Category: First Amendment

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Secret Service Investigations of Presidential Threats

Donald Trump’s recent comments about “Second Amendment people” raises an issue that I’ve wondered about for a long time. What standard does the Secret Service use in determining whether its agents need to contact someone who makes a threat against the President or a presidential candidate?  And what does the Secret Service do when they contact someone like that?

I ask these questions because there is a chilling quality to such a visit on political speech. Now the Secret Service does not visit every person who makes a crazy comment, as they lack the resources for that and correctly conclude that the vast majority of those statements are harmless. But are there written guidelines that help them assess this?  If so, what are they? And would there be a First Amendment claim, say against individual Secret Service agents, if someone felt that they were being unfairly targeted or harassed for things that they said?

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UCLA Law Review Vol. 63, Issue 5

Volume 63, Issue 5 (June 2016)
Articles

How Governments Pay: Lawsuits, Budgets, and Police Reform Joanna C. Schwartz 1144
Second-Order Participation in Administrative Law Miriam Seifter 1300
The Freedom of Speech and Bad Purposes Eugene Volokh 1366

 

Comments

Evolving Jurisdiction Under the Federal Power Act: Promoting Clean Energy Policy Giovanni S. Saarman González 1422
Election Speech and Collateral Censorship at the Slightest Whiff of Legal Trouble Samuel S. Sadeghi 1472
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Tribute to Lenny Bruce on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of His Death

This series is dedicated to the memory of John Sisko (1958-2016) —  artist, writer, teacher, gallerist, friend, and free-spirit. Sadly, his artistic tribute to Tom Paine never came to pass. Still, his last words revealed the measure of the man, his revolutionary grain: “I have lived my life creatively and uniquely and on my own terms.” Yes you did, John. 

____________________

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(credit: NYT)

To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the death of America’s most uninhibited comedian, I have prepared five posts for the occasion. My interest in Bruce traces back to my book with David Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce (2002 & 2012 — 10th anniversary issue / NPR interview), followed by our successful petition to Governor George Patakai to posthumously pardon the comedian.  

Recent & Related 

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 “Lenny Bruce – In His Own, Unheard, Words,” BBC, July 30, 2016 (“Fifty years since Lenny Bruce died, Mark Steel explores his legacy in the 21st century, drawing on personal tape recordings from a newly established Lenny Bruce archive at Brandeis University, as well as classic clips from some of his ground-breaking comedy and social commentary routines. With contributions from Lenny’s daughter, Kitty Bruce, and from those who knew and wrote about him, including author Laurence Schiller.”)

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Philip Eil, “50 Years After His Death, Lenny Bruce’s Spirit Lives,” The Forward, August 1, 2016

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Kelly Carlin, Rain Pryor, and Kitty Bruce Speak Out About Their Fathers and the Fight for Free Speech in Comedy” (FIRE: Video/Podcast) (really a remarkable video)

Kelly Carlin, Rain Pryor, & Kitty Bruce

        Kelly Carlin, Rain Pryor, & Kitty Bruce

Can We Take a Joke? (FIRE documentary featuring Lenny Bruce)

Paul Krassner, Remembering Lenny Bruce, 50 years after his death, Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2016

 Alex Wohl, Standup Philosopher, Brandeis Magazine, Summer (2016)

(Credit: Vice Squad Mag., April, 1963)

(Credit: Vice Squad Mag., April, 1963)

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Lenny Bruce – 50 Years Later: Still Funny & “Unsafe”

Warning: The man of whom you are about to read once offended many, and his words continue to do so today.  

Lenny Bruce died for our sins.

FileLenny-bruce-on-stage.jpgOkay, it’s just a joke.

Still, the uninhibited comedian’s legacy did have its redemptive side. After he died, fifty years ago today, no comedian was ever again prosecuted for word crimes uttered in a comedy club. By that cultural measure, Lenny Bruce became the patron saint of standup comedians who freely mock those who trade in hypocrisy.

Before there was Larry David, Penn Jillette, Margaret Cho, Lisa Lampanelli, Chris Rock, or George Carlin, there was Lenny Bruce. He was the quintessential take-no-prisoners comedian. His comedic fare was robust; his style avant-garde; his method crude-blue; and his message upset some and delighted others. Did he shock? – yes. Did he offend? – yes. And was he funny? – yes, outrageously so, at least at his best moments. It’s all in a new documentary titled Can We Take a Joke?

Taboo: That was his off-limits destination. En route he tore into hypocrisy with buzz-saw vigor. No matter the subject – race, religion, politics, or sex – Bruce gave no dime to the Sunday-pious crowd. But when one deals in the forbidden, when one mocks the righteous, and when one does so with razor-cutting humor, there are consequences.

Such as?

Lenny Bruce was prosecuted for obscenity in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York for his comedy club bits. At great professional and financial cost, he was nonetheless exonerated in all of the cases except the one in New York. By the time the New York club owner (Bruce’s co-defendant) successfully appealed his conviction, Lenny was dead (broke, and with a needle spiked in his arm). He died a convicted comedian – the last one in our history.

(ht: Chuck Harter]

(ht: Chuck Harter]

December 23, 2003. On that day New York Governor George Pataki posthumously pardoned Lenny Bruce. “Freedom of speech,” he declared, “is one of the greatest American liberties, and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.”

The people who must never have power are the humorless. — Christopher Hitchins

Have we remembered that “reminder”? Yes, and no.

On the one hand, we now enjoy an almost unprecedented degree of free-speech freedom. It is our American badge of liberty — that willingness to tolerate that with which we disagree. On the other hand, anything deemed offensive is today banned on many college campuses. The trend is to create “safe zones” where students are protected from ideas or words that might upset them.

At Clemson University, unwelcome “verbal . . . conduct of a sexual nature” constitutes “sexual harassment.” This definition includes a vast amount of protected speech such as a joke or comment that any student subjectively finds to be offensive.

At Clark University, its Code of Student Conduct prohibits “telling jokes based on a stereotype.” Of course, that is something Lenny Bruce often did in order to combat the kind of prejudice lurking behind offensive stereotyping.

Grinnell College bans “bias-motivated incidents,” which include “an expression of hostility against a person, group, or property thereof because of such person’s (or group’s) . . . religion . . .” By that measure, Bruce’s irreverent “Religions Incorporated” and “Christ and Moses” routines could be banned at Grinnell.

Florida State University’s “A Summons to Responsible Freedom” defines “Sexual Misconduct” to include “unwanted [or] unwelcome . . . sexual or gender-based . . . comments.” By that punitive gauge there is much in Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (1992, reissued 2016) that would catch the censorial eye.

And then there is the capper: Northeastern University’s acceptable use policy, which prohibits the electronic transmission of any material “which in the sole judgment of the University is offensive.” Lenny Bruce’s prosecutors used much the same subjective yardstick to indict him. If “Saint Lenny” were alive, he would have a devil of a time ripping into campus such speech codes, the ones that cabin the mind in solitary confinement.

When Bruce was posthumously pardoned, the comedian Tom Smothers said: “So many of us today owe so much to Lenny Bruce.” Indeed. Regrettably, it is a debt still owed on far too many campuses across this land. No joke!

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Looking Back: Lenny Bruce’s Obscenity Prosecutors & First Amendment Defense Lawyers

Ephraim London

Ephraim London (NY defense lawyer) (credit: Getty Images)

Al Bendich (SF lawyer) (credit: NYT)

Harry Kalven, Jr. (IL appellate counsel)

Harry Kalven, Jr. (Illinois appellate counsel)

Al Bendich (SF defense counsel) (credit: NYT)

The Lenny Bruce story — the one about his obscenity trials (circa 1961-64 in SF, LA, Chicago & NY) — is a remarkable story in the history of the First Amendment as well as in the culture of comedy. You’ll not find the story on the pages of the the United States Supreme Court, though Bruce forever changed the law when it came to uninhibited comedy. You will, however, find traces of that story in the 3,500 pages of trial transcripts titled People v. Bruce (sometime this fall those transcripts will be available in their entirety on FIRE’s online First Amendment Library). There in black-and-white you will find a story about laws invoked in factual situations where it was unclear that any prosecution was warranted.  It is also the story of using the law in ways that at the time were constitutionally suspect. And then there is the human story, the tragic one that first destroyed a man’s career and then destroyed him.

The backdrop of this story is the lawyers who prosecuted and defended the uninhibited comedian. It is said that the dead live on the lips of the living. Mindful of that admonition, below I have listed the names of those lawyers (adapted from my book with David Skover: The Trials of Lenny Bruce). In our judge-centric world, we tend to overlook the lawyers, the ones who are the first to plow the earth of the law. So note their names and roles in People v. Bruce.

The names listed below are those involved in Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trials (as distinguished from, say, his drug arrests and trials).

My experience with Lenny Bruce . . . was the first time I saw in action the government’s use of the might and power of the criminal justice system to crush dissent. William M. Kunstler 

Prosecutors (12)

San Francisco:

  1. Arthur Schaefer (1st Jazz Work Shop obscenity trial)
  2. Albert C. Wallenberg (2nd Jazz Work Shop obscenity trial)

Los Angeles

  1. Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. (pretrial hearing on motion to dismiss Trolly Ho obscenity case)
  2. Ronald Ross  (consolidated Troubadour & Unicorn obscenity trial)

Chicago

  1. Samuel V. Banks (Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  2. Edward J. Egan (Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  3. Willie Whiting (Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  4. William J. Martin (appeal of conviction in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  5. James R. Thompson (appeal of conviction in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
Richard Kuh (NY prosecutor) (credit: Getty Images)

Richard Kuh (NY prosecutor) (credit: Getty Images)

New York

  1. Gerald Harris (grand jury & pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  2. Richard H. Kuh (Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  3. Vincent J. Cuccia (procedures for appeal of Cafe Au Go Go conviction)

Prosecutors re Appeal of Companion Case (People v. Solomon)

  1. H. Richard Uviller (post judgment motions before New York Supreme Court, Appellate Term)
  2. Harold R. Shapiro (appeal of Cafe Au Go Go conviction before New York Supreme Court, Appellate Term)

First Amendment Defense Lawyers (23)

San Francisco:

  1. Seymour Fried (1st Jazz Work Shop obscenity trial)
  2. Albert M. Bendich (2nd Jazz Work Shop obscenity trial)

Los Angeles

  1. Melvin Belli  (represented by his associate, Charles Ashman, in Troubadour obscenity case)
  2. Seymour Lazar (pretrial matters in Trolly Ho obscenity case)
  3. Sydney M. Irmas (Trolly Ho obscenity case)
  4. Burton M. Marks (consolidated Troubadour & Unicorn obscenity trial)
  5. John Marshall (Illinois extradition order in Gate of Horn obscenity case)

Chicago

Maurice Rosenfield (IL appellate counsel w Kalven)

Maurice Rosenfield (IL appellate counsel w Kalven)

  1. George J. Cotsirilos (pretrial matters in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  2. Donald Page Moore (pretrial matters in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  3. Samuel Friedfeld (Gate of Horn attorney originally retained to represent Bruce & club owner Alan Robback in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  4. Earl Warren Zaidans (Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  5. George C. Pontiffs (sentencing hearing in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  6. Harry Kalven, Jr. (appeal of conviction  in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  7. William R. Ming, Jr. (appeal of conviction  in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  8. Maurice Rosenfield (appeal of conviction  in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
Martin Garbus (one of NY defense counsel)

Martin Garbus (one of NY defense counsel w London)

New York

  1. Howard Squadron (bail & bond for arrest in pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  2. Lawrence H. Rogovin (appears for Howard Squadron in pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  3. Ephraim London (lead counsel in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  4. Martin Garbus (co-counsel in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  5. Harry Herschman (sentencing hearing  in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  6. Allen G. Schwartz (certificate of reasonable doubt for appeal in  in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity case)
  7. Edward de Grazia (§1983 civil rights law suit)
  8. William M. Kunstler (advisory capacity in §1983 civil rights law suit)

* * * *

Attorneys on Appeal for Bruce’s Co-defendant, Howard L. Solomon (People v. Solomon)

  1. Bentley Kassal (bail and bond for arrest and pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  2. Herbert Monte-Levy (pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  3. Allen G. Schwartz (Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  4. William S. Miller (sentencing hearing in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  5. William S. Miller (sentencing hearing in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  6. William E. Hellerstein (appeal of Cafe Au Go Go conviction)
  7. Milton Adler (appeal of Cafe Au Go Go conviction)

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Posthumous Pardon Petition  re People v. Bruce (1964)

  1. Robert Corn-Revere (counsel for Petitioners Ronald Collins & David Skover)
Robert Corn-Revere (posthumous pardon)

Robert Corn-Revere (posthumous pardon)

* * * *  

 No to be overlooked are the nine club owners who were either persecuted or prosecuted in connection with Lenny Bruce’s performances in their clubs. See The Trials of Lenny Bruce, p. 456 (2002).

There is also the story of the judges who presided over Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trials. That is, however, another post for another day.  Besides, there were so many of them. See The Trials of Lenny Bruce, pp. 454-456 (2002).

→ And finally, there is the story of a relentless journalist who played a key role in the Lenny Bruce First Amendment story.  His name: Nat Hentoff.

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The Great University Chicago Trio (Kalven, Rosenfield & Ming) & Their Defense of Lenny Bruce

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Behold People v. Lenny Bruce.  And note his three lawyers who handled the appeal of his obscenity conviction for his performance at the famed Gate of Horn nightclub in Chicago (December 1962):

Harry Kalven & Maurice Rosenfield

Harry Kalven & Maurice Rosenfield

Professor Kalven, the famed First Amendment scholar, had long been critical of the Court’s ruling in Roth v. United States (1957) and its progeny. He aired those reservations in his seminal 1960 Supreme Court Review article titled “The Metaphysics of the Law of Obscenity.” Thus his interest in People v. Bruce; it presented itself as a test case to reexamine Roth.

William R. Ming, Jr. (credit: U. Chi. archives)

William R. Ming, Jr. (credit: U. Chi. archives)

To help Kalven move from the theoretical to the practical, Kalven collaborated with Maurice Rosenfield and William Ming — two friends, highly reputable lawyers, and colleagues from their University of Chicago Law School days.

Rosenfield, who once co-authored an article with Kalven, was a partner in the law firm of Devoe, Shadur, Mikva, and Plotkin. He had represented Hugh Hefner in the mid-1950s and into the 1960s, and had likewise filed an amicus brief in Roth on behalf of the Authors League of America (Abe Fortas was also on that brief).

Ming was the first African American professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He had been one of Thurgood Marshall’s advisors and worked with Marshall on the Brown v. Board brief (his name was listed between Jack Greenberg and Constance Baker Motley).

There is, to be sure, more to the story, much more.* Suffice it to say that in the end, the trio prevailed when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in Bruce’s favor.

* See Ronald Collins & David Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce (2002), pp. 175-182.

For more on the Chicago connection, see “Laughter & the First Amendment,” Chicago Humanities Festival (Geoffrey Stone, Ron Collins, Judge Diane Wood & Judge William Bauer — introduced by Burt Joseph) (Geof stone was at his comedic best).

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We kill comedians don’t we? — The Lenny Bruce Story

We drove him into poverty and bankruptcy and then murdered him. We all knew what we were doing. We used the law to kill him. — Vincent Cuccia (one of Bruce’s NY prosecutors)

He died before his death. It was apparent that Wednesday (February 9) in 1966 when Lenny Bruce spoke at the Associated Students Speakers’ Program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He rambled; he misspoke; he struggled; and, yes, he bombed. Pathetic. That’s one word. Sad. That’s another. Predictable. Yet another word.

In less than six months he would be officially dead. Who could not see it coming?

Lenny Bruce, left (credit: Getty Images)

Lenny Bruce, left (credit: Getty Images)

Bruce was broke, bankrupt, out of work, out of luck, friendless, divorced, depressed, and junked up. It was so bad that shortly before he died he tried to hit up his parole officer for $10. Worse still, he was a criminal—a year or so earlier he had been convicted and sentenced in New York for an “obscene” bit he did at the Cafe au Go Go.

They hunted him in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. It took its toll: the busts, the prosecutions, the trials, the appeals, and the alienation. And all this for his comedy. He was so taken with his legal plight that he largely abandoned comedy. Besides, by the time he spoke at UCLA no club would hire him. He was a sick and sad comedian, a man waiting to be fitted for a hangman’s noose.

The days of his outrageous humor—“obscene,” “blasphemous,” “sick”—were over. His great comic bits that once pierced the boils of hypocrisy were past tense. He was obsessed with the law; he had a childlike faith in it; and he long thought it would save him. By the time he found himself at UCLA surrounded by students—by that pinpoint in time—he came to a terrifying realization: it was over. Hence, when he spoke of the law, it was like listening to a man with an uncontrollable mental tic—a flick of the head, a fast-and-fleeting flash of an idea, and all capped off with a lunatic’s chuckle.

That day at UCLA much of the laughter was feigned. Or it was an uneasy laughter, an awkward gesture of sympathy. How could it be otherwise? The great Lenny Bruce—the TV and record star, the club star, the well-paid star, and the star of the hip generation—had been reduced to rubble. No wonder he babbled as he tried to speak of free-speech freedom; no surprise that he blathered on as he attempted to discuss the importance of courts and the rule of law; and no wonder it all went south when he sought to make sense of his life at the intersection of despair and destitution.

My point? What people saw that day at UCLA was a Lenny Bruce freak show. But the show, as they say, had to go on . . . and go on it did.

Death changed everything; it would bring Lenny back to life with everlasting applause. It was ironic: death was his best publicity agent. But why?

Because . . .

(Credit: UPI)

(Credit: UPI)

Dead Lenny was no longer a threat to anyone.

Dead Lenny could no longer offend the sensibilities of the righteous.

Dead Lenny was compliant.

That, at least, was the censorial hope. But there was more:

Dead, Lenny the man became Lenny the myth.

Dead, Lenny the uninhibited comedian became a cultural hero.

Dead, Lenny the unruly social commentator became packaged product, and

Dead, Lenny the once bankrupt comic became a cash cow for others

* * * *

It’s true: We feared Lenny alive / yet we love Lenny the dead hero.

Odd the way we turn the First Amendment into a death wish. It is to take a guarantee meant for the living and cram it into a coffin. The result: The censor’s past will likely repeat itself when the next Lenny Bruce comes onto a new life stage.

It is oft repeated: Lenny Bruce is the patron saint of comedians. There is truth there. After all, Lenny Bruce was the last comedian prosecuted and tried for word crimes in a comedy club. He paid the dues, and comedians were the everlasting beneficiaries. Hail Lenny; hail St. Lenny! Okay. But think of it: we canonize a (Jewish) comedian?

“I don’t want to end up like [Lenny Bruce], but I want to be like him.”—Margaret Cho

Which brings me to this question: Why should it be so? Why must we demand dead Lennys? Why not alive Lennys?

Why not celebrate the First Amendment by protecting speech that offends us, repels us, and even unsettles us? Is that asking too much? Perhaps. But that is what the First Amendment asks of us. No joke!

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FAN 118.1 (First Amendment News) Seasoned SCOTUS Appellate Lawyer Files Cert. Petition in “Public Official” Defamation Case

Here is what Tony Mauro once said of him: “Few lawyers — including the nine lawyers who wear robes to work — know the Supreme Court’s docket as well as” he does. “He is generally regarded,” observed Georgetown Law Professor Steven Goldblatt,  “as one of the best [Supreme Court lawyers] in the country.”

Roy T. Englert, Jr.

Roy T. Englert, Jr.

His name: Roy T. Englert, Jr. That name is known among those seasoned few in the Supreme Court Bar. He has argued 21 cases before the Court, including United States Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (1989), a Freedom of Information Act case concerning privacy exemption. He won, this while he was Assistant to the Solicitor General.

Later, when he was at Mayer, Brown & Platt, he filed an amicus brief in United States v. Eichman (1990) (First Amendment challenge to Flag Protection Act of 1989)), this on behalf of Senator Joesph Biden, Jr. and in support of the Petitioner. There is, of course, more, much more.

One of Mr. Englert’s latest cert. filings is in Armstrong v. Thompson, submitted earlier this month. The issue in the case is whether all (or nearly all) law enforcement officers are “public officials” under New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964). Here is how his cert. petition opens:

“This case presents a recurring First Amendment question: whether a garden-variety law enforcement officer, with little or no role in setting public policy, must establish ‘actual malice’ to recover for harm caused by tortious statements. A number of Circuits and state courts of last resort—where many issues relating to the First Amendment and defamation are decided—have held that every law enforcement officer is a ‘public official’ under New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. Accordingly, those courts, including the court below, require each and every law enforcement officer to show ‘actual malice’ before recovering for any tort carried out through speech. In this case, despite an otherwise-error-free trial resulting in a jury verdict establishing that respondent had committed an established common-law tort, the court of appeals joined those courts and reversed on federal constitutional grounds after determining that Armstrong was a public official and that he had failed to prove ‘actual malice.'”

 Later, he argues that the “Court has . . . never determined how far down the government ranks the ‘actual malice’ standard applies. It has, however, unequivocally stated that not every public employee is a ‘public official.’ Hutchinson v. Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111, 119 n.8 (1979). And it has made clear that the category ought to be limited to ‘those among the hierarchy of government employees who have, or appear to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs.’ Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 86 (1966); accord Gertz, 418 U.S. at 345 (equating ‘public official’ with someone who has “accepted public office’).”

Furthermore, Mr. Englert maintains that a “number of state courts have taken heed and held that low-ranking law enforcement officers are not public officials for purposes of the First Amendment. Kiesau v. Bantz (Iowa 2004); McCusker v. Valley News (N.H. 1981); Tucker v. Kilgore (Ky. 1964). Nevertheless, until 2013, there was an ‘overwhelming and entirely one-sided’ consensus among federal courts of appeals (as well as a number of other state courts) that ‘police officers are public officials for defamation purposes’—regardless of rank or role—because ‘there is a strong societal interest in protecting expression that criticizes law enforcement officers.’ Young, 734 F.3d at 553-54 (Moore, J. dissenting). In 2013, the Sixth Circuit stated (albeit in dicta) that courts holding the ‘consensus’ view ‘have misinterpreted federal law on the issue.’ Id. at 549 (opinion of the court). . . .”

“Certain state courts,” he notes, “have developed their own idiosyncratic, fact-based inquiries into whether police officers are public officials. . . .”

“Finally, there are courts that have (correctly) determined that there is nothing talismanic about the designation of ‘law enforcement.’ These courts have applied to ‘law enforcement’ employees the same rule that they would to any other government employee.” . . . . “

In light ion the above, Mr. Englert urged the Justices to “establish a clear rule that low-level law officers are not ‘public officials.'”

Other counsel for the Petitioner are: Lanora C. Pettit and Peter B. Siegal.

The time for filing on a response is on or before September 6, 2016.

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FAN 118 (First Amendment News) University of Cape Town Disinvites Flemming Rose — Floyd Abrams Dissents

Note: Below is a heretofore unpublished letter from Floyd Abrams. It follows another one recently posted on this blog by Professor Nadine Strossen. Vice-Chancellor Max Price, to whom both letters were primarily directed, was invited to reply. (Links have been added for reference purposes.) 

* * * *

July 24, 2016

Dear Vice-Chancellor Price:

I am a practicing lawyer in the United States who has devoted the better part of my professional career to defending freedom of expression. I am also a Visiting Lecturer at the Yale Law School, have written two books and many articles about freedom of expression around the world, and have spoken about the topic in a number of nations including, by way of example, India, Japan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Great Britain and—of particular relevance—South Africa. I was one of a number of foreign scholars who participated in advising the drafters of the South African Constitution. I have spoken about issues relating to freedom of expression in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria. I have read your statement about the decision of University of Cape Town to withdraw the invitation to Flemming Rose to deliver this year’s  TB Davie Memorial Lecture. I take the liberty of writing this letter to you because your decision is not only of consequence to your university and to your country but to democratic nations and universities in them throughout the world.

Floyd Abrams

I would like to make two brief observations at the outset.

The first is that I am not writing to you to urge you to adopt or to apply American standards in deciding who may be invited. As your statement correctly observed, the framers of your Constitution quite deliberately adopted a general right of free expression subject to certain specific limitations relating to propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence, and “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.”

The second is that I am not writing to suggest that the cancellation by a university of an invitation to speak made to a  prominent  public figure is unique to South Africa. Quite the opposite is true. In the United States, a number of invitations have been made and then withdrawn by universities to prominent individuals including a former Secretary of State and the current head of the International Monetary Fund after protests were feared if the speaker was permitted to offer her views. Indeed, it is precisely because of my strong belief that the decisions of those American universities—and there are many of them– were so shameful and so contrary to basic principles of academic freedom that I take the liberty of writing to you.

UnknownAt the outset, nothing in the South African Constitution lends any support to your decision. Nothing that Mr. Rose has ever said can possibly be said to constitute propaganda for war. He has never urged violence against anyone or sought to incite it. Your statement observes that “Mr. Rose is regarded by many around the world as … someone whose statements . . . possibly amount to hate speech.”. I appreciate and honor your unwillingness to say that you credit any such an insupportable charge. But if you are unwilling to do so—and there is no basis for doing so—you can hardly rely on the notion of incitement as a basis for cancelling the invitation. I note in that respect that even the clause of the South African Constitution that limits free speech protection to advocacy of racial hatred or the like does so only when the speech at issue “constitutes incitement to cause harm”.

Writing from afar, I cannot comment specifically on your expressed concern about the security risks of permitting Mr. Rose to appear except to say that your nation, as mine, has experienced security risks in the past and when aware of them has been able to protect speakers and listeners alike. The security question is not whether it can be provided; it is whether freedom of speech on your campus is so important that it is worth doing so, with all its risks. Your Academic Freedom Committee obviously thought it was. From any perspective that honors academic freedom, that is a necessary conclusion.

Dr. Max Price

Dr. Max Price

The same is true of your stated concern that inviting Mr. Rose may have the perverse effect of limiting rather than vindicating academic freedom since he “represents a provocatively—potentially violently—divisive view.” Of course, Mr. Rose himself offers provocative views. I am sure that is why he was invited. But he hardly “represents” a “potentially violently” view about anything. The risk of violence is at all not from him but from those who simply do not accept core notions of freedom of expression and academic freedom. To yield to those who cannot abide freedom of expression that they find abhorrent is to abjectly surrender to them.

There remains the first basis articulated by you for rescinding the invitation to Mr. Rose—concern about provoking conflict on campus. It is, I am well aware, awfully easy for people thousands of miles away from your campus and whose views you have not sought, to presume to advise you that even if there is a risk of conflict on your campus that follows or accompanies a speech by Mr. Rose, it is one worth accepting. Who needs, you may well ask, such second-guessers? All I can say is that those of us who weigh in on the issue from abroad do so because we care about your country, are impressed by its Constitution, and are often in awe of your Supreme Court and its liberty-protecting rulings. We also offer our views because the decision to disinvite by your great institution is one that will be viewed carefully by academic institutions around the world as they decide how to respond in similar circumstances.

The very first TB Davie Memorial Lecture was delivered by Chief Justice Centlivres, the Chancellor of your university, on May 6, 1959. He then summarized what he characterized as Professor’s Davie’s “articles of faith” as follows: “The first was that a university is primarily a centre of learning, the second that a university flourishes only in an atmosphere of absolute intellectual freedom, and the third, that the pre-eminent virtue of university life is intellectual integrity,.” Guided by those precepts, it is difficult to understand or accept the cancellation of Mr. Rose’s appearance.

Respectfully submitted,

Floyd Abrams

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News Update: Michael Cardo, UCT: A tale of two lecturers, PoliticsWeb, July 25, 2016 (“This coming weekend, the University of Cape Town will host Hamza Tzortzis, a highly controversial lecturer who propagates a radical version of Islam. His visit to the campus follows hot on the heels of an executive decision to bar Danish journalist Flemming Rose from delivering the 2016 TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom.”) 

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FAN 117.3 (First Amendment News) University of Cape Town Disinvites Flemming Rose — Nadine Strossen Dissents

In the classic expression of freedom of speech and assembly, UCT’s policy is that our members will enjoy freedom to explore ideas, to express these and to assemble peacefully. The annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom was established by UCT students to commemorate the work of Thomas Benjamin Davie, vice-chancellor of the university from 1948 to 1955 and a defender of the principles of academic freedom. Organised by the Academic Freedom Committee, the lecture is delivered by distinguished speakers who are invited to speak on a theme related to academic and human freedom. 

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Note: Below is a heretofore unpublished letter from Professor Nadine Strossen. This coming Wednesday FAN will post another dissenting letter, this one by Floyd Abrams. Additionally, Vice-Chancellor Max Price, to whom the letter is primarily directed, is invited to reply should he be so inclined. (Links have been added for reference purposes.) 

July 22, 2016

Dear Vice-Chancellor Price, AFC Chair Professor Rousseau, and Professors Hendricks and McClachlan-Daniels:

UnknownAs someone who was honored to deliver the TB Davie Memorial Lecture in 2011, I was inspired by the University of Cape Town’s proud history of defending academic freedom, and its ongoing commitment to doing so, including through this Lecture and the work of the Academic Freedom Committee. I also recall fondly Dr. [Max] Price’s cordial hospitality and  appreciated support for the AFC and the Davie Lecture.

I applaud the AFC’s March 2015 decision to invite Flemming Rose to deliver the 2016 Davie Lecture, and I am heartened by the AFC’s refusal to rescind that invitation despite apparently great pressure to do so from both within and beyond UCT. Having read Mr. Rose’s enlightening book, The Tyranny of Silence, as well as many other publications by and interviews of him, I consider him one of the most principled, courageous exemplars of intellectual freedom and freedom of conscience, including freedom for religious and other beliefs. I was therefore deeply honored to present to him the biennial Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty, awarded by the Cato Institute, in New York City on May 25, 2016. For your information,  I append below this letter the text of the remarks that I delivered on that occasion.

maxresdefaultOf course, I would neutrally defend Mr. Rose’s right to speak at UCT  — and the UCT community’s right to hear his ideas – even if I strongly objected to his ideas. But he is especially deserving of a forum such as the Davie Lecture because his ideas have been so widely caricatured and misunderstood, and because these ideas are urgently important precisely due to the sensitive nature of the issues they address.

 For the foregoing reasons, I was deeply disheartened to learn recently that UCT had overridden the AFC and breached the commitment to host Mr. Rose to deliver the 2016 Davie Lecture. I was particularly disheartened by the reasons set out for that action in Dr. Price’s recently released letter, dated July 12, 2016.

These are the very same reasons that regularly have been cited to suppress the expression of any view that is politically unpopular at the particular time and place. In the U.S., for example, these were the reasons that too many universities cited for barring civil rights advocates from speaking during the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement. Likewise, they are the same reasons why too many U.S. universities more recently barred “Black Power” activists from speaking. In a nutshell, the arguments both then and now are that the suppressed ideas could well offend other people, threatening their most cherished personal beliefs and community values, and potentially leading to violent reactions by those who are thus offended.

Professor Nadine Strossen

Professor Nadine Strossen

I have read the persuasive responses that have been issued to Dr. Price’s letter by the 2015 Davie Lecturer, Kenan Malik, and by the Index on Censorship, as well as by the AFC and Flemming Rose himself. I will not repeat the powerful arguments they made.  Rather, I will confine myself to making several additional points.

First, why does UCT succumb to the victim-blaming approach in this context that it would surely eschew in other contexts? To say that Flemming Rose should not advance ideas that others might find provocative and respond to with violence, seems to me the same as arguing that women should not wear certain clothing that others might find provocative and respond to with violence.

Second, Dr. Price’s letter references the limits upon free speech that the South African Constitution sets out, which are also generally accepted in other legal systems.  Yet the letter doesn’t expressly contend – nor could it credibly do so – that anything Flemming Rose has said, or is likely to say, would transgress any of those limits.  Indeed, apparently acknowledging as much, Dr. Price’s letter makes only the tentative, qualified observation that “Mr. Rose is regarded by many around the world as..someone whose statements.possibly amount to hate speech.”

As any survey of the media will reveal, if universities declined to host any speakers whom some people consider to have made statements that “possibly amount to hate speech,” then they would have to ban from campus just about everyone who is addressing any important, contentious, sensitive issue. For example,  in the U.S., many critics recently have denounced “Black Lives Matter” protestors as engaging in hate speech, even blaming such speech for allegedly instigating murders of police officers.

Dr. Max Price

Dr. Max Price

Flemming Rose’s speech clearly is not “advocacy of hatred . . . that constitutes incitement to cause harm,”  which the South African Constitution excludes from free speech protection (as quoted in Dr. Price’s letter). First, there is no basis for concluding that Mr. Rose would say anything that could fairly be considered “advocacy of hatred that is based on.religion.” Moreover, even if someone did engage in such “advocacy,” it would still be protected speech, unless it also “constitutes incitement to cause harm.” To the best of my knowledge,  not even Flemming Rose’s most unfair, harshest critics have charged him with “incitement” – a legal term of art that means intentionally spurring on listeners who are supportive of his views to commit harm against third parties, in a context where his sympathizers are actually likely to do so imminently. And if any such charge has been leveled, it would be patently unjustified.

If South Africa withheld free speech protection for non-inciting statements that merely criticize certain religious beliefs, or actions that are based on certain religious beliefs, then it could not protect many views that have been widely aired around the world:  for example,  criticism of’ discriminatory views and actions concerning LGBTQ individuals that are held by many Christian and other denominations and their adherents.

Third, Dr. Price’s invocation of “the rise in extremist terrorist groups” as somehow allegedly justifying suppression of Flemming Rose’s speech is also part of a general pattern that has been used to suppress a wide range of freedom, all over the world, not only in the recent past, but also historically. Ironically, this was precisely the topic of my 2011 Davie Lecture:  the unjustified violations of academic freedom in the name of fighting “the War on Terror.”

Given that this “War” is likely to remain “The New Normal” worldwide, it will remain an all-too-convenient, but unjustified, rationale for suppressing academic and other freedom.  This danger was recognized by none other than the namesake of the TB Davie Memorial Lecture himself. Let me quote a passage from my Davie Lecture, which quoted Dr. Davie’s pertinent observations.

“In his 1948 Inaugural Address, upon being installed as UCT’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Davie noted that `[r]ecent history has…shown …how easily and almost imperceptibly Universities can be deprived of their freedom.’  In words that are chillingly apt today  [almost seven] decades later, he warned: `Controls and restrictions [that are] imposed and accepted under conditions of war are only too meekly submitted to, even when the conditions necessitating their imposition have disappeared.'”

Fourth, I would like to add to the critiques that have already been made of Dr. Price’s argument that proceeding with Flemming Rose’s lecture “might retard rather than advance academic freedom.”  This reminds me of the much-maligned statement by a U.S. military official during the Vietnam War, that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

It is also the same argument that the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected in the landmark 1997 case of Reno v. ACLU, in which the Court for the first time upheld freedom of speech for the then-new medium of online expression. The U.S. government had argued that individuals might avoid an uncensored Internet “because of the risk of exposing themselves or their children to harmful material,” and therefore that censorship could have a net positive impact on free speech. The Court resoundingly repudiated this Through-the-Looking-Glass argument for the same reason that it is unpersuasive in the current context:

“We find this argument singularly unpersuasive…[I]n the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it. The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.”

Fifth and finally, I am troubled by the ongoing threat to academic freedom that Dr. Price’s letter signals. On the one hand, he  asserts that UCT “hope[s] never again to have to interfere with an invitation to deliver a lecture on academic freedom.” On the other hand, though, he later endorses  “a considered version of academic freedom that is avowedly sensitive to the concurrent rights to dignity and freedom from harm.” In other words, it is only his version – or UCT’s “official” version – of academic freedom that will be honored, not that of the AFC, or the viewpoint-neutral version that would be consistent with the South African Constitution and UCT’s own proud traditions, as exemplified by TB Davie.

In light of the positive experience that I was so honored to enjoy as a prior Davie Lecturer -the same positive experience that Kenan Malik described in his response to Dr. Price’s letter – and in the constant hope that “more speech” will prevail over censorship, I respectfully urge reconsideration of the decision not only to “disinvite” Flemming Rose from giving the Lecture, but also apparently to exclude him from speaking at UCT altogether, even as part of a debate or panel presentation. I don’t think that bringing any speaker to campus could reasonably be viewed as anointing that speaker “as the chosen champion of the University of Cape Town,” as Dr. Price says. Certainly, when I had the privilege of delivering the Davie Lecture, I saw myself as the champion only of my own views on academic freedom; I did not see myself as even a spokesperson for UCT, let alone its “champion.” By continuing to create fora for discussion and debate by and with speakers expressing a range of views – including such an important thinker, writer, and activist as Flemming Rose — UCT itself would continue as “the chosen champion” of academic freedom.

 Very truly yours,

 Nadine Strossen

John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law,  New York Law School

Immediate Past President, American Civil Liberties Union (1991-2008)

APPENDIX   Read More