Category Archives: Free Speech

A Bad Remedy For Bad Climate Speech, Again

A few months ago I complained that New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and other state Attorneys General appeared to be starting a campaign to intimidate climate skeptics and/or deniers under the guise of investigating ExxonMobil.

Now comes news of a counterattack: Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) has issued congressional subpoenas for Schneiderman and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, along with nine climate activist groups, requesting all relevant communications between the groups and the attorneys general in order to investigate a possible conspiracy “to act under color of law to persuade attorneys general to use their prosecutorial powers to stifle scientific discourse, to intimidate private entities and individuals, and deprive them of their First Amendment rights and freedoms.”

I have two responses to this development:



(2) This is really very wrong.

I have no actual sympathy for AGs Schneiderman and Healey. They are government employees, public servants subject to oversight and review. They started this, and for their attempts to stifle free speech they deserve to be gang-subpoenaed by congress, repeatedly.

The climate activist groups, on the other hand, are citizens exercising their free speech rights to discuss matters of public importance and — to the extent that they communicated with various attorneys general — petition the government. They don’t have to explain themselves to anyone.

As I said before, this is not how science is supposed to work. That’s not how debate over public policy is supposed to work.

A Bad Remedy For Bad Climate Speech

When I’m reading a news story, there are two words which almost guarantee I’ll be cringing by the end: Attorneys general. The position of attorney general is usually seen as a stepping stone to higher office, so it’s often occupied by some subspecies of spotlight-seeking control freak. Just one of them would be bad enough, but when a bunch of attorneys general from different states take the time to work together toward a common goal, you just know it’s going to be something awful, something like passive aggressively pressuring Google to censor search results, vilifying MySpace because the AGs didn’t follow proper procedures, or accusing Craigslist of human trafficking. I mean, Christ, thirty-five of them got together to complain that Four Loko booze comes in cans that are too big.

This time a pack of twenty AGs are attacking the free speech of climate change skeptics:

Not only do Schneiderman and his new claque climate crusaders aim to force ExxonMobil to repent (while possibly extracting some cash along the way), they also evidently intend to shut up non-profit groups to which the oil company donated funds that have questioned the notion of impending man-made climate catastrophe.

In service of this goal, the Attorney General of the U.S. Virgin Islands Claude Walker has issued a subpoena to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute. According to CEI, the subpoena demands that the non-profit produce “a decade’s worth of communications, emails, statements, drafts, and other documents regarding CEI’s work on climate change and energy policy, including private donor information. It demands that CEI produce these materials from 20 years ago, from 1997-2007, by April 30, 2016.”

Admittedly, this is not a direct attack. The main thrust of the investigation is aimed not at CEI but ExxonMobil. The attorneys general are investigating whether ExxonMobil lied to investors about the effects of climate change on shareholder value.

For example, changing patterns of Arctic ice thawing could disrupt the company’s oceanic drilling and shipping operations, and thawing permafrost could cause upheavals that might damage buildings or pipelines, as could increasingly violent weather patterns. By playing down climate change, critics (and attorneys general) might argue, ExxonMobil is playing down the costs they will incur. Of course that applies to any business that could be affected by climate change, not just the oil companies that are the favorite targets of environmentalists.

A more specific concern is the oil in the ground. Oil companies make their money by pumping that oil out of the ground and selling it to people, and a large part of their current stock value comes from the expectation that they will be able to continue doing that for many decades into the future. The problem is that burning those enormous oil reserves will do immense damage to our planet’s climate. So it’s quite likely that world governments will at some point force the oil companies to leave most of their reserves in the ground — at least if the world is going to limit warming to the commonly cited 2°C target. In other words, because of climate change, oil companies will not be able to make nearly as much money as everybody thought they would. Therefore, by playing down climate change, companies like ExxonMobil are effectively lying about the value of their stock.

It’s an interesting economic point, and the same reasoning applies to coal and gas companies as well, but so far we haven’t seen the expected massive decline in the stock prices of companies with large fossil fuel reserves. The capital markets don’t seem to believe that we’ll be leaving all that oil, gas, and coal in the ground. That may be a realistic analysis: Current predictions are for an increase in fossil fuel consumption over the next couple of decades, likely blowing through the 2°C warming target.

There are a lot of unknowns here, and unknowns are risks, and risks are supposed to be disclosed to investors. Have the oil companies been doing it right? I haven’t got a clue, but that’s what the attorneys general are claiming to be investigating.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure the Competitive Enterprise Institute has nothing to do with any of this. They have no obligations to investors in the fossil fuel industry. So how did they get sucked into the investigation?

It sounds like the attorneys general are pursuing some sort of conspiracy angle in which ExxonMobil was paying CEI to mislead the public as a means of influencing investors. I suppose that theory gives them plausible legal cover for harassing CEI. However, given that U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker worked for eight years as an attorney for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and that former Vice President Al Gore was included in a recent press conference about the investigation, it seems likely that this move is less about financial fraud and more about finding a way to strike back at ideological enemies in the climate argument.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman started his investigation of ExxonMobil last year, but the subpoena to CEI didn’t come until after CEI attorney Hans Bader published an article critical of the investigation, which sounds a lot like retaliation. I can’t help thinking that some of the attorneys general are enjoying the chance to slam an enemy of environmentalists with the high cost of fighting or complying with the legal process. And if they could find a way to implicate CEI members in the conspiracy, all the better, right?

University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds argues that this is illegal:

Federal law  makes it a felony “for two or more persons to agree together to injure, threaten, or intimidate a person in any state, territory or district in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him/her by the Constitution or the laws of the Unites States, (or because of his/her having exercised the same).”

I wonder if U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker, or California Attorney General Kamala Harris, or New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have read this federal statute. Because what they’re doing looks like a concerted scheme to restrict the First Amendment free speech rights of people they don’t agree with.

I don’t know if Reynolds is right, but this kind of legal action seems to be part of a disturbing trend in which environmentalists have been trying to use the legal system to suppress the free speech of climate change skeptics.

I suppose it started with climate scientist Michael Mann’s lawsuit against several critics, including columnist Mark Steyn at the National Review and Rand Simberg at CEI. That’s just one guy (and he kind of had a point, even if the lawsuit is apparently stalled), but more recently 20 climate scientists signed a letter to President Obama calling for far more dangerous action:

We appreciate that you are making aggressive and imaginative use of the limited tools available to you in the face of a recalcitrant Congress. One additional tool – recently proposed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse – is a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigation of corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, as a means to forestall America’s response to climate change.

The RICO statutes are one of the biggest loose cannons in federal law. Originally intended to help fight organized crime, RICO laws have been used to enhance penalties for things like securities fraud and teachers altering test scores or to fight marijuana legalization. Apparently, there’s been some talk in the Department of Justice about using RICO against climate skeptics, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see DOJ joining the attorneys general in their crusade against bad science.

Even Bill Nye “the science guy” is kind of okay with jailing people over climate science:

Asked about the heated rhetoric surrounding the climate change debate, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s previous comments that some climate skeptics should be prosecuted as war criminals, Mr. Nye replied, “We’ll see what happens.”

“In these cases, for me, as a taxpayer and voter, the introduction of this extreme doubt about climate change is affecting my quality of life as a public citizen,” Mr. Nye said. “So I can see where people are very concerned about this, and they’re pursuing criminal investigations as well as engaging in discussions like this.”

You know who else’s quality of life is going to be affected? Everyone involved in the fossil fuel industry, if we switch to greener energy. You don’t think they’d like to shut down climate scientists’ claims of anthropogenic global warming? If RICO actions about climate science had been available a few decades ago, oil and coal companies would have used them to suppress research into global warming by labeling it a conspiracy to destroy the energy industry and hurt the U.S. economy.

About the potential for a “chilling effect,” Mr. Nye said, “That there is a chilling effect on scientists who are in extreme doubt about climate change, I think that is good.”

But it’s not just going to be people with “extreme doubt” (whatever that means) who experience chilling effects. It’s going to be every scientist with a theory that suggests global warming isn’t as bad as we think it is — every researcher who theorizes there’s a bias in the satellite record or a natural carbon sink that’s more effective than expected. When trying to decide whether to pursue the research, they’ll have to ask themselves if it’s worth the risk of severe legal problems, and they’ll have to line up advisors, assistants, partners, and funding agencies that are also willing to face the risk. Or they could play it safe and pick a different research topic.

That’s not how science is supposed to work. That’s not how debate over public policy is supposed to work in a democracy. Environmentalists had no trouble understanding this concept back when Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was engaged in a bogus investigation of Michael Mann and the University of Virginia for supposedly manipulating data to prove global warming.

It’s not a question of who is right and who is wrong. It’s not even about who is lying and who is telling the truth. It’s about how we as a society are going to make decisions together. It’s far better that we talk things out and let everyone be heard than that we enlist attorneys general to imprison or impoverish those with whom we disagree. The best remedy for bad speech is good speech. Not a RICO prosecution.

Even Trump Has Freedom of Speech

I was disappointed that the Trump rally on Friday here in Chicago was cancelled. It’s not that I was planning to go, but it was disappointing the way it happened. And I’m disappointed that folks on the left are applauding it or taking credit for it.

To be sure, Trump brought it on himself. The aphorisms are plentiful: You reap what you sow. Live by the sword, die by the sword. What goes around, comes around. Trump applauded and even encouraged violence at his rallies. He set the rules of the contest, and now he’s complaining that his opponents are playing by them.

It’s actually kind of a law of nature: Trump’s embrace of violence unsurprisingly drives away the peaceful protesters, which leaves behind the kinds of protesters who aren’t afraid to mix it up, and probably even attracts protesters who look forward to busting some Trumpkin heads. So it’s not surprising that things eventually blew up. Trump and his supporters got the response that they created. Thugs begat thugs.


Even Donald Trump has the right to free speech. I’m not talking about the legal First Amendment right, which doesn’t really apply to private action. I’m talking about the basic moral premise that underlies the First Amendment: Within some very broad limits, people have a right to say what they want. Whatever they want. Even if other people don’t like it. Even if they themselves have no respect for freedom of speech.

And perhaps even more important than Donald Trump’s right to speak is the right of other people to hear what he has to say. People who come to his rallies ought to be allowed to hear him speak, and the rest of us should respect that right. That doesn’t mean opponents can’t protest his speech. There’s a difference between speaking out against Trump and blocking Trump from speaking. When Donald Trump is speaking to cheering supporters and crowds of protesters are shouting in the streets and the police are keeping the peace rather than taking sides, that’s American free speech at, well…perhaps not at its finest, but certainly at its most exuberant.

On the other hand, if anyone violently attacked Trump supporters, I fully support arresting them for it. (And vice versa, of course.) Similarly, if protesters disrupt Trump’s speech, I have no problem with them being escorted from the premises. They have a right to speak, but they don’t have the right to prevent Trump from speaking in a forum assembled for that purpose, nor do they have the right to prevent others from hearing what he’s saying.

Granted, I’m not entirely convinced that anyone other than Donald Trump was responsible for shutting down the Donald Trump rally. At the time he called it off, there hadn’t been any injuries or arrests in Chicago. I think it’s possible he saw a chance to skip a rally and blame it on the opposition, and so he took it, and now he’s using it to play the victim card. But as Donald Trump might have said, I like Presidential candidates who don’t cancel their rallies. Who’s the pussy now, Donald?


When the cancellation of the rally was announced, the only proper response from any protest organizers who really respect free speech should have been either (1) an apology for letting things get out of hand, (2) criticism of the rally organizers for not providing enough security for Trump to feel safe, or (3) calling Trump out for cancelling his own rally and blaming it on the free speech of others. Depending on what you believe caused the rally to be cancelled, any one of these might be appropriate.

Some of the protesting organizations, however, are taking credit for stopping Trump from speaking. That’s nothing to be proud of. Even if he quit for reasons of his own, claiming credit shows they have little respect for free speech. And if they actually did shut him down from fear of violence, that’s even worse.

In our open society, the remedy for bad speech is supposed to be good speech, not violence. Trump doesn’t understand that. “Freedom of speech” is just a buzz phrase he uses when he senses it might help him. The rest of us should try to be better than that.

Censorious Thugs Detected In the Holodeck!

Rapper Chief Keef was originally scheduled to perform at the Red Moon Theater in Chicago at a benefit for the family of Dillan Harris, a 13-month-old baby killed in a car accident. However, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office put pressure on the venue to cancel the concert,

The city called Red Moon and requested they not host the concert, calling Chief Keef “an unacceptable role model” who “promotes violence.”

Apparently Mayor Emanuel is acting as the arbiter of acceptable musical performances in Chicago. So if you’re planning to have gangsta rappers or outlaw country singers at your event, be sure to run them past the Mayor’s office first to make sure they are morally pure. Also, I assume performances of Threepenny Opera are now forbidden, because Mack the Knife is a bad role model for the children.

Chief Keef’s performance was rescheduled to be at the Craze Fest concert festival in nearby Hammond, Indiana, but Hammond Mayor Thomas M. McDermott Jr. reached out to shut that down as well:

“I know nothing about Chief Keef,” Mayor McDermott, 46, said. “All I’d heard was he has a lot of songs about gangs and shooting people — a history that’s anti-cop, pro-gang and pro-drug use. He’s been basically outlawed in Chicago, and we’re not going to let you circumvent Mayor Emanuel by going next door.”

First of all, circumventing Illinois by going next door is kind of northwestern Indiana’s value proposition: Drive toward Indiana on I-80 and you’ll see a dozen billboards for fireworks stores and strip clubs.

In any case, the argument for kicking Chief Keef out of Craze Fest comes with a bit more of a rationalization:

All of the Craze Fest acts — which included Riff Raff, Lil Bibby and Tink — had been previously vetted because the event was held at a public park…

That sounds at least superficially reasonable, except that when public space is involved, I’m pretty sure the authorities aren’t supposed to discriminate against the views expressed. Just because newspaper vending machines are placed on public sidewalks doesn’t mean government authorities can control what stories are printed. They shouldn’t be allowed to control the content of musical performances either.

There’s one more thing, and if you haven’t spoiled it by reading the links, it will blow your mind: Chief Keef apparently has outstanding warrants in Illinois (for a missed DUI hearing and child support), so he was never planning to come here anyway. Instead, he was going to appear by hologram, which is apparently a thing we can do here in the future.

So what this boils down to is that, except for a difference in display technology, the mayors of Chicago and Hammond now think it is their business to tell event producers what they can have on television. Logically, it’s no different than them putting pressure on movie theaters to not show Roman Polanski movies. Even if they have a valid point — that watching Polanski movies or Chief Keef concerts is repugnant — they have no business using the power of public office to force their cultural tastes on others or to prevent others from exercising their own cultural tastes.

I don’t know anything about Chief Keef, but Mayor Emanuel is right that there are bad role models involved: He and Mayor McDermott are censorious thugs.

Update: First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh weighs in:

Unless I’m missing something here, then, this is a pretty clear First Amendment violation on the part of the City of Hammond. And it seems to me that, in America, performances by controversial singers can’t be “basically outlawed,” even “in Chicago.”

To Publish or Not To Publish

Rick Horowitz has an interesting post about his decision not to display any Charlie Hebdo cartoons in his post about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Er, in other words, his post about the Charlie Hebdo massacre consisted of an explanation of why he wasn’t posting Charlie Hebdo cartoons in his post about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. (Did you follow that? It was all very self-referential. Anyway…) I thought about that myself when I wrote my own post about the Charlie Hebdo attack, and I decided to include just a single image.

I had thought about a similar issue a few years ago, when writing about threats against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten which had published cartoon images of the prophet Mohammed. In that case, I didn’t see a reason to include any of the images under discussion. As my regular readers are no doubt painfully aware, Windypundit is mostly just a lot of words. I don’t normally include images unless I have to. So the way I saw it, there were only two reasons for including the images in a post: (1) News value, and (2) saying “Fuck you” to assholes.

I have no objections to saying “Fuck you” to assholes, but posting offensive images risks saying “Fuck you” to the wrong people. If a racist politician used the N-word in a speech, and some kind of black militant group assassinated him for it, I see no problem with telling them to go fuck themselves, but I wouldn’t use the N-word to do it. I may want to say “Fuck you for being a terrorist,” but the N-word says “Fuck you for being black.” It’s the wrong message in so many ways.

The same is true for the offensive images of Mohammed. Instead of saying “Fuck you for being a terrorist,” I might inadvertently be saying “Fuck you for being a Muslim,” which is not at all the message I want to send. So when writing about the Jyllands-Posten images, I decided not to use the images to say “Fuck you”.

The Charlie Hebdo images were slightly more complicated because I didn’t even know how to tell if they’re offensive. Translating from the French is the least of the problems. Things like racist epithets and stereotypes are culturally defined in a complicated way, and I wouldn’t have a clue what constitutes anti-Arabic or anti-Muslim material in French culture. The cartoons are not drawn realistically, but I can’t tell which oddities are considered racists stereotypes and which are just the Charlie Hebdo style. Some people say the cartoons are racist and others say they’re just over-the-top satire, and I don’t know who to believe. It’s a messy situation.

It is for this reason that I reluctantly did not sign on to Marc Randazza’s “We are Charlie Hebdo” post. I understand what he’s doing — Randazza is a Kung-Fu master of “Fuck you” — but I felt that by signing onto the post I would in effect be signing onto the messages in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and I don’t even know what those messages are.

I realize not everyone who publishes the images (or signs on to Randazza’s post) feels they are endorsing the content of the cartoons, but that’s how it felt to me.

The other reason for including the offensive images would be if they have legitimate news value. When writing about the Jyllands-Posten images, I thought the actual images were marginally relevant, but there’s no point in embedding a dozen images in a post when I would normally just link to them. Embedding the images would be gratuitous, and therefore just a “Fuck you,” about which please see the previous few paragraphs.

Pretty much the same line of thinking applied to the Charlie Hebdo images, except that the slant of my post was that the people making the images were pretty bold in the face of censorship and violent opposition. In particular, I thought it took big brass balls to publish this image right after their offices were firebombed:

Love Is Stronger Than Hate

That’s got to be a giant “Fuck you” to the (presumably) homophobic religious nutcases that would firebomb a magazine because they didn’t like the cartoons, and I felt you really have to see the image to understand the magnitude of the message. That’s why I included it in the post. (And of course you need to see the image in this post to understand why I felt that way.)

I have to admit that posting that image also allowed me to issue my own small “Fuck you” to the terrorists in a way that I hope wouldn’t unintentionally offend anyone who doesn’t have it coming. Also, I hope it will be enough to get me past the inevitable gormless trolls who insist that anyone who doesn’t publish the images is a coward.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

I am not Charlie.

Honestly, until this shit happened, I didn’t know a damned thing about Charlie Hebdo. I don’t have a clue what Charlie Hebdo stood for, so I’m not about to identify myself with them or support their editorial agenda, whatever it is.

Besides, in my mind, “I am Charlie” links to the scene in the 1960 film Spartacus where rebellious former Roman slaves refuse to identify their leader Spartacus by all claiming “I am Spartacus!” thus consigning themselves to be crucified alongside him. That’s real dedication to a cause. And as Matt Welch points out, Charlie Hebdo was run by badasses. Their own government went after them for offensive speech and they fought back and won. Muslim extremists firebombed their offices, and six days later they responded with this:

Love Is Stronger Than Hate

(“Love is stronger than hate.”)

By comparison, I’m publishing this blog from the middle of the United States of America which is still — despite all the problems detailed here on a regular basis — a bastion of free speech. The worst that’s ever happened to me for something I wrote is that people left nasty messages in the comments or said mean things about me on their blog. The worst that’s ever likely to happen to me is that I have to find another job because my employer doesn’t like something I wrote. If someone shoots me, it’s more likely to be my wife than terrorists.

Look, whatever Charlie Hebdo stands for — I don’t know or care what it is — I stand by their right to believe it and say it and publish it. It’s insane to kill someone for drawing comics and saying mean things. The gunmen who shot the Charlie Hebdo writers and artists are a bunch of terrorist assholes, and I want them all to die in a fire.

But my saying so doesn’t get me any points for bravery. I’ve got it easy. I realize that many of the people posting “I am Charlie” don’t mean it this way, so this is not a knock on them, but to me “I am Charlie” feels like trying to portray myself as having courage on a level that is simply not required for what I do. My world is not that dangerous. I am not Charlie.

The Queen is a Fink!

I’ve known for many years that access to this blog is blocked in mainland China. Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. I imagine it all depends on how recently I’ve mentioned the Tiananmen Square Massacre. As I write this, it’s not being blocked (I checked here), but that could change since I just mentioned the Tiananmen Square Massacre twice now.

However, thanks to the London-based Open Rights Group (which I stumbled upon in the sidebar on Charlie Stross’s blog), I’ve discovered that my blog is now banned by some of the ISP content filtering recommended by the U.K. government.

You may remember hearing that the UK had pressured ISPs into blocking pornography in their default settings. (People who wanted to receive it could remove the block.) But the blocking also included other categories such as malware, drugs, gambling, suicide, weapons and violence, obscenity, hate, cyberbullying, and hacking. This site is not particularly about any of those things, but I do discuss them in the context of analyzing public policy, and like most automated filtering, it blocks a lot of stuff that it shouldn’t.

I checked around on my blogroll, and surprisingly few of them are blocked. Scott‘s not, and neither is Popehat, despite their extensive discussion of criminality. Even Pete Guither’s Drug WarRant isn’t blocked, and all he talks about is drugs. On the other hand, Maggie McNeill‘s site about sex work is blocked kind of a lot, and anthropologist Laura Agustín‘s site about migrant sex work is blocked a little. It sounds like the Brits are threatened by the sexiness.

Or maybe I just say “fuck” too often.

You can check your site here.

(Title allusion here.)