Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Individual Rights vs. Safety

At what point do we give up our rights, or infringe on the rights of others, in the name of safety? This is not a new argument. It was certainly debated with the Patriot Act. It’s become a local Utah issue as well with the Destiny Norton case.

For those who don’t know, Destiny is a five year old girl who came up missing a few days ago in Utah. This poor girl was missing for several days only to be found in a neighbor’s home last Monday.  

The police were criticized by the Norton family, and many others, for not finding the girl sooner, even though she was a mere 150 feet from the home. One man I listened to even said that, “When the police went to his door and he wouldn’t let them search his home, they should have known there was a problem and gone in anyway!” The family has apologized to the police, but the sentiment is still raging in the minds of many Utahns.

As heartbroken as I am over the loss of this innocent girl, there is a problem here. It’s called the Fourth Amendment.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

At the point the police were searching the neighboring homes they had no warrant or probable cause. Some people I’ve talked to have said that, “in cases like this they [the police] should be able to just go in anyway.” As we find more about the suspect, Craig Gregerson, a picture is painted of an anti-social person. Another neighbor to the Nortons said, “The police should be able to investigate people like that. They should have known that he was probably dangerous because he just wasn’t normal.”

That’s when I fell out of my chair. I understand the grief. I understand that grief makes people say weird things they regret later. I’ve done it countless times.  But haven’t we gotten past the notion that we can take police action against someone because they’re “different?”

This is why we have such laws, people. I’m pretty “different” myself. I’m a member of the LDS Church. I like science fiction. I’m a “geek.” I like Jazz music. I hate yard work so my lawn is more brown and dead than green and alive. I prefer to live a quiet, and more private, life. I’m a blogger (the dichotomy is not lost on me, okay?). Does this make me “different” enough to be dangerous? Should my privacy be violated because of it?

If we give credence to such ideas, we are stepping on road that will lead to the loss of the liberties that we, as Americans, claim to cherish.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Liberty of Thought and Expression

A couple of weeks ago I started asking questions about what Liberty really meant. I’ve been reading John Stuart Mill’s take on the matter in his book, On Liberty, and he’s got some interesting things to say. With that reveal, I’d like to start exploring Liberty of Thought and Expression today.

In America we call it “freedom of speech” and it’s guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Mill considered all encroachments on the free expression of opinion to be illegitimate, even if sanctioned by a government. He said, “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose . . . the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”

Humans have never experienced a time where opinions were free from all error. We may like to think our opinions are perfect and right, we must acknowledge that we are all fallible. (The irony of me stated the opinion that all opinions have errors hasn’t been lost on me.) If we make the assumption, though, that human affairs can only progress though the exchange of ideas, and the ability to see and rectify mistakes in the light of discussion, disagreement, and experience, where does that leave us today? Is wisdom gained by exposure to a variety of opinions? I’d like to think so. Mills said, “The strongest foundation for any belief is a standing invitation to prove it unfounded.” If this is true, social tolerances for ideas, and a free press, are vital to a free society.

Do we really have a free society, then? Social stigmatization of non-majority beliefs has been with us for decades, and persists to this day. Our social system is so splintered, however, that we find ourselves in the strange situation where majority beliefs are stigmatized in certain circles as well. Just look to the rants of the various talk shows and op-ed pieces that masquerade as “news” on television, radio, and the newspapers. It seems to me that, as a people, we haven’t left open the possibility that our own opinions, even our most deep seated convictions, can and should be disputed in open forum. We don’t tolerate the circulation of opposing ideas.

Even the threat of social intolerance of a particular idea is enough to prevent its expression and circulation. I would contend that one position can’t be fully understood until its opposite has fully seen the light of day. Our near fatal tendency, as humans, is to quit thinking about something once we’ve made up our minds. We begin to make the most errors when we consider a thing to be no longer in any doubt. This includes science as well as religion.

If this is true, that free speech is part of our fundamental belief in Liberty in the United States, do we protect all speech? What about hate speech? Do we protect a person’s right to disseminate that? Where does free speech cross into libel? If we can praise people, can we also malign and slander them? What if what we say is true? What if what we say about someone is not true? When we write things like, “At least he’s quit beating his wife” we are implying that a person did, at one time, beat his wife. But what he never struck her in the first place? “What? You haven’t quit beating your wife? You cad!” Of course he hasn’t quite beating his wife. He never beat her to begin with! And yet we see this kind of half-baked slander all the time on the 5:00 news. The press protects itself from being accused of libel by saying, a person “allegedly” did something.

It’s even worse in the political arena. Most political arguments these days contain only partial truths. Each side quietly suppresses half of the argument. Because they refuse to acknowledge the remainder, a useful dialogue is impossible. Only a conversation with all the facts can lead us to a stronger resolution than the ones we had before.

So, do we live in a society with true freedom of speech? Ten years ago I would have told you no, there’s no way. Even today, “political correctness” rears its ugly head and stops the free expression of ideas. In the name of “political correctness” many have misread the meaning of free speech. It’s not that all ideas, cultures, and ideologies are equal and good, as many would have us believe. They’re not. I refuse to buy into that idea. A culture that values slavery in any form, whether formalized as it was in the early days of this country, or through social stigmatization and cultural violence, is not good! It’s that the expression of either side of any argument is right and good.

Freedom of speech means I have the ability to use any means of non-violent expression I want, be it words, music, dance, or whatever, to share my opinion. Blogging is one way I do that. In order for my opinion to have any strength, though, I have to allow you to fully express your dissenting opinion, even if I find what you have to say distasteful and evil.

Feel free to disagree.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Double Standards and Greed

I feel a rant coming on. Two rants, actually.

First off, I woke up this morning to discover that my own Utah Senator Orrin Hatch has helped get a music producer (that just happens to be signed with the same music label the Senator Hatch is signed with) out of jail in Dubai.

On the surface this is a good thing. I don’t want any American rotting away in a jail cell in Dubai. Where this gets sticky is that this producer, Dallas Austin, was jailed after being convicted of drug possession when he tried to bring 1.26 grams of cocaine into Dubai.

Several years ago Senator Hatch ran as an incumbent on the “War on Drugs” campaign byline. How is actively seeking the release of a convicted cocaine smuggler fighting the war on drugs? Again, I don’t like the idea of anyone rotting in Dubai, but when’s the last time Senator Hatch tried to get anyone out of a foreign prison? Sorry Senator. I don’t think a record producer should get special treatment, just because he’s signed with the same label you are.

Next I discovered that a federal judge decided that DVD editing services such as CleanFlicks, and CleanFilms are violating copyright laws and need to cease and desist.

Let met give you some background on this. These two companies provide a service. They sell you a movie, just like anyone else does, and pay all the royalties associated with that sale. Then they turn around and sell you a second copy of the movie that has been edited for content, much like a movie would be for viewing on airline flight or on broadcast, and some cable, television networks. This is done for people who don’t like to go watch “R” rated movies and want gratuitous smut and violence left behind. They want to control the content that comes into their homes.

Michael Apted, director of "Coal Miner's Daughter" and president of the Director's Guild of America, gave the argument for Holywood suing these folks: "Audiences can now be assured that the films they buy or rent are the vision of the filmmakers who made them and not the arbitrary choices of a third-party editor.”

This is a lie, or if not a lie then an example of sheer stupidity. These movies are already being edited for content and time by broadcast networks and airlines. In fact, that was one of the big “selling points” of DVD when they were first exploring the technology. Hollywood couldn’t give us edited versions of the movies on VHS because it would be a technical nightmare for them. They could only put on show on one tape, so how many of which version did they need to create? But, Hollywood assured us, that with the advent of DVDs they could include both versions on the disk.

We already get edited DVDs. We can choose to see a DVD in widescreen or fullscreen format. We can even choose what language to listen to it on.

What this is really about is Hollywood retaining complete control of how consumers view and use their product. It’s about how much money they can get out of us as consumers. Even though the CleanFlicks consumer has already paid the licensing fees to see the movie in their homes, and could do the editing themselves under fair use laws, they can’t pay someone else to do it for them according to this ruling.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

What is Liberty?

We use the words “freedom” and “liberty” so often when discussing America, and rightly so. Unabashedly we can proclaim that we are a land of liberty. Just recently we celebrated those freedoms by observing Independence Day. I wonder, though, if we have used these terms so often that we’ve become unthinking about them. Along with the hot dogs, ice cream and fireworks, I’ve been contemplating what “liberty,” from an American perspective, actually means.

What is liberty? Is it the freedom to do whatever I please? What if it pleases me to rob my neighbors, or kill them? Then I’ve infringed on their liberties. How do we deal with liberty as a national aspiration?

Democracy is certainly founded on the principles of liberty. It replaces a dictatorship, whether it’s a king or some other potentially despotic ruler, with the voice of the people. But does democracy guarantee liberty for all? All people enjoy the idea of living in a society that enforces rules that give them rights. Too many people, however, still think that others should live as they do. Formulating laws that guarantee liberty to all is difficult in a pluralistic society. This is the central problem in modern democracies: the tension between majority rule and the protection of minority and individual rights.

In order to preserve a community, what kinds of limitations on liberty can we make on the individual? There is a limit to the legitimate interference of the collective majority against an individual. If we can agree that each person has an “inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” then I think we can also agree on one very simple premise: the only reason a government can exercise authority over the individual in a democracy, bent on preserving individual liberty, is to prevent harm to others. The individual should be granted sovereign authority over his or her own body and mind. (The only exceptions to this would be children, and people with mental disabilities of some kind. Their faculties are not fully developed, or have been compromised. They cannot be expected to make proper decisions about their lives.)

If we assume that the above principle is true, we can extrapolate three main components to liberty:

  1. freedom of thought and expression

  2. freedom to plan one’s own life pursuits

  3. freedom to unite in groups for any purpose not involving harm to others.

The Bill of Rights seems to guarantee these rights. As we have too often seen in our history, though, the devil is in the details.