clockworkorange

Why Trigger Warnings Threaten Free Speech, Original Voices, and Thoughtful Discourse

“Don’t be so gloomy. After all, it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said. In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” — The Third Man

On February 26, 2014, a UC Santa Barbara student named Bailey Loverin pushed “A Resolution to Mandate Warnings for Triggering Content in Academic Settings” through the Associated Students Senate. The resolution called on professors to issue “trigger warnings” for students on “materials with mature content” taught in the classroom — whether it be a difficult film shown for context, material assigned for reading, or even a casual conversation on a tough issue. Loverin cited her own discomfort sitting through a film, one which she has refused to identify, depicting sexual assault. The class’s unnamed professor, according to Loverin, provided no warning before the film. Loverin claimed that it was harder for her to walk out of the movie, because doing so in the dark would apparently draw attention. (I have consulted other interviews with Loverin to establish the facts. Loverin did not return my emails for comment.)

Loverin has stated that she’s a survivor of sexual abuse, but she has not suffered from PTSD — the chief reason proffered for the “trigger warning” resolution. In an interview with Reason TV, Loverin said, “We were watching a film. And there were several scenes of sexual assault and, finally, a very drawn out rape scene. It did not trigger me. I recognized the potential for it to be very triggering.”

Loverin is not a psychologist, a sociologist, or a medical authority of any kind. She is a second-year literature major who has become an unlikely figure in a debate that threatens to diminish the future of free speech. Yet Loverin isn’t nearly as extreme in her views as the trigger warning acolytes at other universities.

Rutgers’s Philip Wythe has claimed that trigger warnings are needed for Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (for students suffering from self-harm) and for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (apparently a literary gorefest on the level of an episode of The Walking Dead). Oberlin threatened to issue trigger warnings over such traumatic issues as “heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of oppression,” before the policy was sensibly pulled for further reconsideration.

Loverin claimed in an opinion roundtable for the New York Times that the UCSB resolution “only applies to in-class content like screenings or planned lectures and doesn’t ban the content or excuse students from learning it.” The resolution offers a suggested list of “rape, sexual assault, abuse, self-injurious behavior, suicide, graphic violence, pornography, kidnapping, and graphic depictions of gore” as trigger warning options. Students who feel that they “have a negative emotional response” (note that it is any “negative emotional response,” not necessarily PTSD) “to such content, including distressing flashbacks or memories, should be allowed to leave the classroom or skip class altogether without being penalized.” And while there certainly isn’t any direct prohibition, there is still the unsettling possibility of professors forced to soften their materials, which leads one to wonder how they can adequately teach war, genocide, slavery, or imperial conquest in the classroom. Another question, one that has remained unconsidered by trigger warning boosters, is whether or not skipping class over material that easily offends will be used as a catch-all excuse for students to shirk their scholarly duties.

In the Reason TV interview, Loverin said, “Being uncomfortable, being upset, being even a little offended is different than having a panic attack, blacking out, hyperventillating, screaming in a classroom, feeling like you’re under such physical threat, whether its real or perceived, that you act out violently in front of other people.” It certainly is. Yet there is no evidence to support Loverin’s claim that there is a widespread epidemic of students acting out violently in class over a movie. The PTSD Foundation of America observes that 7.8% of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. But most people who experience PTSD are children under the age of 10 or war veterans. Furthermore, an NCBI publication reveals that intimate group support among fellow trauma victims (CISD) and rigorous pre-trauma training (CISM) are effective methods for helping the PTSD victim to move forward in her life.

There are some connections between media and PTSD, such as a study published last December which observed that some Americans who watched more than six hours of media coverage about the Boston Marathon bombings experienced more powerful stress reactions than those who refrained from watching the news or who were directly there. Another UC Irvine study found that 38% of Boston-area veterans who suffer from PTSD and other mental disorders experienced some emotional distress one week after the bombing. But these studies point to (a) people who already suffer from PTSD, (b) PTSD victims being exposed to media for a lengthy duration, and (c) PTSD victims in close proximity to a recent attack.

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It is certainly reasonable for a professor to ask her class if any student suffers from PTSD, but the trigger warning approach is uncomfortably similar to the Comics Magazine Association of America’s crackdown on comic books over gory content in 1954, which led Charles F. Murphy to wrongfully conclude that reading violent comics leads to juvenile delinquency. As Saladin Ahmed recently pointed out at BuzzFeed, Murphy’s Puritanical Comics Code — a kind of self-regulated and equally self-righteous “trigger warning” system of the time — forced a black astronaut to be made white in order for Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando’s “Judgment Day” to run. (Before the Comics Code, the story would have appeared without a problem.) The pro-trigger warning crowd also refuses to consider the benefits of confronting trauma. If Steve Kandell hadn’t possessed the courage to visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum 13 years after his sister was killed in the attacks, then we would not have learned more about that tourist attraction’s crass spectacle and its deeply visceral effect on victims. There was no trigger warning at the head of his essay.

Discouraging students from confronting challenging topics because of “a negative emotional response” may also result in missed opportunities for humanism. In her thoughtful volume A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit examines numerous instances of people reacting to disasters. Contrary to the reports of doom and gloom presumed to follow a disaster, people more often react with joy and a desire to reforge social community. Those distanced from disaster tend to become more paralyzed with fright. No less a literary personage than Henry James, who read sensationalistic accounts of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, imagined that his brother William underwent some perdition: “I feel that I have collapsed, simply, with the tension of all these dismal days,” he wrote in a letter. “I should have told you that I have shared every pulse of your nightmare with you if I didn’t hold you quite capable of telling me that it hasn’t been a nightmare.” But William. who was impressed with the rapid manner in which San Francisco came together, replied, “We never reckoned on this extremity of anxiety on your part.”

Only a week after Loverin’s resolution was passed, a group of anti-abortion activists had one of its banners, which featured a bloody picture of an aborted fetus, plucked by professor Mireille Miller-Young. A YouTube video capturing this incident features the professor pushing Joan Short, one of the Christian activists and the person operating the camera, after she attempts to retrieve her sign from an elevator. At the 2:46 mark, Miiller-Young can be seen kicking Short’s shoe out of the elevator bank.

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The police report, which I obtained from the Santa Barbara Independent‘s Tyler Hayden (the PDF can be viewed here), cites “triggering” as one motivations for Miller-Young’s actions. Miller-Young asked the Christian activists to remove the sign. They refused. Miller-Young grabbed the sign and destroyed it in her “safe space” with scissors. “I’m stronger,” said Miller-Young, “so I was able to take the poster.”

As a hard progressive and free speech advocate who is strongly pro-choice and as someone who finds gory pictures of aborted fetuses to be a repugnant response to civility, I am nevertheless appalled that a supposedly enlightened figure of authority like Miller-Young would use “trigger warnings” as an excuse to not only shut down another person’s perspective, but to completely destroy the sign used to present it. These activists were not harassing young women outside of an abortion clinic, yet Miller-Young claims in the police report that “she felt that the activists did not have the right to be there.”

Many ostensible liberals have attempted to paint “trigger warnings” as something harmless, yet they refuse to see how appending a precautionary warning can lead to a chilling curb of free speech. And like Miller-Young, in their rush to condemn, it becomes clear that they are less interested in comforting those who are sensitive and more concerned with painting anyone who disagrees with them as either “a jerk” or someone who delights in the suffering from others. On Twitter, two privileged white male writers with high follower counts revealed their commitment to petty despotism when opining on the trigger warning issue:

We have seen recent literary debates about unlikable characters, an essential part of truthfully depicting an experience. But if an artist or a professor has to consider the way her audience feels at all times, how can she be expected to pursue the truths of being alive? How can a student understand World War I without feeling the then unprecedented horror of trench warfare and poison gas and burying bodies (a daily existence that caused some of the bravest soldiers to crack and get shot for cowardice if they displayed anything close to the PTSD that they felt every minute)? How can one understand rape’s full hurt and humiliation if one does not wish to become familiar with its baleful emotions? How can any student comprehend climate change if the default response is to ignore the news and play a distracting cat video that will amuse her for two minutes?

I realize that the trigger warning police mean well, but human beings are made of more resilience and intelligence than these unlived undergraduates understand. Hashtag activism may work in a virtual world of impulsive 140 character dispatches, but it cannot ever convey the imbricated complexities of the human spirit, which are too important to be stifled and diminished by a censorious menagerie of self-righteous kids, including middle-aged genre writers who can’t push their worldview past adolescent posturing that’s as preposterous as Jerry Falwell claiming emotional distress over a parody.

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Hurricane Sandy: The Right to Yell Flood in a Crowded Twitter and Why Peter Vallone Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About

As Hurricane Sandy ravaged a vast swath of the Northeast on Monday night, a hedge fund analyst and conservative troll named Shashank Tripathi was spreading misinformation on Twitter under the handle @comfortablysmug.

In a barrage of tweets all beginning with the mealy allcaps cry BREAKING, Tripathi claimed that Con Ed was shutting down all power in Manhattan, suggested that Governor Cuomo had been trapped in Manhattan, and declared that the New York Stock Exchange was flooded.

While many authorities and journalists swiftly corrected Tripathi’s pathological lies (including Con Ed’s official Twitter account), Tripathi’s 140 character dispatches were retweeted and favorited by enough people to become a problem. Gullible media professionals like CNN meteorologist Chad Myers and The Weather Channel’s Bryan Norcross reported the NYSE prevarication as truth. Tripathi’s true identity was exposed by BuzzFeed’s Jack Stuef. Not long after, a vocal lynch mob formed sharp pitchforks with their tongues. Tripathi offered an apology on Tuesday night after many hours of silence.

Tripathi’s deceitful tweets have led to a vibrant discussion on how Twitter works as a medium. While many television reporters opted for the aesthetic allure of standing in a flooded area with tall boots and flapping windbreakers, Twitter proved an invaluable and more constructive medium to seek out and confirm leads. People who lived in devastated areas were understandably keen to communicate what was happening, with the information promulgated at a swift and unprecedented rate. As the storm crept its way past the coastline, users were uploaded ten pictures per second to Instagram. Over the course of 21 hours, there were more than 1.1 million Twitter mentions with the word “hurricane.” Of course, it is a universal truth that a hungry Internet in want of more information will invent what it can to cope.

https://twitter.com/AHurricaneSandy/status/262736402075246592

The misinformation spread through text was matched by misinformation in imagery, with The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal establishing an online forum to distinguish true photos from the doctored ones. Such resources as Madrigal’s page demonstrated how false information could be equally combated with a healthy dose of skepticism and a small amount of research.

New York City Councilman Peter Vallone wants to put a stop to all this. On Tuesday night, he announced that he wants to seek criminal charges against Tripathi. But why stop there? Does not CNN and The Weather Channel also bear some responsibility for failing to corroborate Tripathi’s tweets? Furthermore, should not free speech extend to a fake storm’s declaration of wanton corporate destruction?

But we really don’t need to dabble in silly rhetoric. Because Vallone doesn’t quite understand the way the law works. Oddly enough, much like Tripathi, Vallone prefers speculative sentiment and attention over the facts. And while Vallone has every right to tweet what he wants, he is regrettably not as amusing as a pumpkin spice hurricane.

The common parallel being trotted out is Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous opinion in Schenck v. United States, in which he noted that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” This condition created a “clear and present danger” limitation in American free speech which endured for fifty years. Yet the “danger” inspired by Tripathi’s trolling was quickly stubbed out by authorities and journalists who reacted and corrected and rightfully questioned the source.

Vallone offers the “fire in a crowded theater” example in his remarks to Buzzfeed. But this is incorrect, reflecting a paraphrased standard of Holmes’s opinion that was replaced in 1969. If one shuttles forward to the “imminent lawless action” standard established with the Brandenberg v. Ohio ruling, Tripathi’s tweets become even more difficult to criminalize. As First Amendment Scholar David L. Hudson, Jr. noted on the fortieth anniversary of Brandenberg, imminent lawless action did not apply in NAACP vs. Claiborne Hardware Co. when a NAACP field secretary threatened violence against those who refused to boycott white businesses. Moreover, in Rice v. Paladin Press (1997), the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of a publisher to print a manual on how to kill people. Tripathi didn’t go nearly as far as either of these cases.

The problem resides with belief culture and the ongoing erosion of journalistic standards. We’ve seen examples of this with ABC News’s misreporting in the Aurora shooting and Tony Scott’s death, as well as CNN and Fox News announcing the wrong Obamacare verdict in June. If Tripathi must be tarred and feathered by wild-eyed councilmen from Queens who don’t understand free speech law, then we must also extend the batshit vigilante impulse to CNN’s Chad Myers and The Weather Channel’s Bryan Norcross, who were just as culpable in spreading misinformation.

I’d like to propose a saner and more reasonable alternative. Instead of seeking a scapegoat to drown in the Gowanus Canal without a fair trial, why not educate the public in critical thinking? If the information is wrong, it should not matter whether it emerges from a troll or a CNN anchor. Why not trust the people to distinguish between outright lies and hard facts? Common sense pulled the Northeast through the largest storm ever recorded. It can also defeat the online trolls, whether they are hedge fund analysts with too much time on their hands or Queens councilmen who prefer spewing ignorant drivel over community leadership.

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2011: The Year in Broken Windows

Alexis Madrigal: “Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale, who has specialized in tracking police tactical changes, found that the the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing, which was introduced to a national audience by this very magazine, has also had a major impact on protest policing. As we wrote in 1982, broken windows policing did not attempt to directly fight violent crime but rather the ‘sense that the street is disorderly, a source of distasteful, worrisome encounters.’ As Vitale would put it, the theory ‘created a kind of moral imperative for the police to restore middle class values to the city’s public spaces.’ When applied to protesters, the strategy has meant that any break with the NYPD’s behavioral preferences could be grounds for swift arrest and/or physical violence.”

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In the December 2011 issue of Philadelphia Magazine, there was a list printed on Page 72 with the heading which read THINGS WE NEED TO GET RID OF. Among the items listed? The Mummers. Poet CA Conrad went onto Philadelphia Magazine‘s Facebook page and demanded that it write a letter of apology. There was no response. He kept writing. He was blocked from the site. So Conrad went to the magazine’s office in person. He was polite. He did not yell. He asked to speak with the online editor. He was told no one was in. Nobody had the courage to talk with him. Instead, the Philadelphia Magazine receptionist called the police. “The truth is that they were embarrassed by what I was saying,” wrote Canto on his blog. “And they gloated over my removal from the office on Face Book. Oh, and while I was being escorted OUT, one of the magazine’s enforcers said that I was to be arrested if I ever stepped foot inside the building again. NICE!” (I learned of this story from HTML Giant.)

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“Behavioral preferences.” That’s not unlike the highly elastic term “juvenile delinquency.”

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A parent in Calvert County, Maryland wrote into The Bay Net. Her six-year-old daughter Brianna had made an “inappropriate comment” at Dowell Elementary, saying she was going to kill another student. This was a joke. She was pulled from recess by a teacher and ordered to sit and wait in various administrative rooms. Brianna assured the principal that she was only joking and that she had no intent of killing her fellow students. Despite her confession, the principal then grilled Brianna about her home life. Other students were brought in. One of Brianna’s good friends was pressured to rat her out — this, after she had already confessed as to the nature of her comment. The parent asked in her letter, “How do you justify not calling the parent of a six year old and holding her in the office for 2 hrs asking her about her life at home over an innocent comment? Do not get me wrong, I know what she said was inappropriate but to all that know my daughter know that she would never intentionally hurt anyone!! How do you justify treating her this way? This is the problem, noone will or can justify this to me. I email jack smith the super of cc schools, I of course get pushed onto someone else who calls me asks me what happens and about the only response I get it ‘well as ling as you do understand what she did was wrong!’ Really? I have yet to speak to the super as I’m told he is very busy with meetings….!”

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The Guardian: “James Harding, speaking at the Society of Editors conference on Monday, was talking days after Tom Watson accused James Murdoch in parliament of being the ‘first mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise.’ A clearly irritated Murdoch responded that he thought this was an ‘inappropriate’ comment.”

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Etymology for irritated: 1530s, “stimulate to action, rouse, incite,” from L. irritatus, pp. of irritare “excite, provoke.” An earlier verb form was irrite (mid-15c.), from O.Fr. irriter. Meaning “annoy, make impatient” is from 1590s.

It took only six decades for “irritate” to have its meaning corrupted.

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At a Cannes press conference on May 18, 2011, the filmmaker Lars von Trier stated, “I understand Hitler but I think he did some wrong things yes absolutely but I can see him sitting in his bunker.” These words were received with understandable umbrage. Von Trier apologized the next day, purporting that his remarks were meant in jest. “I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi.” Despite this apology, he was banned from the Cannes Film Festival, declared persona non grata with the decision supported by French culture minister Frederic Mitterand. Mitterand remarked of the ban, “There is a major difference between a film that was chosen in a calm atmosphere and a director who clearly blew a fuse.” Yet in 2009, Mitterand protested Roman Polanski’s September 26 arrest in Amsterdam, “To see him thrown to the lions and put in prison because of ancient history — and as he was traveling to an event honoring him — is absolutely horrifying.” Why are terrible words uttered in 2011 more “horrifying” than terrible action in 1977? It took a day for Lars von Trier to apologize and nearly 35 years for Polanski to apologize.

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In January 2011, the BBC apologized for remarks made by Stephen Fry on the comedy quiz show, QI Fry had made a quip about Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a man who had survived both the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fry called Yamaguchi “the unluckiest man in the world.” Japanese viewers, watching the clip on YouTube, became irate and wrote in. Japanese blogger Yuko Kato wrote: “So, in this sad case, literally a comedy of errors, the lack of knowing and understanding goes both ways. The BBC and the people involved in the QI segment (including Stephen Fry, whom I dearly love) failed to anticipate Japanese sensitivities; and if they had but still went on with the broadcast then that’s even worse. For as a Japanese (despite my unabashed love of British comedy), I was very uncomfortable with the segment, especially with the audience tittering. On the other hand (no limbs left), most of the Japanese public have absolutely no idea what British humour is about; they simply don’t know that it’s a form of expression that strives to tell things like it is, that it’s an art form that tries to illuminate all the foolishness and idiosyncracies and negativities of the world through irony.”

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In February, fashion designer Kenneth Cole tweeted, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.” Outrage ensued.

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DJ Gardner was ranked the 64th best college basketball player in the country. He was a freshman forward standing six-foot-seven, an accomplished shooter described by a former high school coach as “an unselfish kid” who understood that it didn’t matter which player made the points. He was wooed by Mississippi State, told by the smiling men that he’d get serious time on the court and, like any hardworking kid baffled by the two other young men rotating as shooting guard, agreed to a redshirt year for the freshman season. On Twitter, he let off some steam:

These bitches tried to fuck me over.. That’s y I red shirted .. But I wish my homies a great ass season.. I don’t even know y I’m still here

He called the top brass “liars.” Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury booted Gardner off the team for his tweeting, claiming his words to be “repeated action detrimental to the team.” And while Gardner’s mother, Angela, was hardly happy with the behavior of her son and the coach, she said, “I felt like there should’ve been some communication.”

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On July 3, 2011, Charles Hill was shot by BART police in the Civic Center station in San Francisco. Hill was drunk. He pulled a knife and threw it at the floor. And the police shot and killed Hill. Witnesses reported that Hill had neither ran nor lunged at the two cops. The police claimed Hill was using an open liquor bottle as a weapon. BART police chief Kenton Rainey claimed he was “comfortable” with the decision of his men.

This brutal incident led many to exercise their First Amendment rights to protest Hill’s death. But on August 11, 2011, BART muzzled cell phone service at four stations, ridding the protesters of their right to coordinate a peaceful assembly. The ACLU of Northern California replied:

All over the world people are using mobile devices to organize protests against repressive regimes, and we rightly criticize governments that respond by shutting down cell service, saying it’s anti democratic and a violation of the right to free expression and assembly. Are we really willing to tolerate the same silencing of protest here in the United States?

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On November 21, 2011, a Kansas high school student named Emma Sullivan attended a Youth in Government program, listening to a speech by Governor Sam Brownback and ridiculing him on Twitter under the hashtag “#heblowsalot.” Brownback’s office spotted Sullivan’s tweet during “routine media monitoring” and forced Sullivan’s principal to ask Sullivan to write an apology letter. Sullivan refused, but she did say, “I think it would be interesting to have a dialogue with him. I don’t know if he would do it or not though. And I don’t know that he would listen to what I have to say.” Sullivan’s mother said that she wasn’t angry with her daughter. The story made the rounds. Brownback issued an apology.

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On the afternoon of July 19, 2011, I was contacted by a detective from the Cheverly Police Department. The detective was a nice and reasonable guy. He explained to me that blogger and critic Mark Athitakis was accusing me of harassment. What was so harassing? Several comments — all under my real name, really a bunch of silly performance art that I had been leaving intermittently over the last few months, nothing intended to harm and more than a bit absurdist — one evoking a fictitious Shakespeare quote reading “let’s kill the critics” and the like. I told the detective that these comments were clearly satirical. That a comment containing the lyrics for Rebecca Black’s “Friday” could not possibly be written with violence or threats in mind. The detective agreed that he and I both had better things to do with his time. He was merely checking up on the complaint that he received.

At no time did Mark ever contact me personally to (a) clarify the beef that he has with me, (b) state that I was harassing him. He did email me on July 14th, writing, “Your behavior is abusive, disrespectful, and unacceptable. It has to stop.” I emailed him a suggestion on how to clear things up, writing, “If you want to use this email as an opportunity, then I’m all ears.” He repeated the same line in another email on July 15th. I replied, “This comment is not abusive. Here are the facts: you have no sense of humor, you are disrespectful of my thoughts and voice, and you cannot take criticism.”

That was the last direct contact I had with Athitakis. I did not visit his site again until July 19, 2011, when I was attempting to explain the situation to the detective. So Athitakis must have filed the complaint with the Cheverly Police Department after this exchange.

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On October 2, 2011, then New York Times freelance journalist Natasha Lennard was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge while covering the Occupy Wall Street protests. On October 14, 2011, she spoke before a panel at Blue Stockings, expressing her opinions about organizing protests and using colorful language. A right-wing website, unable to see the distinction between reporting and opinion, posted the video with speculation, demanding “appropriate disciplinary action against Lennard” and asking her to rat out “any potential planned criminal activity by Occupy activists.”

Natasha Lennard responded with a Salon essay, “Why I quit the mainstream media”:

As the Times publicly noted, they found no problem with any of the reporting I had done for them on OWS. Indeed, a court hearing upheld that I had been on the Brooklyn Bridge as a professional journalist and as such, deserved to have the disorderly conduct charge against me dismissed. The only reason I was on the Brooklyn Bridge that day was as a reporter, gathering and relaying information on what I saw, and nothing else. However, as has become clear, if I — or any other journalist — want to express a strong opinion on a political matter, I cannot contemporaneously report for a mainstream publication.

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From a New York Times opinion piece written by Rebecca MacKinnon (November 15, 2011):

Adding to the threat to free speech, recent academic research on global Internet censorship has found that in countries where heavy legal liability is imposed on companies, employees tasked with day-to-day censorship jobs have a strong incentive to play it safe and over-censor — even in the case of content whose legality might stand a good chance of holding up in a court of law. Why invite legal hassle when you can just hit “delete”?

The potential for abuse of power through digital networks — upon which we as citizens now depend for nearly everything, including our politics — is one of the most insidious threats to democracy in the Internet age. We live in a time of tremendous political polarization. Public trust in both government and corporations is low, and deservedly so. This is no time for politicians and industry lobbyists in Washington to be devising new Internet censorship mechanisms, adding new opportunities for abuse of corporate and government power over online speech.

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Is Thomas Hawk a First-Rate Jerk?

Thomas Hawk is at it again. But this time, he’s determined to smear a man’s reputation based on his own decidedly subjective account.

For those who haven’t followed Hawk’s blog, Hawk is a San Francisco photographer who campaigns against institutions wishing to ban photography. If a building or a museum won’t let him shoot a photo, he blogs about it. He uploads photos of those who wouldn’t let him snap shots, and fires back shots with impunity.

He’s been doing this for some time. Sifting through Hawk’s blog, Hawk’s unalienable right to take photos are often more frequent than the photos.

Now Hawk’s target is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Or rather a man named Blint. Hawk was taking photos under an open photographic policy. There was an altercation. He was kicked out. It’s clobbering time. Hawk initially called Simon Blint, its Director of Visual Relations, “a first rate asshole” and published a photo of Blint. He later replaced “asshole” with “jerk.”

As someone who has had to persuade a few folks with chips on their shoulders that my podcasting equipment isn’t intended for terrorist purposes, I can sympathize with Hawk to some extent. While most proprietors I’ve encountered in my podcasting adventures have been friendly and permitted me to conduct an interview (some of them becoming so fascinated with the conversation that they’ve asked for the URL), there have been a few petulant managers who have remained hostile to the idea of a room or a table being used for unanticipated purposes. They have made unreasonable efforts to eject me. But I have not named these names. After all, maybe the manager was having a bad day. Maybe the manager has been screamed at by somebody else and the manager is taking this out on me. At the end of the day, I figure that the podcasts will trump these inconveniences. But in a few cases, reason (and bountiful tips) has won out, and I’ve returned to the establishment for another interview.

What troubles me about the Hawk contretemps is how Hawk and his acolytes are so willing to crucify Blint when Hawk hasn’t once suggested that his own conduct may have been one of the reasons that things escalated this far. Unlike monologuist Mike Daisey, who showed real class in trying to contact the individuals who walked out of his show and poured water on his notes, Hawk hasn’t even tried to open up a broader debate by directly contacting SFMOMA. To give you some sense of the outcry, a commenter at the SFist writes, “If Blint read this SFist article, he just soiled his pants and will be out of a job by Monday,” taking apparent glee in this shitstorm.

This is not a case where the offense comes from a third party. This is a situation in which we have only Hawk’s word to go by. But what of Blint himself? It’s not as if Blint has a high-traffic Web page or runs a major newspaper outlet in which he can respond to Hawk’s charges. Does he even have an online presence? Is this really a fair battle? Many have remarked upon this incident, but nobody has thought to contact Blint to get his side of the story.

If Blint had a history of banning photographers from SFMOMA when the museum keeps an open policy towards photography, then I might be one of the first people in line to criticize his actions. If there was video of the exchange presenting unimpeachable evidence that Blint was out of line, then I’d be more inclined to cite this as another example of free speech being muzzled in a post-9/11 age. But this is only one incident, perhaps poorly handled by both men. And the broader debate about artistic expression has been lost in the skirmish.

Hawk’s blunt words about Blint seem unreasonable to me. It makes the blog medium look bad. Hawk is unwilling to suggest that he may have been wrong, and his undiplomatic efforts here suggest that he is more interested in being a half-baked martyr than an activist. Hawk was just as autocratic in his grievances as Blint was in kicking Hawk out of the museum. And it makes bloggers look like the first-rate assholes that the mainstream media continues to portray them as. In an age when Jason Fortuny humiliates people by invading their privacy, there are vital questions that must be asked.