The Trick In Dealing With Government: Find The Grown-Up In The Room
Speech has consequences. Some of these consequences are legitimate; they are reflections of other people's speech. You might disagree with them, but if you have any self-respect, you won't whine that they constitute censorship.
But some consequences — often, but not always, inflicted by the government — are illegitimate. Warren, a business owner who writes at Coyote Blog, encountered such a consequence. When he expressed himself on his blog and linked to a negative Yelp review of a government agency, a functionary from that agency threatened him with loss of government contracts:
Well, one day I got a letter via email from a regional manager of the state parks agency whose park was the subject of that Yelp review I linked. I was notified that I had 48 hours to remove that blog post or I would lose all my contracts with that state. In particular, they did not like a) the fact that I linked to a negative Yelp review of one of their parks and b) that I impugned the incredibly noble idea that state parks are all operated by law enforcement officials.
There are a lot of things Warren could have done. I'm sure there are a lot of things he was tempted to do, as I would have been. Instead of doing the most viscerally satisfying thing, the most "just" thing, or the most "righteous" thing, Warren did the most effective thing for his business and for the immediate preservation of his freedom of speech: he engaged with the grown-up in the room.
Fortunately, I was able to write the acting General Counsel of the agency that afternoon. Rather than sending something fiery as the first salve, I sent a coy letter observing innocently that her agency seemed to believe that my contracts with the state imposed a prior restraint on my speech and I asked her to clarify the boundaries of that prior restraint so I would know what speech I was to be allowed. To her credit, she called me back about 6 minutes after having received the letter and told me that it was void and asking me to please, please pretend I had never received it. So I did, and I reward her personally for her quick and intelligent response by not naming her agency in the story.
When you deal with government agencies, you often deal with people who are entitled, or stupid, or indifferent. But there are also people who are capable, dedicated, and principled. There are grown-ups in the room. You can rail against the government — as I do here — but, if you want quick and painless results, you can also look for and politely engage the grown-up. Maybe the grown-up is genuinely concerned with your rights. Maybe the grown-up is genuinely concerned with the government agency staying out of the headlines, or out of unnecessary trouble. Maybe both. You could vent your spleen to them — you could point out that they are surrounded by thugs and jackasses. That would be satisfying. That would be true. That would be just. But it wouldn't be effective.
Sometimes you just want a swift, effective outcome. When in doubt, find the grown-up in the room, and be civil and understated to him or her.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Follow-Up: U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks Gets Free Speech Right This Time - September 12th, 2014
- The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strained, But It May Have A Litmus Test - September 11th, 2014
- [Rerun from 2011] Ten Things I Want My Kids To Learn From 9/11 - September 11th, 2014
- Yale Might Want To Look Into Some Sort of Basic Civic Literacy Course - September 10th, 2014
- U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks Gets Free Speech Very Wrong - September 6th, 2014