate or not.

It is the first time that a Somali government bans the celebrations since the last central government collapsed in 1991.

All I Want for Christmas

What I want for Christmas is better "best of Buffy [character]" videos on YouTube. Important note: If it's set to any sort of music -- any sort of music -- it doesn't count.

Have a happy holiday, everyone!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Free Speech and the Private Sphere

I've been thinking about the concept of "free speech" as applied to private criticism. This has come up most recently in the flap over Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson's statements regarding gays and Blacks, and the resulting calls to boycott the show. Some people have responded by saying the critics are violating Robertson's free speech rights. Others have replied that no such thing is occurring, since we are not talking about government censorship but rather private counter-criticism -- free speech in its own right. Take Popehat, for example:
The phrase "the spirit of the First Amendment" often signals approaching nonsense. So, regrettably, does the phrase "free speech" when uncoupled from constitutional free speech principles. These terms often smuggle unprincipled and internally inconsistent concepts — like the doctrine of the Preferred+ First Speaker. The doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker holds that when Person A speaks, listeners B, C, and D should refrain from their full range of constitutionally protected expression to preserve the ability of Person A to speak without fear of non-governmental consequences that Person A doesn't like. The doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker applies different levels of scrutiny and judgment to the first person who speaks and the second person who reacts to them; it asks "why was it necessary for you to say that" or "what was your motive in saying that" or "did you consider how that would impact someone" to the second person and not the first. It's ultimately incoherent as a theory of freedom of expression.
These are good points, particularly the idea of the Preferred First Speaker. So the following isn't meant to be critical.

But what does it mean that so many people really seem to believe that private retaliation -- whether in tangible forms such as economic boycotts or firing someone from a job, or even intangible form such as overly vitriolic responses -- poses a threat to free speech on par with government censorship? Does that mean we have to maybe reevaluate the concept a bit?

After all, if the issue really is just a problem of "chilling", private actors can do that nearly as well as the government. Maybe not quite as efficiently -- the government's power to imprison you is difficult to top -- but most people would view the loss of their job or even the loss of fraternity as a sufficiently grave deterrent to avoid voicing certain opinions. And as everything from the continued worries over "cyberbullying" to my own "Criticism as Punishment" post indicate, people seem to perceive these sorts of private sanctions as punitive in nature.

Again, none of this is to say that we should actually treat hostile private reactions to speech as on par with government censorship of speech. A functioning public sphere requires that we be able to criticize, sometimes harshly, and requires that we be able to react negatively towards the speech of others, even stridently. But again, the fact that there is such a large popular consensus that is a real and genuine problem does counsel that this is a problem that requires deeper thoughts than just drawing a line between public and private and leaving it at that.