On Censorship

“No single event has influenced the history of labor in Illinois, the United States, and even the world, more than the Chicago Haymarket Affair. It began with a rally on May 4, 1886, but the consequences are still being felt today. Although the rally is included in American history textbooks, very few present the event accurately or point out its significance,” according to labor studies professor William J. Adelman”

Today is Labor Day. Today some people have the day off, though not the people who work retail and who are today facillitating commercial transactions across the country in our traditional Labor Day Sales. We also have parades and barbecues. It is widely celebrated as the end of summer.

This was done intentionally. The International Workers Day is in May. May 1st was chosen by an international association of socialist organizations and labor groups because there were already wide celebrations of May Day and because they wanted to link a holiday honoring laborers to the Haymarket Riot.

We celebrate Labor Day in September. Because that way, we forget why we celebrate Labor Day.

People throw around the word “censorship” a lot. I’ve seen people point to being banned from comment sections, having content removed on Facebook, having adblocking software… calling all those things “censorship”.

This has been a big trend especially in right wing media: we see the Alt-Right gathering in rallies called “Free Speech Rallies”, with lots of declarations about the importance of free speech and denunciations of censors and censorship.

There was even a hearing in Congress about the threat posed to free speech by angry college students who demonstrated against speakers:

This is what Chuck Grassley has to say about the threat to free speech he sees:

“Many students erroneously think that speech that they consider hateful is violent. Yet some students engage in acts of violence against speech, and universities have failed to prevent or adequately punish that violence. At the University of California Berkeley, two invited speakers were prevented from speaking due to mob violence and other projected safety concerns that the University failed to control. That university should be reminded of a passage in one of the Supreme Court’s most important First Amendment rulings: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics….” A lawsuit has been brought that alleges that Berkeley has systemically and intentionally suppressed speech protected by the First Amendment because its viewpoint differs from that of university administrators.”

Let’s investigate the lawsuit he alludes to.

“UC Berkeley is asking a federal court to dismiss a case alleging the university violated the First Amendment when handling plans to bring controversial speakers to campus. In a response filed Wednesday, the university said the Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation’s claim that Cal stifled free speech is unfounded.”

This is that lawsuit, if you want to read their complaint.

This is YAF’s page about the case:

I am curious to see how this all unfolds. I have some pretty strong opinions, but first, I would like to make a point: all of this information was relatively easy to find and share. That enables discussion. That enables debate. That enables free speech.

None of this information I found was censored. I can see a lot of detail about how the YAF negotiated with Berkeley to host speakers. I can find hearings scheduled for the case.

But I was interested to read the YAF’s FAQ. Under the heading “9. But this feels wrong. I’m frustrated. Lots of people are frustrated.” they write (emphasis theirs):

Anger should be directed at leftists who are committed to using illegal, immoral, violent tactics to shut down conservative voices and, especially, school administrators who are at best complicit in and at worst materially supportive of these radical Leftists attacks on free speech.
Over the years, YAF has worked with some of the most effective advocates for our ideas, and successfully reached hundreds of thousands of students when the Left has done everything in their power to shut these ideas and these voices out of the campus conversation. The ONLY reason many students have heard from the likes of William F. Buckley, Charlton Heston, Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman, Walter Williams, Ward Connerly, Michelle Malkin, Dinesh D’Souza, John Stossel, Ben Shapiro, Allen West, and, yes, Ann Coulter, along with many, many others, is that YAF provided the training, resources, and backbone to get these speakers on campus in the face of great opposition. That has not changed now and will never change.”

Wait, what?

“The ONLY reason many students have heard from the likes of William F. Buckley, Charlton Heston, Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman, Walter Williams, Ward Connerly, Michelle Malkin, Dinesh D’Souza, John Stossel, Ben Shapiro, Allen West, and, yes, Ann Coulter, along with many, many others, is that YAF provided the training, resources, and backbone to get these speakers on campus in the face of great opposition. That has not changed now and will never change.”

You have got to be shitting me. Please raise your hand if you did not already know about William F Buckley, Charlton Heston, Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman, Walter Williams, Ward Connerly, Michelle Malkin, Dinesh D’Souza, John Stossel, Ben Shapiro, Allen West or Ann Coulter.

That’s what I thought. And this is a curious way to portray college speaker programs. Let’s think about this for a second: do students at Berkeley miss out when they have no exposure to conservative ideas and content?

Yes. I do think education requires broadening your worldview by being exposed to ideas that you don’t agree with.

Now, does that require that Berkeley spend $500,000 on campus security for a speaker to address a room full of people who already agree with him or her?

Nope. The argument that YAF is making to justify its own existence has been profoundly weird since the advent of television and the internet. Everyone knows who Ann Coulter is. That’s why she gets invited to speak by conservative groups. They invite her because her content is already widely available and famous. Her name is famous. Now I realize they do actually say “hear from” instead of “hear of”, but that also begs the question: do you need to hear someone live on a stage to know what they say?

The answer to that is also a big fat “Nope”.

I think my favorite part of their answer though, is this (in response to “lots of people are frustrated”):

“And you should be. Ann Coulter’s comments, which are misleading, divisive, and direct fire in all directions, are unfortunate. The lawsuit is about more than just Ann Coulter.”

The YAF clearly states that Ann Coulter is an irresponsible, misleading, divisive figure. I mean, it’s Ann Coulter.

And where did she make these misleading comments? In the New York Times. That is who offered her a podium when Berkeley struggled with finding a safe space to host her. And I notice that she didn’t use that opportunity to share the remarks she had prepared for her Berkeley appearance.

Choosing not to express yourself on podiums you can access while you are denied others is not the same as being censored.

Especially when the podium you have access to, in this case, The New York Times, is so much bigger than a lecture hall at UC Berkeley.

But here’s the thing: I am far less unnerved by Ann Coulter and the YAF and their bizarre ideas about speech and access. The people who terrify me are those in Congress who are carrying their water, like Chuck Grassley. In his comments, he alludes to “a passage in one of the Supreme Court’s most important First Amendment rulings: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics….”

The weird thing is that he’s quoting West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (№591). This is the case that found that students could not be compelled to salute the flag or face punishment. The full quote is this:

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

In what universe can we construe that to mean that Berkeley has to spend half a million dollars protecting Ann Coulter from their students? The entire point of Barnette is that the students have rights while the institutions serving students do not have the right to compel them to speak against their beliefs.

And conservative students do have this right. They can organize into groups and express their political views and demonstrate. That’s your First Amendment rights.

There is no First Amendment right to invite paid speakers to your school to farm liberal tears. What is happening is a corruption of our First Amendment. Our bill of rights guarantees individuals the right to speak. But under the argument being advanced by YAF and Grassley, your right is not to speak for yourself, but to choose a champion from a pantheon of assholes. And then YAF will battle your university on your behalf, to force them to host your speaker.

What is lost in this scenario? The actual voices and ideas held by the students themselves.

Conservative students, I know it is hard, but stop being such little weenies that you have to hide your ideas behind people like Ann Coulter or Ben Shapiro. The first person listed by the YAF as a voice *the evil Left* wants to silence is William F. Buckley. Which is ludicrous. William F. Buckley died in 2008. He’s not going to be appearing on anyone’s campus any time soon. But more importantly, the YAF is wrong. I don’t wish to silence Buckley. In fact, I will use this space to promote Buckley’s voice.

In 1965, William Buckley met James Baldwin to debate at Cambridge.

James Baldwin mops the floor with Buckley. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

The difference between that debate and the speaking tours we see conservatives promoting today are staggering. Conservatives used to actually believe in the exchange of ideas. They used to relish the opportunity to have these intellectual duels.

They do not do that anymore. And that is a great loss for the country. I’ve been trying to discuss the ways our national conversation is running off the rails for months now. I’ve attempted to highlight ways that social media and marketing influence the ways we exercise and think about our rights. And I’m coming to a really distressing conclusion:

Social media encourages us to adopt views based on their popularity. Everyone likes getting positive feedback, and spaces like Facebook, Medium and Twitter all have ways of endorsing or promoting content you agree with. They also have tools for blocking users or content you find annoying. Over time, users are using these tools to insulate their own ideas against other users instead of using arguments as opportunities for outreach and intelligent discussion.

Don’t believe me? Good. I keep trying to document this because I respect people who want evidence or proof before they freak out and launch the torpedoes. And I want to be clear about one thing: this is not about people recusing themselves from difficult conversations. Everyone has things they prefer not to talk about and that boundary is different for everyone. I don’t wish to make this an attack on people taking a time out from the internet for their mental or emotional well-being.

But if you keep getting into discussions about censorship and free speech, and you won’t define any terms and you refuse to engage with people making good faith efforts? Yeah, at a point, that becomes a problem if you live in a democracy. If we the people don’t actually reach out to each other to wrestle with troubling facts and the law and our rights, then we are giving up the tools our Founding Fathers actually gave us to maintain the Constitution. There is nothing patriotic about surrendering your right to understand your responsibilities as a citizen of the United States. And we are not supposed to have greater allegiance to the party than we have to the people of our union.

They do not have the power to divide us unless we let them.

Recently, I wrote a post about another user on Medium, who I suspected was some kind of bot:

And I was not surprised that several people came to defend her as their ideological peer. You see, Amanda Collins was a conservative poster. And she had some followers. Most of her posts were very short. The ones that got my attention were 1) actually plagiarized from another site and 2) a review written for a content spinner: a program designed to rewrite articles in a way that mimics a human being.

I was accused of promoting censorship because I wanted Medium to confront the way the site was being colonized by fake users for spreading plagiarized work instead of original content.

Now I can be honest about that experience and say that Ev Williams never really took my post seriously. Shocking, I know. Instead, admins came and silently took away the post and the poster without any clarification. And I don’t think that’s adequate. It’s not what I asked for and I think I have some good reasons for asking for greater engagement from the people who ultimately control these spaces.

But those reasons fell on deaf ears when I was confronted by Paul Frantizek. Who told me that this bot was one of his favorite posters:

And then accused me of censorship a couple more times, before he deleted his posts and blocked me.

But that does not mean they are all gone. This is why it is so crucial to talk about how we define censorship in a digital age, where we can repopulate content so easily. If you are blocked by a user, you can just log out and view their public posts on Medium as a guest. And I actually think this is a good idea, despite the risk of escalating harassment. (I’m trying really hard not to run afoul of accusations of harassment here. It will be interesting to see if this post gets wiped later.)

Because I can still see the content Paul created, I can refer back to the conversation we had. I can see the context of the ideas I shared with him. But I can’t go take potshots at him in his own comment areas. It’s a nice compromise that allows users to maintain a safe space for themselves without destroying the ability of other users to follow the conversation.

He did unfortunately delete the posts I replied to here. So now I only have half a conversation. That is unfortunate.

Paul elected to censor himself instead in addition to ignoring me.

The reason I am talking about him behind his back like this is because I feel like it is important to talk about real user behavior when it comes to helping content persist in digital spaces without being overwhelming for admins and users. I earlier alluded to a potential for harassment on Medium, and I don’t want to diminish those concerns or encourage people to stalk users. Paul is just the person who was unfortunate enough to block me after I decided to write about blocking and censorship. So… sorry, Paul. Now you get to be my data. Because I can’t think of any other good way to run media experiments like this, to see how Medium is trying to design user experiences that are fun and inviting for writers while still being marketable for the people who own this space.

That is, in fact, why I wrote the post about Amanda Collins. It was a test to see what happened when I tried to invite Ev to confront the activity that he hosted. I would actually prefer some more educational way of dealing with weird/nonhuman marketing behavior in spaces dedicated to fostering original voices and quality content. Removing those posts makes them harder to study. Removing those posts fosters a victim attitude in the people who prefer to read content generated by angry conservative bots.

Removing those posts is actually censorship, something I did not ask for, because of the way it cripples discussion.

What is censorship?

“the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.”

I did not have as much difficulty talking about this with my 6 year old. I asked him if he knew what censorship was and he said “no.”

So I reminded him of a time when we were all watching TV and an inappropriate ad came on and he adorably covered his sister’s face. And I said, that was censorship. He was preventing her from seeing the TV.

I also told him that that was why we let him use Youtube Kids but not Youtube. Because Youtube Kids is censored for content (though not perfect). And we talked about the fact that the stuff that wasn’t censored was there for grownups to see it. And that a lot of it is horrifying and nasty. Censoring something for kids is not like censoring something for everyone, and most people readily understand that there are already layers of complexity about what kind of speech is allowed and what is not.

I think that’s the key for understanding censorship and how it works and why it is such a frightening concept. When things are censored, they are unseeable. And that means you actually have to look for them, to see if they are gone or not.

We should not get in the habit of saying that we were censored because someone else didn’t want to hear what we had to say. We all relish the right to ignore or reject speech we don’t want to hear. But because we do not all have equal access to these large and valuable podiums, it is easy to feel excluded from spaces we never had right to in the first place. But being excluded is still not the same as being censored.

That is what the Right is attacking with this bizarre twisting of the concepts, “censorship” and “free speech”. No, Milo wasn’t “censored” when he was invited to Berkeley and the student body rebelled. Those students each have equal rights and they get to use them. They get to speak out against people who want to use their home as a stage to preach bigotry.

Their rallies were free speech, they weren’t a threat to free speech. When Milo had to flee Berkeley, most of the students had organized a dance rally. But the media really fixated on the smaller more destructive group. Any concern about the rights of students at Berkeley was subsumed by a desire to see each side represented in battle: with Conservative students on one side and Antifa on the other.

Even though the news is clear: 1,500 people had a peaceful protest. 150 were violent. The news gave preferential treatment to the violence instead of the speech. The violent people can be outnumbered 10 to 1, and still, their voice is given priority.

That is why I started this piece with the Haymarket Affair and Labor Day. We have seen this pattern before.

“Following Spies’ speech, the crowd was addressed by Parsons, the Alabama-born editor of the radical English-language weekly The Alarm.[33]The crowd was so calm that Mayor Carter Harrison Sr., who had stopped by to watch, walked home early. Parsons spoke for almost an hour before standing down in favor of the last speaker of the evening, the British socialist Samuel Fielden, who delivered a brief ten-minute address. Many of the crowd had already left as the weather was deteriorating.[33]

A New York Times article, with the dateline May 4, and headlined “Rioting and Bloodshed in the Streets of Chicago … Twelve Policemen Dead or Dying”, reported that Fielden spoke for 20 minutes, alleging that his words grew “wilder and more violent as he proceeded”.[34] Another New York Times article, headlined “Anarchy’s Red Hand” and dated May 6, opens with: “The villainous teachings of the Anarchists bore bloody fruit in Chicago tonight and before daylight at least a dozen stalwart men will have laid down their lives as a tribute to the doctrine of Herr Johann Most.” It referred to the strikers as a “mob” and used quotation marks around the term “workingmen”.[35]

This is what we are now flirting with:

“A harsh anti-union clampdown followed the Haymarket incident. There was a massive outpouring of community and business support for the police and many thousands of dollars were donated to funds for their medical care and to assist their efforts. The entire labor and immigrant community, particularly Germans and Bohemians, came under suspicion. Police raids were carried out on homes and offices of suspected anarchists. Scores of suspects, many only remotely related to the Haymarket affair, were arrested. Casting legal requirements such as search warrants aside, Chicago police squads subjected the labor activists of Chicago to an eight-week shakedown, ransacking their meeting halls and places of business. The emphasis was on the speakers at the Haymarket rally and the newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung. A small group of anarchists were discovered to have been engaged in making bombs on the same day as the incident, including round ones like the one used in Haymarket Square.[48]

Newspaper reports declared that anarchist agitators were to blame for the “riot”, a view adopted by an alarmed public. As time passed, press reports and illustrations of the incident became more elaborate. Coverage was national, then international. Among property owners, the press, and other elements of society, a consensus developed that suppression of anarchist agitation was necessary. While for their part, union organizations such as The Knights of Labor and craft unions were quick to disassociate themselves from the anarchist movement and to repudiate violent tactics as self-defeating.[49] Many workers, on the other hand, believed that men of the Pinkerton agency were responsible because of the agency’s tactic of secretly infiltrating labor groups and its sometimes violent methods of strike breaking.[50]

Forgive me if I cannot muster tears for Milo and Ann. I am not deeply sorry that the students have seen through your bullshit.

I am terrified that the news can’t and more importantly, that there are individuals like Chuck Grassley bringing the weight of the federal government to bear against the angry youths who believed us when we taught them that they had rights too.

I am terrified of people like Paul, who may actually believe all the things he says, even though they seem mutually exclusive when seen all together. You can’t really claim all at once that it oppressive to delete or shut off comments on a post and say you have shut off comments on your own blog because it was a pain in the ass to manage all the spam. But I believe that Paul feels oppressed and wants a target for his anger. And I know which one the YAF is aiming him at.

Anger should be directed at leftists who are committed to using illegal, immoral, violent tactics to shut down conservative voices and, especially, school administrators who are at best complicit in and at worst materially supportive of these radical Leftists attacks on free speech.

And I know that I tried to explain Fascism for him. And that was when he blocked me.

Inside every anarchist is a failed dictator. —
Benito Mussolini

This is how a democracy dies. When the people turn on each other with no regard for truth or reality. When the words we use no longer have common definitions, why would it matter if we can speak freely or not?