Some stories have a good guy and a bad guy, a white hat and a black hat.
This is not one of those stories. This is a story in which everybody is pissing me off.
Professor Loomis Gets Upset
The story begins with Erik Loomis, an associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. Professor Loomis also blogs at Lawyers, Guns & Money and has — well, had — a twitter account.
Last Friday, as the unspeakable tragedy in Connecticut unfolded, Professor Loomis got upset. As described at Twitchy, he tweeted or retweeted violent rhetoric about the NRA, and then began to engage angrily with people who criticized his rhetoric:
First fucker to say the solution is for elementary school teachers to carry guns needs to get beaten to death.
I was heartbroken in the first 20 mass murders. Now I want Wayne LaPierre's head on a stick.—
Looks like the National Rifle Association has murdered some more children.
You are goddamn right we should politicize this tragedy. Fuck the NRA. Wayne LaPierre should be in prison.
Wayne LaPierre is a criminal and should be in prison for complicity with murder. 27 counts.—
Can we define NRA membership dues as contributing to a terrorist organization?
Larry Pratt and the group Gun Owners of America are terrorists and should be dealt with as such.
Professor Loomis' rhetoric had moderated somewhat four days later — but not by much.
The right-wing intimidation campaign against me for saying the NRA was a terrorist organization continues. Will not succeed.
Dear rightwingers, to be clear, I don't want to see Wayne LaPierre dead. I want to see him in prison for the rest of his life. #nraterrorism
Professor Loomis' behavior nicely suited a popular narrative — crazy liberal professor is crazy! — and so the story of his tweets spread fast to conservative sites like Campus Reform and American Thinker and Daily Caller and Townhall and The Other McCain.
It is right and fit that people react to expression they don't like — such as Professor Loomis' tweets — with more speech. Vividly expressing disagreement, contempt, and ridicule of his behavior is core First Amendment activity. To the extent that Professor Loomis is complaining about tweets, or blog posts, when he cites a "right-wing intimidation campaign," then he's a weakling and a whiner, someone who can dish out tough rhetoric but can't take it.
Regrettably, that's not all that's at issue.
I'm Not Going To Sugarcoat It
Professor Loomis' vivid tweets are not actionable threats. That is to say, they aren't "true threats" outside the protection of the First Amendment.
I could continue to blog about the application of the true threats doctrine until I'm blue in the face, analyzing Professor Loomis' tweets and comparing them to precedent. But I'm not going to waste the time. I can't imagine anyone who starts out thinking those are real, actionable threats being persuaded by any amount of analysis. This is not a close call. This is not close to the line. The tweets are obvious hyperbole and no minimally rational person could interpret them as anything else. To indulge in a level of bluntness equivalent to Professor Loomis: if you think those tweets are criminal threats outside the scope of the First Amendment, then (1) you're ignorant, probably willfully so, of fundamental American civil rights, or (b) you're not too bright, or (c) you're blinded by partisanship, or (d) more than one of those. Is that condescending? Is it arrogant? Tough shit. Deal with it.
More Speech vs. Censorious Retaliation
Even though Professor Loomis' tweets are not true threats, they deserve a forceful, vivid more-speech response in the form of tweets and blog posts criticizing and ridiculing him.
Regrettably, some people think "more speech" means "try to get him fired and arrested."
In a defensive and self-pitying post, he indicates he met with the police; the context suggests that someone called the police on him based on his tweets. A statement from the University confirms that people reported him to his employer — his state employer, which is bound by the First Amendment. The blogs are full of comments like these:
I just called the above number and reached a very nice lady in the President's office. They are obviously aware of Mr. Loomis' comments on various sites and Twitter and are keeping track of complaints. I urge everyone to call that number, but please DO NOT be abusive. I sense the lady answering the phone is offended as much as the rest of us by Mr. Loomis' comments. I, personally, suggested that this should be Mr. Loomis' last term at the university, since it also appears that he does not yet have tenure.
The president of URI posted this: www.uri.edu/news/memo/president/statement12182012.html
How about manning up and firing this coward?
And so on.
The university's response is weak:
The University of Rhode Island does not condone acts or threats of violence. These remarks do not reflect the views of the institution and Erik Loomis does not speak on behalf of the University. The University is committed to fostering a safe, inclusive and equitable culture that aspires to promote positive change.
Let me rewrite that so it sounds like they have a spine and a grasp of the mission of higher education:
Professor Loomis' remarks on a private Twitter account do not reflect the views of the University of Rhode Island or any particular member of its faculty or staff other than Professor Loomis. Many people — myself among them — are offended or disgusted by Professor Loomis' choice of rhetoric and hyperbole. However, vibrant debate of important public issues often involves pungent expression. Professor Loomis' expression is protected by the First Amendment and the University will let the marketplace of ideas address it.
To be fair to the bloggers, the ones I have seen are not explicitly calling for Professor Loomis to be fired or reported to the police. But they sure aren't responding to the "fire him" comments in the way I would hope they would. And they seem to be celebrating the fact that their readers are calling the police and trying to get Loomis fired. Consider Twitchy's triumphal posting of this Joshua Trevino tweet:
Looks like @ErikLoomis deleted his Twitter account. Huge @TwitchyTeam win.
People criticizing Loomis are not responsible for him deciding to delete his Twitter account; that's on him. But it's not clear to me how it's a "win" for Twitchy for Loomis to delete his account, unless — as Loomis would probably argue — the goal is not just to expose and criticize dipshittery like his, but to shut people up.
Some of these conservative blogs, on other occasions, have stood up for conservatives when people try to get them fired based on their protected speech — people like Patterico and Aaron Walker. They seem to have forgotten that value here.
I support, without qualification, people writing about Professor Loomis. I find his expression contemptible. But I also find the efforts to get him fired or arrested contemptible, and I find it highly regrettable that some blogs are, at the most charitable interpretation, acting as smirking spectators to that effort. The effort is not without cost, even if neither the police nor the University take action. Trying to get a professor fired for clearly protected speech promotes and contributes to the culture of censorship in higher education that FIRE fights and that Greg Lukianoff exposed persuasively in his recent book "Unlearning Liberty." Trying to get Loomis fired contributes to a culture in which people are disciplined for reading a book about the defeat of the Klan because coworkers find it "harassing" or threatened with disciplinary proceedings for putting up a Firefly poster or prohibited from using signs at protest because OMG 9/11. Calling the cops based on clearly protected hyperbole promotes and encourages a law enforcement culture that does things like launching "cyberbullying" investigations based on satirical criticism, nudging us further towards the theoretical British zero-point at which old men get questioned by the police for putting rather mild expressions of atheism in their windows.
I'm disappointed, and more than a little disgusted, that partisanship is more important than principle.
Professor Loomis Is No Hero
I started this post by saying that there are no good guys in this story, and I meant it. Erik Loomis is no hero. He's no free speech martyr.
It's not just because he likes hyperbole about killing people who disagree with him — though that is hardly a way to encourage the marketplace of ideas. No, what I find the most repulsive about Erik Loomis is that he equates petitioning the government for the redress of grievances with murder and terrorism — a point on which he continued to double down even after he had time to cool off and retreat from his violent hyperbole. He echoed that even in his self-justifying post about his experience:
Do I want to see Wayne LaPierre punished in the way many of us wanted to see Tony Hayward punished during the BP oil spill or the way many of us wanted to see Dick Cheney punished during the Iraq War. Of course. That would mean real accountability for causing immeasurable harm to families, nations, and/or nature. Do I think the National Rifle Association is culpable for the murders of thousands of people in the United States and Mexico because of the policies they support? Yes. Do I think it is reasonable to call the National Rifle Association a terrorist organization? Although obviously using more than a little hyperbole, yes. It is defensible precisely because the polices they support facilitate the terror unleashed in Newtown, at the Clackamas Town Center, at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, at the theater in Aurora, at Columbine.
But here's the thing: in America, under the First Amendment, we hold people "culpable" for their effective policy advocacy by becoming a more effective advocate and convincing our leaders to move in another direction, or by convincing our fellow citizens to vote them out. Professor Loomis — perhaps because he is too banal, excitable, ineffectual, and self-indulgent to be an effective advocate — dreams not of rebutting arguments, but of rendering it unacceptable to make the argument in the first place. It's a familiar position — heard in talk of "fifth columns" and "objectively pro-Saddam" after 9/11, and heard in decades of "pro-criminal" smears applied to anyone who advocates for the rights of the accused. But Professor Loomis' it's-terrorism-to-advocate-that-right rhetoric reminds me most powerfully today of the government of Uganda, which would like not only to criminalize gay sex, but to make it a crime to advocate against the law itself.
Professor Loomis' position is fundamentally anti-speech and anti-petition. There's nothing to admire or respect about it. (I doubt there's even anything tactical to admire about it — I don't see advocacy premised on "it's illegitimate for you even to take your position" to be particularly persuasive to the American people.)
Bah. A pox on all your houses.
Edited to add: Here's a statement from the folks at Crooked Timber. I think they minimize what Loomis said and ignore his rhetoric that is, as I argue, fundamentally anti-free-speech. But I think they are completely correct in their call for protection of his First Amendment rights by both the university and society as a whole.