Saturday, June 30, 2018

SPLC learns that rights come with responsibilities

The Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) has settled a defamation lawsuit brought by British 'liberal Muslim' Maajid Nawaz for $3.4 million. Nawaz is well known for his advocacy of human rights and moderate approach to dealing with Islamic extremism, so it was surprising when in 2014 the SPLC listed him and his Quilliam Foundation in their 'Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists'. However, anyone who is familiar with the SPLC activities in recent years will know that the 50 year old organisation, which was established to fight the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups in the American South, has become an extremely partisan organisation itself. Any prominent political advocate who holds views that differ from SPLC's hard-left positions on a range of issues can expect to appear on one of its lists. That wouldn't be such a problem if it wasn't for the fact that many mainstream organisations use the SPLC's lists as the gauge of whether someone's political views are acceptable. Appearing on them is likely to result in you being banned from social media or even losing your job.

Many advocates of free speech (such as this writer in Quillette) have asked whether the settlement will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. I think they are mistaken. No right is absolute. The right to free speech, such as is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, does not mean the right to be free of any costs of enjoying that right. This is probably the most misunderstood aspect of the nature of rights and this misunderstanding results in a distortion of the concept of rights. Rights are by definition universal, which means that my rights shouldn't abrogate your rights. It means that rights come with responsibilities. The right to life, for example, comes with the responsibility to provide for your own survival - it does not include the right to be fed.

In the case of defamation laws, there are two rights that are being balanced - your right to free speech with another person's right to pursue their own happiness. If you defame someone, you impose a cost on them - at the very least the intangible cost to their reputation but very often a real and tangible cost, such as on their ability to earn an income. The damages awarded in successful defamation suits do not abrogate your right to free speech but rather ensure you pay the costs of enjoying your right. The multi-million dollar award to Maajid Nawaz reinforces this important principle in law and won't have a chilling effect on free speech per se. The court didn't say SPLC couldn't continue to publish their Field Guide, only that it has a responsibility to get their facts rights and that there is a cost if they don't.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Bob Jones is doing us all a favour

Sir Robert Jones, the Wellington property investor, political pundit, boxing commentator and writer, has never been one to shy away from a fight. This time he is taking up his cudgel against a women who called him 'racist'. It all started with an opinion piece Jones wrote in his regular column in the weekly National Business Review newspaper about the annual Waitangi Day fiasco.

Waitangi Day is meant to be New Zealand's national day, celebrating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between Maori chiefs and the British Crown in 1840, but it has become a day of such insult and even violence from Maori activists that in recent years New Zealand prime ministers have refused to attend the ceremonies at Waitangi (where the Treaty was signed) and many New Zealanders refuse to acknowledge the day with anything more than contempt.

Bob Jones was making a satirical point in his column when he said that the day should be repurposed as 'Maori Gratitude Day', an occasion on which Maori give thanks to the British settlers for saving them from self-inflicted extinction. The woman Jones is suing raised a petition calling on the government to strip of his knighthood for his comments and managed to get 40,000 signatures, but it isn't the petition that is the subject of Jones's counterpunch but rather her libellous use of the 'racist' epithet.

I have recently written about the antonymic use of the term. It is used predominantly not to describe someone who wants to discriminate on the basis of race but rather those who object to such discrimination. Thus, if you believe we all should be equal under the law, you are called a racist. It is long overdue that such insulting and dishonest use of language was called out and those responsible be made to pay. If Bob Jones succeeds with his legal action, perhaps those who use the term with such profligacy for their own purposes will think twice.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Butchers, Bakers, Candlestick Makers and Gay Weddings

The United States Supreme Court has decided in favour of a Colorado baker, who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, in what may be the first of a number of similar cases to go to America's highest court. The baker had challenged the decision of the Colorado human rights commission that ruled he did not have the right to refuse service on the basis of his religious beliefs. 

I think the court made the right decision, despite saying in my last post that "we should judge others as individuals rather than as members of some identity group", because I believe the law shouldn't force anyone to act against their conscience. If a religious person thinks gay marriage is sinful and cannot reconcile the provision of products and services with their beliefs, then he or she shouldn't be forced to act against those beliefs. People are entitled to their prejudices and while I think such views are ignorant and irrational, I'll defend the person's right to have them.

The state should not discriminate because everyone should be equal under the law, but this does not mean the state should force private individuals and businesses to treat everyone equally. The idea of forcing a fundamentalist Christian, who takes the Biblical injunctions against homosexuality literally, to bake a cake to celebrate something he finds abhorrent, is itself abhorrent. Forcing someone to work against their will is slavery, pure and simple. If you disagree, I would you urge to apply the same principles to equivalent situations. Should we force Muslim butchers to sell pork? Or Catholic candlestick makers to sell candles to satanists?

The appropriate response to such prejudices in a free society is to discriminate against the people holding them. A boycott of those whose beliefs and actions you find contemptible is the best sanction. Business proprietors who limit their market to just those people who agree with their views are likely to find they have a far smaller market than businesses that are open to all. Likewise, someone who hires people only according to their prejudices will find they have a second-rate workforce. And for those gay couples who want a wedding cake, there is always another baker along the street who would be pleased to have their business.

The US Supreme Court decision makes it clear that it applied only to the specifics of the case before it and that it doesn't establish a general principle that businesses should be free to trade with whom they want. However, I think Justice Kennedy got it right when he summarised the thinking of the majority on the Court. "Tolerance is essential in a free society," he said, but he added that Colorado wasn't very tolerant of Phillips' religious beliefs when the state's human rights commission ruled against him. Indeed.