Sunday, October 31, 2010

Stonewalling the Media

As the Democrats await their fate in the upcoming election, there is one Senate race that even among all of the crazy races has perhaps captured the most attention. And that is the Nevada US Senate race between Democrat and Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican and Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle.

Sure there are many other races where Tea Party candidates have adopted positions that are well out of the political mainstream (even for many Republicans!), but Sharron Angle is in a league of her own.

Brian Greenspun, the publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun in his editorial
Nevadans can show how smart we are (Or, by electing Sharron Angle, we can prove the reverse is true) sums up just a few of Angle’s provocative positions.
Angle would dismantle Social Security and Medicare, calling them biblical sins; do away with Veterans Affairs; not require insurance companies to pay for mammograms, and screenings for prostate and other cancers that we know can save lives with early detection; or refuse to require background checks for sex offenders. These are all norms of American daily living that people take for granted and expect that those who we elect won’t take them away. Angle would.

Even worse, she has stated publicly how she really feels about Nevadans crushed by this meltdown. She believes people who need unemployment benefits to keep their homes and food on their tables, until there are jobs to be had, are just spoiled!
The list goes on and on. There is her position that even women who are impregnated by rape or incest should not have access to abortion. And then there are her proposed Second Amendment “remedies” in response to actions by Congress she disapproves of. A little armed insurrection anybody?

But this is not about criticizing her ideas as strange as they may be to many of us. Elections are about competing ideas and candidates should air their different views to allow the voters to make their own informed choices.

But what angers me (and should anger you too) is the strategy of Angle (and many other Tea Partiers) of stonewalling the media when they try to do their job of asking follow-up questions of the candidates to defend their positions. Or as the Sun editorial puts it:
People’s right of access to information about their government is paramount. People who wish to seek and hold public office have no right to withhold themselves and their views from voters. Angle, obviously, disagrees with the First Amendment to the Constitution, the Founding Fathers who wrote it and the vast majority of Americans who live and die each day defending it.
Angle has been seen many times walking away from media questioners, but the latest is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for me. Check out the video of the latest attempted interview of her in this link.
Reporters from the CBS and NBC affiliates surprised the tea party favorite at McCarran International Airport, where they asked her questions about national security and unemployment. Angle responded, "I will answer those questions when I am the senator."

Pressed further, she added, "The two wars that we are in right now are exactly what we are in."
How profound. This is more than just an isolated incident; it represents an attitude on her part. Appearing on conservative-friendly Fox News, she came out with a whopper that even left the Fox interviewer flabbergasted.
"We wanted [the press] to ask the questions we want to answer, so that they report the news the way we want it reported."
The strategy these candidates use is to put out some right-wing talking points (some say it's demagoguery) to fire up the base, but at the same time avoid answering questions by the media (except for friendly questioning on Fox) to explain or defend their positions.

For example, Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul cancelled a scheduled appearance on Meet the Press rather than explain his controversial remarks on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Sarah Palin never appeared on any of the Sunday political talk shows during her VP run in 2008. It was only when ABC’s Charles Gibson asking her about the Bush Doctrine and CBS’s Katie Couric asked her about which newspapers she read that her lack of knowledge on the issues became painfully apparent. And then there was the recent infamous incident in Alaska where Republican Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller’s private security guards handcuffed a reporter for approaching the candidate with questions after a public town hall meeting.

One would think that when a candidate refuses to answer questions, the voters would respond by not voting for that person!
But Angle, Paul, and Miller all lead in the polls this weekend before the election so this basically dishonest strategy is apparently working. (But fortunately not for California GOP gubernatorial candidate
Meg Whitman.)

We shouldn’t let them get away with it!
It should stand to reason that if certain candidates are going through all of this trouble to avoid defending their positions, isn’t it reasonable to ask what they are hiding? Isn’t it possible that some of their extreme positions would be indefensible in the face of media scrutiny? And that they know it!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Freedom to Hate

I can’t help but wonder if the framers of the US Constitution’s First Amendment would have placed at least some restrictions on hate speech if they had seen some of the most infamous examples in history such as from the Nazis, the KKK, and most recently the Westboro Baptist Church, a virulent anti-gay hate group in Topeka, Kansas headed by Fred Phelps which has gotten national attention for their picketing of military funerals.

It is their worldview (not mine) that since God hates homosexuality and the US Government and its military tolerates homosexuality, the tragedies that America has suffered like 9/11 along with the military deaths from the wars are a retribution from God.

For those seeking to understand more about the WBC, a fascinating one hour BBC documentary (which you can watch online in the following link) The Most Hated Family in America
is written and presented by Louis Theroux who not only reports on the family’s strange (to say the least) views, but also probes some of the church members on their beliefs and even tries to reason with them (without success). It is scary to hear how all of these people think exactly alike in what amount to a cult environment.

The US Supreme Court has recently heard arguments from the family of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder who initially
won a lawsuit against the WBC for “defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress” as a result of their picketing Corporal Snyder’s funeral only to have a higher court throw out the award based on First Amendment protections.

Ruling on this case is not so easy since hate speech
unlike in most countries in the world is protected by the First Amendment. But there are also the rights of citizens not to be harassed by hate from others.

However, even the First Amendment does not provide absolute protection of free speech. There are
Exceptions to the First Amendment such as for obscenity, child pornography, libel and slander. But the most applicable exception here is known as Time, Place and Manner Restrictions.

Even speech that enjoys the most extensive First Amendment protection may be subject to “regulations of the time, place, and manner of expression which are content-neutral, are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication.” In the case in which this language appears, the Supreme Court allowed a city ordinance that banned picketing “before or about” any residence to be enforced to prevent picketing outside the residence of a doctor who performed abortions, even though the picketing occurred on a public street. The Court noted that “[t]he First Amendment permits the government to prohibit offensive speech as intrusive when the ‘captive’ audience cannot avoid the objectionable speech.”

This has led to the use of so-called Free speech zones.

Free speech zones have been used at a variety of political gatherings. The stated purpose of free speech zones is to protect the safety of those attending the political gathering, or for the safety of the protesters themselves. Critics, however, suggest that such zones are "Orwellian", and that authorities use them in a heavy-handed manner to censor protesters by putting them literally out of sight of the mass media, hence the public, as well as visiting dignitaries.

There is a misconception that the Westboro picketers are always in the immediate vicinity of the funerals. But there have been a number of laws passed to restrict how close the picketers can get to funeral services. In the case of the Snyder funeral, the picketers were said to be about 1000 feet away and their presence was apparently not even known to the Snyder family until they saw the protesters afterwards on the local newscasts.

The ACLU whose position protecting the right of the WBC to picket is
in this blog posting (by a gay person no less). Instead of trying to outright prohibit the hate speech of the WBC which would almost certainly be struck down by the First Amendment, separating the picketers and the object of their wrath by enough of a distance appears to be a workable compromise. The only question left would then be to determine how much separation is enough to prevent needless intrusion without being overly restrictive on free speech. In cases like this, it always comes down to the same question: Where do we draw the line?