Jessica Valenti of The Guardian thinks that, just as we jailed people who protested and criticized the draft during World War I, we should be able to jail people who release unflattering videos about Planned Parenthood. Both, she believes, are justifiable.
Well, she doesn't say that explicitly. But that's the necessary implication of column today in The Guardian, in which she says that releasing undercover videos about Planned Parenthood should not be protected as free speech.
Freedom of speech is one of America’s most cherished rights, but we’ve always had limits on what’s acceptable: in 1919, the US supreme court ruled that the right doesn’t apply to speech that incites action that would harm other people.
At the time, the example presented by the court was that falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater doesn’t count as protected speech.
Like many people who favor censorship but have a cookie-sheet-shallow grasp of its history, Valenti is misquoting Oliver Wendell Holmes dropping a rhetorical aside in Schenck v. United States. Holmes invoked that image to justify the prosecution and imprisonment of a man who criticized and questioned the draft during World War I. Of course, in the century since, American courts have abandoned Holmes' sloppy and unprincipled stand, narrowing the "incitement" exception to intended to and likely to cause imminent lawless action. But Valenti speaks approvingly of the original ruling because, in her mind, it justifies censoring speech she doesn't like.
Just as she misleads her readers about history, Valenti misrepresents the present. She suggests that a federal judge in the Northern District of California prohibited the distribution of the Planned Parenthood videos because they posed a risk of danger to clinics. "Now, in the wake of the release of secretly taped and deceptively edited videos of abortion providers, a judge has issued a temporary restraining order because of the very real threat of violence that the videos pose." Valenti either doesn't understand the legal issues or is lying about them. In the Northern District case, the National Abortion Federation learned from the mistakes of Stem Express and explicitly couched their lawsuit and injunction request against the defendants in terms of breach of confidentiality agreements and fraud, not wrongful content. As Eugene Volokh explained, such content-neutral grounds may support prior restraint on speech, because they aren't about the content of your speech, they're about enforcing your promise not to reveal the information you're revealing.
To secure an injunction, a plaintiff must show — among other things — that they are likely to prevail on the merits of the suit and that the "balance of hardships" weighs in their favor. The NAF did not invoke the threat of violence as evidence that they would prevail. Instead, they argued that they would prevail because the defendants fraudulently obtained access to NAF events and violated confidentiality agreements. Only then did they argue that the balance of hardships was in their favor because of the atmosphere of threats and violence against abortion providers. The judge's temporary restraining order did not say that NAF was entitled to prior restraint because the risk of violence allows prior restraint. Rather, the court said that NAF had shown it would prevail on its substantive claims of fraud and breach of confidentiality agreements, and that the threats of violence went to the balance of hardships. Valenti is misleading her readers.
Valenti asserts that the Planned Parenthood undercover videos have caused violence against Planned Parenthood clinics. The only evidence she cites are the statements of the crazed and evil Colorado shooter. Valenti asserts that the videos are "secret" and "deceptively edited," but she does not explain how we know that the "deceptive" parts are what (allegedly) incited threats and violence, as opposed to the parts of the videos that are admittedly true.
Valenti's goal is clear: a broad, unprincipled rule that would punish rhetoric she doesn't like:
The frenzied language surrounding the video’s release – including out-and-out lies on national television by Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina – has stoked harassment and violence. And though preventing the release of more footage may not stop lies and violent speech, it could help curb it and would send the message that anti-choice activists will not be allowed to spread lies without consequence.
Some social controversies do lead to death threats and violence. Both are utterly unacceptable; I wish that more political death threats were investigated and punished. But note that Valenti's eager advocacy for censorship is not tethered to illegally recorded videos or misleading videos or even videos with explicit lies: it's an explicit call to censor political speech that makes people mad, whether or not it's intended or likely to cause imminent violence. It's an vague call for someone in the government — perhaps people who agree with Valenti? — to decide what bits of political rhetoric and hyperbole are "lies" and suppress political speech accordingly.
Everyone who reads Jessica Valenti's column and believes it is now stupider about First Amendment law. Remember: free speech has enemies. Fight them.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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