Monday, January 16, 2012

Crimes of Free Speech?

With almost any right, there is a delicate balance, a dividing line between the sanctity of the right, and the crime of abusing that right.

If you want to find out if people really believe in free speech, say something outrageous and offensive and see how many of them defend your right to say it. Recently, many Americans took serious offense to this:

Personally, I find the offense only makes the whole thing more amusing. Maybe I just get the humor because I'm Canadian, but Brian was the one who saw the video first and passed it on to me, and every American friend I've sent it to thought it was hysterical.

Maybe my friends are just more enlightened. Or maybe they all truly believe in free speech.

However, I did find myself on the other side of the line recently on an issue that sparked a bit of debate in our house.

It turns out that in Calgary, some might argue that abuse of free speech equals obstructing justice.

It's easy to talk about freedom of speech, when you're not the one speaking to a funeral director.

That's the grim reality for two families -- making plans to buy coffins and say goodbye, less than 24 hours after the horror of an alleged drunk-driving wreck scarred their lives.

Two dead 20-year-olds, in what Calgary police say was a high-speed collision involving alcohol and a red light -- a light the suspected drunk driver missed, moments before her car slammed into a Mercedes.

The 25-year-old at the wheel lived, while her passenger and the innocent stranger driving the other car were killed.

What do these tragedies have to do with free speech?

It turns out that some people have created twitter accounts and are taking advantage of social media sites to inform the public about Checkstop locations so that drivers who've been drinking can avoid being caught by the police.

"It's freedom of speech. No one can tell me I can't do something if I don't feel like doing it, and that's the freedom of the Internet."

So says Aaron Pratt, one of a handful of social media regulars at the eye of a moral tempest involving drunk driving and the freedom to type whatever you like online.

Local government and police are not happy about the growing trend, and I don't think we've heard the last of this.

When I mentioned this article to Brian, he defended the right of free speech. I disagree, in this case. Whether or not the courts may ultimately agree with him or me has yet to be seen, but there are many instances in which the right of free speech is subjected to greater concerns. If a person threatens to assassinate the president, or goes into a crowded theater and yells, "Bomb!" they can try to hide behind the right of free speech all they like, but that won't help them in court.

When I read the article about the Checkstop tweeters, I wondered how these drunk drivers could actually read the tweets and register that they should take a different route. I wondered if anyone could prove in any of the cases mentioned that the drunk drivers, or their passengers, had read the Checkstop tweets.

I wondered about the motives. Why would a person go to the trouble of locating Checkstops and broadcasting that information through social media? Does their motivation limit or increase their responsibility for anything that happens as a result of sharing that information?

And then I thought about how many crimes go unreported, how many witnesses don't come forward and how many people endure abuse because people opt for their own convenience instead of standing up for someone else, and I found myself wondering why it is people have so much energy when it comes to helping others evade the law, but are nowhere to be found when people need help.

Today, of all days, is a day we should celebrate the right to free speech. It's a day we pay tribute to a man who literally did change the world.

But at the same time, I think we have to stop using our rights as justification for irresponsible behavior.


Jay Stringer said...

Interesting post, and an issue that really needs the full length of a novel to crawl into and explore.

Here in Britain these days, there are generations of people who've never had to stand in front of a tank waving a flag, or march for basic human rights, and it creates something of a problem. In creating a society who have certain basic rights, you also create a society who, further down the line, wont really understand them.

There's a Ben Parker quote in there somewhere about power and responsibility.

In the UK, the term "free speech" is mostly used now when defending someone who has done something they know is wrong. Football fans who want to sing about the blood of others, or famine, or abut terrorist groups, about the wives and girlfriends of the players, it's all done under the clause that they can shout about having free speech.

I'd like to say it's the internet. I'd like to say it's simply a minority being amplified by a free communications tool. But even back when I was at school, on the playground the number one get-out clause in any argument was "it's a free country, I can do what I like." So the sense of entitlement runs deep.

One of my favourite Stand-Up comedians was the centre of a storm just under a decade ago, when he wrote 'JERRY SPRINGER, THE OPERA' and was then put through court by a Christian group on a charge of Blasphemy.

So it seems to be a principle that people cling to when they've done something wrong, but throw aside when someone else has done something to offend them.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Great summary, Jay. When I read about this, I really thought it was the kind of thing I'd love to explore in a novel. (Although HARVEST OF RUINS is about someone on trial for negligent homicide, just not with a 'free speech' argument.)

I think you're right about people who haven't had to fight for their rights not always fully understanding them. And no matter what your rights are, or should be, you'll find people won't always accept just anyone saying anything. As a Canadian, a lot of people do not want to hear my political opinion when it comes to US politics, even if I'm married to an American. There's a "mind your own business" mentality, or "don't tell me how to live" way of thinking that kicks in. I felt the exact same way when Michael Moore chimed in on a Canadian election. In my case, it's slightly different because I live with my husband, but I felt Michael Moore had no right to try to influence an election he didn't have to live with the results of. I have to admit that I may believe in the basic right to free speech, but I also have to admit that means I don't always like what's said. However, that doesn't always mean the speech is criminal.

In this case, though, I'll be watching to see what happens, and whether they try to build a case for negligent homicide or obstruction of justice.

Dana King said...

First, the election ad is hilarious, and I say that as a lifetime citizen of Baja Canada who is also scared shitless by our selection of "candidates."

On the more serious issue, rights in this country are being so steadily eroded that I am reluctant to abridge them any further. It's no crime to be an asshole. I doubt any court would convict the tweeter, though knowing the driver used his advice to evade the checkpoint strongly implies she knew she was over the limit and was willfully negligent.

It's no crime to be an asshole, though it may be a crime to act on the information delivered by said asshole. It does bother me, though, when people invoke "the freedom of the Internet" like it's a right that supersedes all others.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, Dana, the internet has really taken things like this to a whole new level.

I'd be really curious to see a case go against the tweeter(s), just to see what the legal decision was. On the one hand, doubtful for conviction. On the other hand, there are definitely cases where rights are superseded.

I also agree rights are being steadily eroded. I've thought that with regards to the patriot act. Politicians can criticize the (prior) government for every right taken away in the wake of 9-11, yet those rights have not been restored.

But I know if it was my family member being buried, I'd want them to do something about these tweeters, especially if it was proven that their information affected the drunk driver's route home. That's the pure, emotional response I'd have.

Incidentally, your rights to free speech can be curtailed in someone else's divorce decree. I can't say anything that can be construed as negative about Brian's ex... although she's allowed to pressure the kids to lie to him, and apparently that's okay. Perhaps I've come to the point where I think it's all bull, because I've seen so many instances where rights are violated with the sanction of the court.

Thomas Pluck said...

As someone who does not drive drunk I would appreciate knowing where "checkpoints," aka police fishing expeditions, are so I can avoid the traffic and inevitable summons for whatever they feel like finding.

I'm not a free speech absolutist. Defend child porn as a free speech issue, and I'll forever lose any respect I once had for you as an intelligent human being, but I doubt drunks lucid enough to check twitter or have the forethought to avoid checkpoints.

You might as well ban CSI, for showing us (in reverse) how to avoid leaving evidence at a murder scene. MOST criminals are not going to make use of it.

Those scientists who wanted to publish their paper on how they weaponized bird flu are an interesting case, and would make for a very interesting discussion.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Thomas, I also thought about the question of whether a drunk would be lucid enough to process the information. However... it seems the clear motivation in the case of these twitterers is for the 'not quite over the line but still legally drunk' crowd. I guess there's also a question of how long it takes the alcohol to take effect if someone's been out to dinner, had a few drinks, and feels fine, but as they're driving the alcohol kicks in.

I think that's the interesting thing about a free speech argument - everyone will have a line of acceptability separating it from what's not acceptable, and everyone will draw that line differently.

I think, in my life, I've only gone through a Checkstop once, so I don't feel very bothered by them.

John Hickman said...

Since today is the day for SOPA and PIPA blackouts in the U.S., this article about free speech is super-relevant two days in one week!