I have a new op-ed out in the Los Angeles Times explaining and declaiming the recent unpleasantness Reason.com and our commenters experienced at the hands of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Here's how it begins:
If you have dipped a toe into the fetid swamps of online political debate, chances are you have encountered — maybe even authored — acerbic one-liners like, "There is a special place in hell for that so-and-so _______!" (fill in the blank with your least-favorite public official's name).
Despite its literary origins in Dante's "Inferno," the special-place-in-hell formulation is admittedly juvenile and disproportionate, which is probably why Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy liked to use versions of it so much. (Here's JFK's: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.")
Online, it's everywhere. No. 3 on Buzzfeed's 2014 list of "55 Things That Deserve a Special Place in Hell" is John Travolta's wig. Reddit's 2014 string asking, "Which people have a 'special place in hell' waiting for them?" had, as of Wednesday, 7,857 suggestions. The meme is more common than Nigerian email scams, and considerably less dangerous.
Unless, that is, you think like the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York
Some of the conclusion:
Gag orders are un-American and should be applied only as a last resort, not as a boilerplate action rubber-stamped by a judge. Grand juries, which were originally designed as checks on government power, have devolved into investigative instruments for harassing commenters and websites that have committed no crimes.