Who Knew Freedom of Speech Would be So Complicated?

This article originally started with the sentence “I can’t remember the last time I agreed with Jeffrey Lord.”  That may no longer be true.

It’s true that his conservative views are about as far away from my more liberal approach to public policy, and current events, as one could imagine.  While his arguments sometimes make me think (more so, for example, than other conservative spokespeople like Kellyanne Conway and Sean Hannity), in the end I generally see the flaws in those arguments, and I reject them.  Our disagreements reach the greatest heights when it comes to Lord’s good buddy, Donald Trump, about whom I have been known to provide the odd jab (here and here).

But if Jeffrey Lord was indeed fired by CNN simply for tweeting “Seig Heil”, that was wrong.  People on both the left and the right should be outraged.

Free speech only exists if we defend the freedom to express themselves of those with whom we disagree just as strongly as we defend the speech of our allies.

Here’s what happened.

A liberal group, Media Matters, was organizing a campaign targeting the advertisers on conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s show.  Their express goal was to silence Hannity, whom they characterized as a “propagandist” for the Trump administration.

Just as conservatives attack liberal commentators and media personalities, so too some liberal groups attack the conservative voices.  This Media Matters campaign was going a step further, trying to get Hannity off the air because, in their view, he doesn’t tell the truth.

Lord, who has been writing articles (polemics, really) defending free speech for years, came to Hannity’s defence in a series of articles attacking the Media Matters campaign.  One of the most recent, on August 9th, characterizes the Media Matters campaign as a fascist attack on the first amendment of the US Constitution.

Other commentators have correctly pointed out – disagreeing with Lord – that fascism is about government limiting freedoms, and the first amendment is also about what governments can and cannot do.   Lord’s thesis appears to be that, in this day of a broader and more divergent flow of information, it is possible for groups within society to limit free speech without the intervention of government.  That, in his view, is also wrong, and is in any case a step down the slippery slope towards government censorship.

Whether you call it political correctness, or you call it an attack on freedom of speech, (or you call it some people being right, and others being idiots) this is obviously a live subject for debate in today’s society.

I don’t entirely agree with Lord’s attempt to equate private campaigns with government censorship and fascism.  Private campaigns are also a type of free speech, so you have to be careful in making this connection.  I do agree, however, that stating your views is something different from trying to prevent others from stating their views.

Lord comes down firmly on the “attack on free speech” side of this issue.  His conclusion in this article elicits the perils of fascism, by saying:

“Make no mistake. Hannity today, someone else tomorrow. The time to fight back against the Media Matters Fascists is now.  But let them speak for themselves — always. Whether the Media Matters Fascists like it or not, this is still America. And there must be no intention of silencing them either.”

During the course of his analysis in the article, Lord presents (for effect) his version of how Media Matters would revise the first amendment to the US Constitution.  He characterizes what they want, ultimately, as a first amendment in which the government decides what anyone can say.  Tying this to Mussolini and other fascist regimes, he quips:

“The American Spectator [where Lord’s article was published] has been unable to confirm reports that the original draft of this Media Matters revision ended with the words: “Seig Heil!””

In short, Lord’s point was that Media Matters was promoting fascist positions.  The “Seig Heil” was a tongue in cheek way of emphasizing that.

Later on the 9th, Lord and Angelo Carusone, the head of Media Matters, engaged in a Twitter battle, with no clear winner emerging.  (I found it petty, more than anything else. Twitter can be like that.)

Lord then did a followup column on the 10th, reiterating his view that the campaign against Hannity (and previous Media Matters campaigns against other conservative commentators) was at its root fascist.  He stated his central point thus:  “This is America, Angelo. Not Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.”  By implication, America is one place in which the right to free speech is sacrosanct.

Carusone responded angrily on Twitter, and Lord responded with the tweet “Seig Heil”, an obvious reference to the prior story.

Within hours, Lord was fired by CNN.  In their statement, CNN said:  “Nazi salutes are indefensible …Jeffrey Lord is no longer with the network.”

Lord was no more doing a Nazi salute than dancing a jig.  He was calling a liberal organization fascist.

Was he wrong in his conclusion?  Well, that is open for debate – legitimate debate, in which there are two sides to the story.

Was he wrong to use the Nazi term, even as a way of emphasizing his point?  That again is open for debate.  For some people, Seig Heil is a highly charged, even painful, phrase.  For others, it is old news, no longer the lightning rod it once was.

In either case, if he was wrong was it enough to be fired?  The answer is:  clearly not.  The worst he could be accused of is seeking an interesting (but perhaps in poor taste) way of making a point that others don’t agree with.

Sounds like why he was on CNN in the first place.

Lord’s response after being fired could be fairly characterized as “bemused”.  Or, if I can paraphrase his subsequent comments:  “You fired me for this?!”  Lord did note that his contract is up at the end of the year, implying that it was not certain he would be back anyway.  Thus, I conclude that it is at least possible that CNN simply seized on this errant tweet as an excuse to end a relationship that they no longer found useful.

On the other hand, if we take CNN at their word that it was the tweet that engaged their wrath, they would seem to be in the wrong here.  They shut down Lord for no other reason than he was exercising his right of free speech.  How is that morally acceptable, or consistent with their own values?

In my view, both liberals and conservatives should stand up and object to Lord’s firing, and both for the same reason:  free speech must be be defended.

Ironically, what Jeffrey Lord is entitled to (from liberals) is the same defence that he himself gave, freely, to liberal TV host Bill Maher just a few weeks ago.  In a June 14th article entitled “In Defense of Bill Maher’s Free Speech”, Lord (who probably agrees with Maher about as often as I agree with Lord) weighed in on the controversy surrounding Maher’s use of the term “house nigger” to describe himself.

Lord’s interesting take on the Maher firestorm was that a mistake – crossing a line – should not be enough to undermine Maher’s right to freedom of speech.  The term “nigger”, said Lord, is a word that causes pain, and Maher should not have said it.  On the other hand, Maher immediately admitted his mistake, and immediately had a show where his critics were given the opportunity to punish him for that mistake.

Should there be further consequences?

Many said that Maher should be fired by NBC for his use of the verboten word.  Lord’s conclusion was the opposite:

“Is it a good thing Bill Maher apologized? Yes. He made a mistake. And as his guests on his follow-up show made clear, it was a serious mistake. But not for a minute should he have lost his job. Free speech, among other things, implies the freedom to make mistakes. And move on.”

Lord has also been vocal in defence of Anderson Cooper, when the latter used a crude phrase to challenge Lord on air.  Lord’s message:  “Lighten up”.

I agree.

So, it turns out that I do in fact agree with Jeffrey Lord.  Free speech has value, and we have to fight for everyone’s right to free speech – not just those who agree with us.  I thus agree with his overall (and forceful) support of free speech, and I agree with his take on the Maher controversy, and his somewhat different defence of Anderson Cooper.

And, while I don’t agree with Lord that the Media Matters campaign against Hannity is fundamentally fascist, I do agree – and this is the central point – with Lord’s absolute right to his opinion on that, and with his right to express it, even using emotionally charged language.

The necessary result is that his firing by CNN, if indeed driven by the Seig Heil tweet, is just as wrong as Maher’s proposed firing by NBC would have been.  At worst, Lord should have been asked to explain himself publicly, and apologize for using “colourful” language that caused pain.

But firing?  That appears to be just political correctness.  Or worse.  It could be people just not wanting to listen to points of view divergent from their own.

Of course, that’s exactly why we have free speech:  so that all points of view can be expressed, not just the ones we support.  As Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously said (describing the views of Voltaire and in the process defining the essence of free speech):

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

          –  Jay Shepherd, August 11, 2017

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About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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