Media Criticism

9 Media Tropes About Free Speech

Popehat's bookmarkable guide to journalistic nonsense about the First Amendment


Curse you, Woodrow Wilson! |||

Ken White of Popehat fame has a great post out titled "How To Spot And Critique Censorship Tropes In The Media's Coverage Of Free Speech Controversies." For frustrated free-speechers, it's worth bookmarking and pulling out whenever the latest First Amendment nonsense-conversation begins jacking up your blood pressure to Joe Pesci levels. But it's also a must-read for journalists who wish to avoid making stupid mistakes.

White's nine tropes:

1) "Hate Speech"

2) "Like shouting fire in a crowded theater"

3) "Not all speech is protected"

4) "Line between free speech and [questioned expression]"

5) "Balancing free speech and [social value]"

6) "This isn't free speech, it's [category]"

7) "Fighting words"

8) "[Professor] explained…."

9) "This speech may be protected for now, but the law is always changing."

The correct way to quote a professor. |||

There's a lot of valuable Supreme Court citation in there, but I'd like to highlight this bit of media wisdom from #8:

Quoting professors about law is particularly risky, if your aim is an accurate and informative discussion of free speech law. If you call a physics professor and ask them what will happen if you drop your pencil, and why, he or she will say "it will fall, because of gravity." There is a relatively low chance that the professor will tell you "well, maybe nothing will happen" because he or she harbors the belief that the current gravitic regime is unfair and otherwise problematical. But when you call a professor of law, or political science, or journalism, and ask them a question about whether some controversial speech is protected by the First Amendment, there is an unacceptably high probability that you will get a quote expressing what the professor thinks the law ought to be. Sometimes the professor will flag a statement as an argumentative one, sometimes not. Moreover, some professors . . . . how can one put this delicately? Some law professors' views on how a court is likely to rule on an issue are untainted by exposure to actual courts.

Reason on free speech here.

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  1. Some law professors’ views on how a court is likely to rule on an issue are untainted by exposure to actual courts.


    1. Especially Constitutional Law professors, who may also have been editor of the Harvard Law review?

      1. Especially Lisa. But ESPECIALLY BART!

  2. He forgot my favorites: “As human rights activist X has said” or “even (alleged civil libertarian who is actually no such thing) agrees…”

    There’s also “But this is how they do it in Europe.”

    1. My personal fave (unfave)….”I’m all for free speech, BUT….”

      Um, you’re not for free speech. Period.

      1. Exactly.

      2. I’m not for free speech, but I don’t want to be the one censored.

      3. “I’m all for free speech, but I still wish some people would shut the fuck up.”

        No one here can honestly say they don’t agree with that to some degree.

        1. Wishing someone would shut the fuck up is quite different from using a government hammer to shut them the fuck up.

          1. Of course. I’m just pointing out that a statement of the form “I’m all for free speech, but…” isn’t necessarily going to be a wrong and anti-freedom thing to say.

            1. Hey, Zeb – shut the fuck up

              1. “Shut the fuck up”


        2. Fuck you, I’m 100% against that. Just because they speak doesn’t mean I have to listen to him/her. FUCK YOU.

  3. Popehat is right up there with Iowahawk. Not QUITE Iowahawk awesome – for whom but Iowahawk can be that awesome – but up there.

    This is good stuff.

    1. I put Popehat above Iowahawk. Both are great, but Popehat just has that extra snarkiness to put him over the top.

      1. Especially Clark’s rants. They are epic.

  4. We need these (with Irish’s additions) as a stickee, so when someone blows in here with ‘well I’m all for free speech…’, someone can just post “Number Seven!” or some such.

    1. Now, if only we could find a group of people pedantic enough to enforce whimsical rules on an internet forum about liberty…

      1. I hope you’re not claiming those rules are whimsical…

      2. Fuck off, bitch.

    2. We’d better not turn this into a drinking game. It could certainly would be fatal.

      1. If you’ve been keeping up with the various drinking games to this point, I’d expect that you’re a hardened enough alcoholic to handle it.

    3. I bookmarked it, just for that purpose. Sent it to the spousal unit as well.

  5. God, i love Popehat.

  6. As a group, journalists advocate for freedom of expression in very much the same way as US CEOs advocate for capitalism.

    Sure, journalists want complete freedom of expression for themselves to speak and write “responsibly”, but favor “reasonable” regulatory controls on those who oppose them. Which is pretty much like they typical CEO talks all free-market-y, but will lobby government to seek rents, use its courts to engage in IP warfare, and advocate “responsible” and”reasonable” regulations that will hamstring his firm’s competition.

    1. Interpreting “the press” as referring to professional journalists rather than to a means of communication hasn’t helped. If “press” had been interpreted correctly, then journalists would have to defend everyone’s free expression as vigorously as they defend their own.

      1. “[…] If “press” had been interpreted correctly, then journalists would have to defend everyone’s free expression as vigorously as they defend their own.”

        But then they would be inviting and protecting competition, which, of course has nothing at all to do with it, right?

  7. I like especially like the ‘fighting words’ injunction you Koch suckers.

    1. I think fighting words is probably a legitimate concept in some situations. But the ones that should be criminal probably already fall under assault or criminal threatening laws. I wouldn’t say that simply saying stuff to piss off or provoke someone counts.

    2. Give me an example. Pretend we’re at a bar and we’re both three sheets to the wind. Don’t hold back.

      1. Hey you, let’s fight!

        1. Nope.

      2. Let’s face it, Deep Dish Pizza is the only pizza worth eating.

      3. I think the concept is bound up with honor culture, in which someone’s honor is almost considered a tangible asset. If you let someone call you wife a whore without giving him a beat down, your worth as a man was diminished. Bullshit of course, and I’d be glad to see it go.

        1. This here.

          It only makes sense if we agree, as a society and a legal system, that some words actually deserve to be responded to with violence and/or that no reasonable man could hear them and not be seized with a violent rage.

          That’s not the case, anymore.

          1. I think that fighting words could be considered a mitigating circumstance at the sentencing phase of a criminal trial, similar to a crime of passion. So if Al beats the shit out of Bob, because Bob said that Al’s mom is a whore, then Al should still spend some time in jail for assault, just not the maximum sentence. That said, Al should probably be serving less time in jail that some guy named Charlie who got drunk and decided to beat the crap out of the first guy he saw.

            To use Chris Rock’s defense of O.J. Simpson, I’m not saying what he did was right, but I understand why he did it.

    3. Fuck you, faggot.

  8. I’m all for free speech, but Nickelback.

    1. The one place where Canada’s lack of free speech might have done some good and they completely dropped the ball.

      1. On the other hand, Nickelback’s music is so bad that shooting at them is legally considered self defense.

        1. But Canada doesn’t recognize self defense.

      2. Nickelback should have had to run the ‘Human Rights Commission’ gauntlet instead of Steyn and Levant. I mean, they’ve done some real harm to our national image.

  9. Quoting professors about law is particularly risky, if your aim is an accurate and informative discussion of free speech law.

    If quoting professors about a law was risky, NPR couldn’t get insurance coverage.

    There isn’t a fucking story that spills(ed) out of my radio speakers that NPR didn’t turn to a “Professor of [fill in current topic here]” to find out what the real scoop is.

    I don’t know what it is about NPR in regards to this annoying tic, other than they’re all university educated and believe that a professor is automatically the fount of knowledge.

    1. But you don’t have to worry about NPR quoting or interviewing a wingnut professor like Charles Murray.

    2. NPR: The world’s longest Appeal to Authority fallacy.

      1. I thought that was the Catholic Church.

  10. “I’m all for free speech, but people I don’t agree with must be silenced.”

    That’s what they actually mean, no matter what follows the “but.”

  11. In the “Not all speech is protected”, Ann Coulter is technically right. I have no context for what she meant specifically, but it can be stated as a pragmatic fact.

    I can’t say “fuck” on network TV and regular radio or an arm of the federal government can throw me in jail if I refuse to comply with their punishments or orders to stop.

    Clearly, I’m not getting some first amendment protections.

    1. But what they actually mean when they say that is “not all speech should be protected.” It’s not about current reality, it’s about the ideal world in which the speaker is Censor General.

    2. “Nigger”, the “N word” is the elephant’s trunk, Just about every news web site has a filtering bot that deletes comments with this word. In any context! Another one is “jews”. This why you read creative spellings like “jooz” and “niggaz”. “Can we have an honest discussion about race?” is the bromide that prevents us from ever having one.

    3. Oh fuck you statist.

  12. You: Doctor, was the snake that bit me poisonous?
    Doctor: Actually snakes are usually venomous. Though some are both venomous and poisonous.
    You: Great. What about this snake here? I caught it in a bag for you to look at.
    Doctor: There are both harmless and venomous snakes in North America.
    You: Yes, thank you. Which is this?
    Doctor: That snake has rings!
    You: Yes. Yes it does.
    Doctor: Some venomous snakes have rings.
    You: Is there anyone else on duty I could see?

    Ok, I laughed out loud. Like really, really laughed out loud. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had a nearly identical conversation in my professional career, when trying to extract meaningful information from coworkers or people in other departments.

    In addition, there was a recent controversy in L.A. where the city was watering a patch of ground covered in old tires and shopping carts while it was raining, during drought conditions where the city’s residents had been instructed to not get anywhere near thinking about watering their lawns.

    When asked why the city was running the sprinklers in the rain, the official responded:

    Official: Watering is important for erosion control.
    Reporter: Yes, but why were you watering while it was raining?
    Official: Watering is important to minimise soil erosion.

    And so on.

    1. Ha, that is funny, not least of which because it reads like a conversation with ELIZA from the 70s

    2. Red touching black: you’re okay Jack – Red touching yellow: can kill a fellow.

  13. current gravitic regime is unfair and otherwise problematical

    Nice, so very, very nice.

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