Monday, June 3, 2013

Now Two Questions For The Free Speech Absolutists

This piece grew out of a long argument at Echidne of the Snakes* blog, where I used to write and, if I remember the chronology correctly, a long blog brawl I had at Orac's ridiculously named "Respectful Insolence" over his objection to laws such as those in Germany which ban the promotion of Nazism.

The questions I asked were serious ones, not meant as an exercise in abstract thinking.  Real people get killed as a result of speech, sometimes speech is explicitly used to kill people, not to mention that which is intended to hurt people, enslave them, etc.  At Orac's I pointed out how free speech broadcast without restriction in Rwanda resulted in what might be the most horrifically effective and rapid, low tech, spontaneous attempts at genocide in living memory.  Yet the laws the Rwandan government put into place to try to prevent another such horror were part of  his and his regular readers' criticism.  I did get to the point of asking him if published instructions of how to murder him, giving details of his real name, address, etc. were not also covered by his bravely asserted free speech absolutism, only he didn't answer that question.

The pieces I've posted on the issues of speech and media have gotten some of the most violent objection during my seven years of public writing.  There  is a close to absolute taboo against questioning those in the period during which the slogan of "free speech" and "freedom of the press" have become phrases, especially on the left,  what "the second amendment" has become in another faction of people.  Only when it comes to the violent reaction against someone breaking the taboo in regard to free speech, the objections that someone  has expressed the unallowable, contains its own, internal, contradiction.

I think these questions are extremely serious ones about real danger  that comes from malignant speech, as seen in the example given, that are not raised and discussed due to that taboo alone makes it worth considering.

In these discussions of proposals to suppress violent pornography, the rote assertions of the free speech industry are almost always recited. “No rights are lost through speech (from last week),” “There is no causal link between pornography and violence,” etc.

My question is, can any book or video or anything which has been shown, beyond a reasonable doubt, to have motivated the violence it intended, be banned? Or am I right, your position is that no number of deaths or violent attacks is ever enough to allow banning?

How about the example I cited yesterday, “Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors", explicitly, a how-to book for committing murder? Which has, based on its price, become a collector's item. I'd imagine you can keep it next to your Jeffrey Dahmer memorabilia.

Some of you will remember that the  instructions given in the book book were used in the murders of Mildred Horn, her disabled son Trevor Horn and Janice Roberts Saunders, his night nurse who was murdered beside the bed of the 8-year-old boy in her care, all killed for his trust fund. The killer was hired by Mildred Horn’s ex- husband, Lawrence Horn who stood to inherit the trust fund. The hired killer was James Edward Perry.

Perry, who purchased a how-to manual titled "Hit Man" and followed it almost to the letter in Mildred Horn's Silver Spring home on the night of March 3, 1993, was sentenced to death three times by a Montgomery County jury in October.

.... The method and caliber were recommended in "Hit Man," whose publisher is being sued in U.S. District Court by members of Mildred Horn's family who claim the book aided the murders. A hearing in U.S. District Court on whether the First Amendment's free speech guarantee applies to the book is scheduled for July 22.

Looking around the internet, I haven’t found any sympathy for James Perry, sentenced to death (He died of natural causes in prison) or his employer, who was sentenced to three life terms. I have found considerable lamentation about the fate of the book and its publisher, who destroyed all of its copies and settled a lawsuit out of court.

If you go wading through the “free speech” nonsense on this incident, notice how bizarre the arguments get. Some of the hair splitting denies that Perry used the how-to book of murder, which he bought and consulted, because he didn't follow it exactly to the letter. Apparently the sloppiness of his “hit job” exculpates the book, its author and its publisher. Who knows, if he’d followed it to the letter, he and the man who hired the “independent contractor” might have gotten away with it entirely. Perhaps other more satisfied customers and their clients have gotten away with it. Which is the intention of the book.

Here is what the description of the book, I assume from the publisher, says about it:

Rex Feral kills for hire. Daring. Unafraid. Professional. Now he dares to tell his professional secrets.

Feral is a hit man. Some consider him a criminal. Others think him a hero. In truth, he is a lethal weapon aimed at the enemy of the one who pays him. He is the last recourse in these times when laws are so twisted that justice goes unserved. He is a man who controls his destiny through his private code of ethics, who feels no twinge of guilt at doing his job. He is a professional killer.

Learn how a pro makes a living at this craft without landing behind bars. Find out how he gets hit assignments, creates a false working identity, makes a disposable silencer, leaves the scene without a trace of evidence, watches his mark unobserved, and more. An expert assassin and bodyguard, Feral reveals the details of how to get in, do the job, and get out - without getting caught. For informational purposes only! 

"For informational purposes only!" [wink, wink] Makes their innocuous intentions completely obvious, no?

Change a few words, it could describe the champions of the book.

Here we have it, a book, explicitly a how-to murder book, used in at least one case in court and the free speech industry doesn't think that book has proven it deserves to die. Oh, and there are the tears shed by the free speech industry for Paladin Press, the publisher that sold the book that ultimately killed at least three people, we know of.

As we can see, for the stalwart free speech absolutist, the book has more rights than the victims of the crime, their families and loved ones. The publisher of the book are presented, by some of them, as martyrs of free speech and free press. Though I haven’t found mention of any of them being killed for it.  There are at least three known victims of the book, its author, its publishers and distributors, its reader and the man who hired him to practice what he learned from it.  Who knows how many of those who bought it practiced its instructions to "do the job, and get out - without getting caught",  who informed themselves with it more successfully than Perry did.  I don't think anyone pretending that the those who supplied the book and issued its publicity didn't really mean it to be used as advertised -as it was proven to have been used, beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law - deserves to be taken seriously.  But it is exactly that level of obvious, ludicrous lying that is required by turning free speech into an absolute position.  It is denial of reality closely related to the denial of another aspect of that same reality, resulting in dead people, that the gun industry promotes in its financial interest.

* Echidne put up with a lot to have me as a co-writer at her blog over a number of years.  She writes quite wonderfully about economics and feminism.

Update:  The idea that the book was meant as an exercise in violent fantasy for those who love to think about that is not supported by the evidence from the author and publishers.  They didn't publish a fantasy, they call their book "a technical manual" "for informational purposes only".   Anyone who claims that their book was not written to inform those in techniques is, to put it plainly and on the basis of the stated intentions of those supplying the book, lying so they won't have to face what is protected under their absolutist positions.


  1. You can boil this down to something much simpler.

    Try threatening the life of the President. It ain't a First Amendment right.

    Or advocating the overthrow of the government. Again, not a First Amendment right.

    We draw these lines all the time, usually with respect to advocating violence, or something that will lead to injury; such as shouting "FIRE!" in a crowded theater.

    Holmes was actually using that as a metaphor, to uphold the suppression of speech likely to lead to civil unrest (he didn't have the vocabulary of "national security" handy; that would have to wait until Truman came along).

    Where we draw the limits is an interesting question; but the limits have to be drawn. Lawyers know this, and struggle with it. Non-lawyers think the First Amendment gives anyone recognized by some appropriate set of persons as a "journalist" (so, Tom Brokaw, yes; Matt Drudge...maybe?) carte blanche to deal in all manner of secrets and breaking of laws, without consequence.

    I don't mind the press publishing classified material; but I don't like the idea they have a privilege to do so. Civil disobedience is noble; claiming a special protection under the Constitution, is ignoble. And stupid.

  2. I still would like to know what the difference asserted in the recent case that became a cause celebre in the leftertian blogosphere and the Judith Miller case, in which she went to jail for her protection of a felon who had leaked classified material to her. In the case of the media in the recent case, it seemed to me to be mostly a whine that if they used less traceable means of getting leaked information that it would be haaarrrrrd!

    The idea that "speech" and "press" are absolute rights no matter what the consequences of that are in terms of negating some or all of other peoples' rights seems to me to be as absurd as the gun industry "second amendment" advocacy. That the same people would howl like hell if they thought someone was cribbing their words, at nothing except the most theoretical loss to themselves is rank hypocrisy.