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Freedom of speech is alive...but very sick

By       Message Morris Cantor     Permalink
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opednews.com Headlined to None 1/12/09

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Some time ago, I became aware of a story about a suit brought against a news website for opinions posted on their discussion forum. The suit was filed by the Higher Balance Institute against Laura Knight-Jadczyk and the website in question, Signs of the Times (sott.net). It sought damages for a thread on the forum discussing charges brought against one Eric Pepin for statutory rape. The discussion was based on newspapers articles about the statutory rape case, one of which quoted the presiding judge as stating that he believed Pepin had engaged in statutory rape yet was forced to acquit because the evidence did not meet the requirements of the law.

I had followed this case because, quite frankly, if Pepin won, freedom of speech on the Internet was pretty much screwed. This Pepin fellow appears to have a fair amount of money. At the very least, he has what would appear to be a lucrative business. Sott.net appears to have little. I base this on the observable fact that while Pepin had the money to hire a lawyer and file the suit—not an inexpensive proposition—sott.net had to ask their readers for donations in order to defend themselves.

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The good news here is that the folks at sott.net did not just roll over and play dead, and readers did come through to provide the rather hefty sum required to mount a defense. Their counter was to invoke the anti-SLAPP laws of the State of Oregon, claiming that Pepin's suit against them was merely an attempt to use the court to silence a critical voice. And what do you know, the court agreed!

I wish I could say that this happy ending was the end of the story. For this particular case, let's hope that is so. In general, though, things are still looking pretty grim. When a website solicits funds from readers, they can really only count on about 10% of those readers giving, on a good day. Doing the math, sott.net must have a fairly sizable readership and, fortunately for them, that readership is not comprised of people just scraping by without a few spare bucks to help out.

Also, fortunately for sott.net, the request for funds came before the economy tanked and ever fewer people would find it in their hearts to part with some hard-earned dollars. That is not the situation we find ourselves in, today. There are quite a few alternative news sites that could be sued for almost any reason at all. Those websites share readers. In the worst case scenario, several would be sued at once and the donations to their legal defense funds would be watered down as readers either gave less to each or simply picked a favorite and gave all to them. Some would buckle under the financial pressure and the online alternative voice would become that much quieter.

Of the few things those in power fear, free speech would certainly have to be near the top of the list. It is the free exchange of ideas and the alternative voice that dull the edge of propaganda. Even if those alternative ideas and voices are not necessarily accepted, their mere presence holds the doors of our minds open to the possibility that what we are told from mainstream sources is not necessarily accurate. We've just witnessed one form of attack on freedom of speech that has failed. It failed only because it was made against someone who was willing to fight back and was able to muster the resources to do so. Other attacks may prove more difficult to challenge.

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Aside from the possibility of a “perfect storm” of lawsuits filed against multiple sites, take the ever-present attack on freedom of speech that comes in the form of labeling certain speech as offensive and socially unacceptable. As I write, Israel is in the midst of destroying the Palestinian people. Israel has felt emboldened to commit this atrocity due, at least in part, to the explicit approval of such actions by the United States and the tacit approval of her people. This approval has come in the form of financial and military aid, vetoes in the U.N. Security Council, and complete silence as Israel has committed atrocities that should have shocked We the People into demanding action.

While we have acted against others, we have remained silent about Israel. Why? At least in part for fear. Who could dare even whisper a criticism of Israel without looking over their shoulder to check that they hadn't been overheard? The name Israel had been drummed into our heads as a linch pin of “God's divine plan” for centuries before the country even existed. The horrors of the Holocaust ensured that no one with a conscience would fail to feel the moral weight of the term “anti-Semite” while having little to no idea what the term actually means.

The term “conspiracy theorist” has grown in popularity of late, too, as a derogatory term that, like anti-Semite, carries emotional weight that has nothing to do with the actual meaning of the term. I haven't found a person yet who could give anything approximating a satisfactory answer to the question of why theorizing about conspiracies should be considered a less than noble pursuit. Certainly conspiracies occur. And it is part of the nature of human beings to theorize about the things they are witness to, especially when these things seem out of the ordinary.

These are the kinds of attacks on freedom of speech that go unanswered each and every day.

I would hope that no one reading this would have to suffer the pain of being attacked in the courts the way Laura Knight-Jadczyk has. Frankly, I wouldn't expect too many to be able to take it. Then again, one generally has to put themselves out on a limb with a controversial and hard-hitting website like sott.net in order to draw such attacks. So, unless you've been pushing the buttons of the powers-that-be for a considerable time, you are likely safe.

Yet, I would also wager that each and every person reading this article comes face to face with the more insidious and prevalent attacks on freedom of speech nearly every day. And, if we are not engaging in them ourselves, we either don't notice or fail to stand up to the attacks. We allow those who see things differently to be labeled and marginalized. It's a war of attrition and we are losing, badly.

Given the way things are going, the day will come when those who speak with an alternative voice will be thought of as “them” to a sufficient portion of the population that bringing the hammer down once and for all on freedom of speech will be a walk in the park. That day will likely come sooner than later. The stage has already been set and key moves have already been made.

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Today, right now, you can be arrested for the words you say or the non-verbal statements you make if someone simply perceives those words or statements to be reminiscent of stories they have been told about terrorists or racial superiority fanatics. Please, take a moment to think seriously about that situation. A mere decade ago, such a situation would have been unthinkable to many people in the U.S. Today, the situation seems justifiable to even many on the far left.

What has happened? A slow grinding away of our ability to even recognize attacks on freedom of speech, let alone respond to them. We ignore the small encroachments or join in, believing ourselves enlightened for not accepting the “nut case” conspiracy theorists and admirably tolerant for never speaking a critical word against “poor Israel."

Freedom of speech is alive for now, but it is sick. Perhaps terminally. The only hope is for us to stand against the erosion of this precious right. Thankfully, you don't have to fight the big fights. Don't think that means you have no part in this battle. You do.

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I am new to the Internet and, at my age, somewhat frightened of this thing. The current state of the world has lead me to overcome my fear. The truth must be spoken. I'm not saying I have that truth, but I must at least join in the discussion.

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Freedom of speech is alive...but very sick