In that past month or so, I’ve been speaking to groups about free speech issues and my experience with The Howling Pig. Lots of people have asked me about what I’m doing now. Usually I mention that I’ve been active in local politics and that I do some freelance copy writing to get by. That’s not the whole truth. One of the things that I’ve been doing quite a lot of recently is read comic books.
Yes, comic books damn it. I’ve been lured back into the realm of graphic fantasy by my fiancee’s new-found love for blockbuster comic book movies. When I was a kid, my dad and I read comic books together. We weren’t really collectors and we didn’t have subscriptions but every couple of months we would drop into a comics store for back issues and take home armloads of comics to read. It’s kind of a nostalgia trip, but I have to say– fucking comics don’t make a damn bit of sense.
Maybe it’s because I’m all grown up now, or the English degree is fucking with my ability to sit back and read without being critical. There are some serious logical inconsistencies in these bitches that I can’t quite get past.
Yeah, I know the soap opera storylines stem from decades long print histories, and the origin stories are pretty laughable from a scientific point of view. I don’t really have a problem with that. It’s the lack of internal consistency that takes me out of the story enough to say WHAT THE FUCK?
Por ejemplo- Reed Richards aka Mr Fantastic is the leader of the Fantastic Four. He’s really really stretchy. The back story in the comics makes a point to establish that his superhero suit is also stretchy in order to accommodate his powers. So… dude is just personally bendy and has to wear super spandex to deal with it without sliding out of his pants in the middle of a fight. What about his colon? Yeah. That dinner he just ate before heading out to fight evil is also regular old stuff travelling its way through his digestive system. When he squishes himself into a long skinny rope to fit under a door, what’s keeping his last meal from squirting out like somebody stomped on a toothpaste tube?
Then there’s the sex. Sure, between the longstanding censorship rules and the ostensibly younger audience, any sexual relations up until about the 90s happened on the down-low and off-frame. The thing is that there’s obviously been a lot of fucking over the years since superheroes keep making babies. The logistics of this is pretty mind-boggling. Quite outside of the potential physical incompatibilities of some of these people, friggin Superman conceived a child with a normal woman. This is a guy whose sneeze can blow over a building. Lois Lane must have a cast iron cervix to handle that load. Hulk got bouncy with at least a couple of ladies and they must’ve had some keen superpowers to avoid becoming greasy smears in the process.
It’s probably just a limitation in the writers and perhaps in the audience that comics generally don’t explore the idea of superpowers more thoroughly. I would think it’s similar to the fact that it has taken decades of cellphone use before movies have finally started incorporating them into their plots. The ramifications of superpowers would be much harder to get into beyond whatever parable the current issue is trying to show. It’s more fun to employ your character that can generate vast amounts of free energy in a way that’s explodey than to think about the fact that hitching her the electrical grid for eight hours a day would probably accomplish more social good than shooting thunderbolts at bad guys.
The governor has signed SB-102 to repeal criminal libel. Supported by the Attorney General as well as journalism associations and the ACLU, the repeal will make Colorado similar to the vast majority of states in which libel is a purely civil crime that is subject to First Amendment protections.
Hooray! Even though my case was uppermost in my thoughts in supporting this bill, the testimony from the Attorney General’s office pointing out that 24 people have been charged with criminal libel since 2007 shows that this was a much-abused law that absolutely needed to be repealed.
SB-102 passed the Colorado House today on its third reading with a unanimous vote. So far, the bill has passed both houses of the General Assembly unanimously with no amendments. That means that the final step is for Governor Hickenlooper to sign the bill and criminal libel will no longer be on the books in the state of Colorado. It’s about damned time
I went down to Denver today to testify in favor of repealing criminal libel again, this time in front of the House committee. Along with me, the ACLU, Colorado Press Association, Colorado Bar Association, and the Attorney General’s Office all testified in favor of the bill. The committee voted unanimously to forward it to the full House with a positive recommendation.
I may be a little early in celebrating, but it seems that this thing is sliding right through the process on rails. 8 years in court and all it takes a wacky conservative senator from out on the plains to push a criminal libel repeal through the legislature in record time. Who knew?
A couple of weeks ago, Rush Limbaugh went on a tirade against a grad student from George Washington University named Sandra Fluke. She had been denied an opportunity to testify about contraception coverage through institutional insurance plans, specifically from religious institutions like her university. Subsequently, she was able to speak at a public hearing brought by congressional democrats about the added cost to women that needed contraception, but were unable to get it through their insurance provider. Her testimony centered on a friend of hers that needed hormonal birth control to treat a medical condition, but was unable to afford it and so lost an ovary because of the lack of treatment.
Limbaugh freaked the fuck out about how people shouldn’t have to subsidize women’s sex lives and personally attacked Fluke, calling her a slut and a prostitute. After three days of that, the shitstorm public response had advertisers pulling their support from his show. Beyond the simple bullheaded stupidity that Rush showed by somehow conflating a high contraception bill to a sheer amount of sex, and missing the entire point of Fluke’s testimony that her friend needed birth control pills for something other than contraception but couldn’t get them, I mostly ignored the story because I figured it was another case of Limbaugh being an asshole and he could take his lumps.
Then the pushback started. People started pointing out that Bill Maher had at various times called Sarah Palin a stupid cunt and a twat. Somehow excusing Rush’s behavior by balancing against a blowhard on the left was the strategy for weathering his current shitstorm. What’s worse, Bill Maher actually kinda defended Rush on freedom of speech grounds.
Without getting into the weeds of what the law around speech issues actually is, I can definitively say that both those guys are assholes and that people defending them on freedom of speech grounds are wrong. Here’s the thing- the first amendment protects you from the government. Rush Limbaugh is protected from government action that abridges his right to say stupid crap. That means that he’s not going to go to jail. Further, he’s probably on safe ground as far as losing a lawsuit though his particular statements might cross the threshold into slander territory. On the other hand, people publicly and loudly saying “FUCK THAT GUY” and communicating that to his friends, colleagues, and advertisers is pretty much the very foundation of the idea of free speech in this country.
In short, the freedom of speech includes everybody; even the people that don’t like what you say and protest it. Bill Maher was just being a pussy because he realized that he could also be in deep shit if he offended the wrong people with his big mouth. If he doesn’t think that he can adequately explain himself whenever he steps on his dick in public and doesn’t have the cojones to own it, then screw that guy.
For the record, as far as I can tell, Sarah Palin is kind of a dumb cunt.
After passing the Colorado Senate unanimously, the bill repealing Colorado’s criminal libel law will come up for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, March 22nd at 1pm. I’ll be there to testify again. With any luck, this will receive as much support as it did in the Senate.
Because of my personal story, I have a thing about criminal libel statutes. The idea that a government at any level can prosecute you simply for things you say is antithetical to the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. I’m glad that criminal libel is well on its way to being repealed in Colorado, and that it is slowly disintegrating as a legally enforceable concept in other states that still have felony libel laws on the books.
Here’s the thing: limits on free speech are all over the place. If somebody doesn’t like what you say or the way in which you say it, there are plenty of ways to stop you and punish you. In the realm of libel and slander, every state has a civil statute that allows people to sue if they’ve been harmed by someone. There are important limits on how these laws operate. Essentially, you’re in trouble if you maliciously lie about somebody. If you are harshly critical, but tell the truth, you’re in the clear. If you couch your criticisms as opinion, parody, or satire, then your speech is protected. Civil disparagement laws are much MUCH better than criminal ones, simply because it’s an adversarial process in which your accuser has to make a case and you can reply to it. Criminal laws cast law enforcement officials in the role of the accuser, and you must justify yourself rather than respond to another party.
Civil litigation still sucks a bag of dicks. The fact that you can effectively defend yourself is all well and good, but the court system is heavily weighted toward those with power and money. Most people would struggle to pay a competent attorney to mount a defense. Hell, a blogger in Colorado that writes a post about somebody in Florida might be faced with a default judgement if they can’t pull together the money for airfare so they can show up in court, much less pay a lawyer. This isn’t even addressing what happens if you are sued in Britain- libel laws there put the burden on the defense to prove that they have not committed a crime, and British courts claim jurisdiction over anything that has been viewed in the UK (they have the internet there!)
The basic rule of the road for civil litigation is that if you offend somebody with enough money to sue you, then they probably have enough money to win. This rule is already evident in patent law. Companies threaten lawsuits that are absolutely nonsensical, but defendants are forced to settle because they can’t afford to mount a defense.
There are plenty of problems with libel laws. The good part is that there are constitutional limits on how they’re enforced, and a good defense is possible. Now that the internet is a huge part in disseminating speech, libel laws aren’t necessarily the biggest sticks around for the offended parties of the world to wield.
It’s ridiculously easy to block publication of online material. Many service providers provide an automated response system that will take down offending posts of text, audio, and video based simply on the claim that they infringe a copyright or trademark. In order to avoid liability, service providers are required to remove material immediately upon a takedown request and the process of appealing the decision can be lengthy or non-existent. The same sort of mechanism can be used in some countries to block entire websites, or to cut off internet access to creators.
Then there’s the vast array of resources that are legally enforceable but mostly outside of the legal system. Depending on your job, there may be a number of legal and contractual restraints upon what you say in public. There are largely no protections for people that are fired by employers for what they might say in a public forum– this affects everyone from school teachers to call center employees. If you’re pissed off at something someone has to say, all it takes is a complaint to their employer and that will more often than not make the problem go away. Federal employees have to constantly watch what they say in order to avoid running afoul of the Hatch Act, which states that government employees can’t engage in political activity. Any broadcaster has to be very careful to abide by FCC guidelines. If UNC had adopted its school code of conduct at the time I was under investigation, it’s quite possible that I might have faced disciplinary action through the university.
Infringing free speech isn’t difficult. There are large numbers of absolutely legal, constitutional ways to make people stop saying shit and punish them for speaking up. Anybody who wants to try and maintain a blatantly unconstitutional criminal libel law must not be paying attention, or they’re the sort that likes to hunt prairie dogs with a nuclear weapon.