Speech is action

I’m torn between being sad1 and angry1 about the news I’ve been catching up on since yesterday.

In case anyone thought we needed reminding, the death of one George Tiller, a doctor who performed late-term abortions in cases of clear need, will serve as a tragic marker for the connection between speech and action.

Scott Roeder, the lead suspect, was a fringe follower with links deep into self-described “pro-life” groups. Roeder was present for the acquittal when Tiller was accused of violating state abortion laws. (Tiller was harassed with lawsuits by pro-life groups) He followed websites that tracked Dr. Tiller, listed his home address, place of work, church address, businesses he frequented, and more. He, like many of his friends at his pro-life website, even compared Dr. Tiller to Mengele.

Combine this stalking behaviour with speech from all sorts of prominent anti-abortion campaigners comparing doctors performing abortions not only to murderers, but also to famous genocides, and the outcry from some groups that they don’t condone violence rings hollow- not necessarily because they do condone violence, but because their “strong peaceful protest” has likely enabled not just this killing, but also previous attempts (both successful and not) on the lives of doctors around the U.S.A., and even previous attempts on the life of Doctor Tiller.

Now we see the sad justification for the U.S. government watching for terror threats from extreme right-wing groups. If pro-choice groups attempted to capture and/or enslave men, or rape women with the aim to forcibly impregnate them, we’d be entering the same realm as we have now for conservative anti-abortion groups in the U.S.A. Here’s what the founder of the site Roeder followed had to say on this incident:

George Tiller was a mass-murderer. We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God. I am more concerned that the Obama administration will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions. Abortion is still murder. And we still must call abortion by its proper name: murder.

Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers according to the law of God. We must continue to expose them in our communities and peacefully protest them at their offices and homes, and yes, even their churches.

If yelling “fire” in a crowded room is incitement to disturbing the peace, what is yelling “genocide!” to an inflamed mob? I wish he had more to be worried about than just his crocodile tears over not being able to use “effective2 rhetoric” against abortion.

Comments like this go beyond the point where anyone can be expected to agree to disagree, as much as I am a fan of that policy. This is advocating domestic terrorism and political violence, and is never appropriate. In an ideal world these groups that advocate extreme violence would be treated like the terrorists they are wherever on the political spectrum they fell, but the political double-standard for American conservatives is apparently still in full force.

Still, at least I can credit the social conservatives in our own fair country with not being murdering crazies3.

1 Read: “crying” and “cursing”. 😉
2 I.e.: dangerous and irresponsible.
3Except of course the “Sensible Sentencing Trust”, who think it is appropriate to murder taggers. Damn. Guess that bit of patriotism backfired 😛

The Right Of Reply

One meme I’ve noticed permeating its way through the more conservative parts of society recently (especially in regards to defending homophobia and inequal rights for GLBTQI people) is that freedom of speech means that backlash against what you’ve said is wrong and somehow circumvents your right to free speech.

It’s fundamentally trivial to debunk this: If you have freedom to say whatever you want, then anyone who disagrees with you must also have the freedom to talk about why they disagree, and what specifically you have done or said that they object to. Freedom of speech means that nobody is allowed to interfere with your peaceful political expression. From that principle it’s fairly clear that trying to prevent backlash against someone who expressed their opinion would actually be restriction of speech, not freedom of speech.

I’m beginning to think of this as a sort of “right of reply”. Every point of view ought to have a “right of reply” to some degree, however extreme that view is. Accepting and even encouraging this dialogue is a very important part of a modern democracy. Asserting that someone else’s right of reply denies you free speech is ridiculous. Now, you can assert that they’re doing so in a way that’s not transparent, (ie. they’re hiding behind a front to avoid responsibility for their actions and words) or that they’re using money to help them in a way that damages our democratic society. (ie. flood advertising for an election or a referendum) But you’ll notice that neither of these actually restrict the flow of political ideas- they restrict actions which change the nature of the political “game”.

Saying you’re “just exercising your right to free speech” does not remove your responsibility for what you’ve said. Free speech is a barrier the people erect against the government, not an excuse to say whatever you like without consequence. If people have a right to say their bigoted piece, then other people have a right to say why they think it is bigoted. That’s not harassment or a personal attack. It’s right and responsibility- the two consequences of personal liberation.

Sidetrack: EFA paralells in America

I know, I know right? Two sidetracks in a week. I’m getting bad at this. But this one is really important. It highlights why laws like the EFA are necessary.

Despite believing passionately in free speech rights, I’m a staunch supporter of the electoral finance act, which includes limits on the amount spent on advertising by political parties, and more importantly, limits the amount of parallel campaigning, (where say, rogue members of the exclusive brethren will launch attacks on another political party so that National doesn’t have to) whether positive or negative, that any third party groups can do during the election season. Some people see this as a contradiction. I don’t.

The really important part of this law is that it prevents third parties from spending very large amounts of money to attack or back a particular political party outside of the usual spending limits, thus effectively opening up a loophole and making the election less of a competition of beliefs and policies, and more of a matter of buying your way into power with as much advertising as possible.

National, the party that benefited from this sort of parallel campaigning last election, is calling the Electoral Finance Act an assault on free speech. Apparently, National don’t understand what free speech is. Free Speech is most fundamentally the right to air your political views without punishment, threats, or detainment by the government. We also understand it as the right not to be prevented from presenting those views in public. However, the type of speech being limited (not banned) is not political views. It is electioneering. Under the electoral finance act, you are perfectly welcome to say “we at the Business Roundtable think it is important that the government collect as little tax as possible”. You just can’t say “So vote for the National Party”, or even “so don’t vote for the Labour Party”1. Given that those sorts of statements have no explicit political message in them, I think there’s little reason to protect them in the first place.

Interestingly, the Obama campaign has just made a very similar move in the USA. In the US, Presidential candidates are able to sign up for federal funding of their campaigns on the understanding that they will abide by federal spending limits. Not only has Obama’s opponent, John McCain, already broken the law by exceeding those limits for his primary campaign, but he is also very likely to benefit from nominally independent groups that will run attack advertising on Obama using money raised by the Republican Party.

So, Obama knows that he can make a lot more money than the federal funding will allow him to spend, even though he supports that funding system. He knows that playing within the rules just gives McCain the advantage, especially as he’s demonstrated that he’s prepared to break them outright, and not just bend them as the Republicans usually do. So Obama has opted out of the public financing scheme, saying that it needs to be improved so that it’s not vulnerable to exactly the sort of parallel campaigning that laws like the EFA prevent.

Typically, McCain is following a similar line to National’s attacks on this matter- he’s portraying it as a cynical attempt to have more campaign finance available. And while it’s true in both cases- Obama’s pullout and Labour’s support of the EFA- that there is some self-interest involved, the public still gets to benefit from a far more level playing field come the election, which is something we can all agree is worthwhile.

1Edited to add: Well, you can’t say that without being subject to spending limits, registration as an official third party, submitting a known and inhabited residential address for verification, and a bunch of other things that basically just ensure you’re a real person/organisation and that you’re okay with not trying to saturate the country with advertising, but rather just want to show a small amount of support for your favoured Party or candidate. Even electioneering is technically protected like normal free speech, it’s just that you can’t spend too much money on it. You are however welcome to doorknock, attend debates, etc… which has the effect of making a good campaign involve really getting to know the voters a lot more personally than before. That can only be a good thing for the country as a whole.