The Onslaught Begins: Coburn, Wicker, DeMint Attack the Omnibus

Jodi Jacobson

Having decided that a worn-out idea is better than no idea at all, Senate Republicans have turned to their tried and untrue attacks on reproductive health programs in the 2009 Omnibus spending bill.

The onslaught begins. 

Having decided that an old-worn out idea is better than no idea at all, Senate Republicans have turned to their tried and untrue baseless attacks on sexual and reproductive health programs in the FY 2009 Omnibus spending bill.  If the bill does not pass by Friday, March 6th, the government will have to operate under a "continuing resolution," leaving it without funding essential to a full economic recovery and without funding for programs urgently needed by those suffering from the current crisis.  But for the far right, apparently no ideological position is too shallow and no misrepresentation too outrageous to prevent them from wreaking havoc on this country or to mitigate against their purely political shenanigans.

Take the case of the amendment just submitted by Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina.  This amendment seeks to strike the earmark in the omnibus bill for the "Affordable Birth Control Act (ABC)."

Only one small problem: the Act is not an earmark.

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An earmark sets aside money for a specific program or purpose, like the earmark for more than $200 million dollars for disproven abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that has yet to make it to Senator McCain’s top-10 hit list of outrageous earmarks and for which no amendment to strike has yet been introduced.  I keep waiting.  

By contrast, the Affordable Birth Control Act, attached to the omnibus, is a no-cost provision.  There is no federal funding attached.  Hence no earmark to remove.

The ABC Act is instead a technical correction to an earlier piece of legislation, allowing pharmaceutical companies to offer nominally priced drugs to college and university health clinics and family planning health centers without penalty – as they had done for decades before a change to the law went into effect in 2007 and unintentionally affected access to birth control at these centers.  The Act does exactly what it says: It makes birth control affordable.  Affordable birth control leads to fewer unintended pregnancies which leads to fewer abortions.  Fewer unintended pregnancies reduce social and economic costs.  This type of provision would appear to be a favorite of both social and fiscal conservatives alike.  But…we’ve been here before.

As a so-called pro-life politician who might want to help women avoid unintended pregnancies, why is Senator DeMint wasting his and the country’s time on this?  Who knows. 

But the charade does not stop there.  Next is the case of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), another in the roster of favorite monsters under the bed of the far right wing of the GOP.

UNFPA is an international
development agency that:

"promotes the right of every woman, man and
child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity. UNFPA supports
countries in using population data for policies and programmes to
reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every
birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV/AIDS, and every girl
and woman is treated with dignity and respect.’

Speaking in favor of the Wicker amendment, Sen. Tom Coburn repeats debunked UNFPA accusations on the senate floor.

During the Bush Administration, the U.S. refused to fund UNFPA, claiming it was in violation of the Kemp-Kasten Amendment.  Passed in 1985, Kemp-Kasten denies federal funding to organizations or programs that, as determined by the President, support or participate in a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.  Under direction from President Bush, the State Department argued that UNFPA was in violation of Kemp-Kasten as a result of its work in China, a country known for its violations of women’s rights.

But here is another small problem: UNFPA has never been found in violation of Kemp-Kasten in actual fact.  The Administration just made it up.  Honestly.

Just look at the State Department website.  In 2002, the Bush White House sent a blue-ribbon team to evaluate UNFPA’s work in China.  Upon its return, the team published a report, concluding:

"We find no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported
or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or
involuntary sterilization in the PRC.
"

And:

"We therefore recommend that not more than $34 million which has already been appropriated be released to UNFPA."

In fact, the same team–and others–found that in those areas of China in which UNFPA was operating, women had expanded choices for reproductive and sexual health care.  Moreover, and this is critical, UNFPA does not promote, support or provide abortions, making it difficult for the agency to participate in coercive abortion.  So we have consistently defunded on ideological grounds an organization the mission of which is to expand voluntary family planning and maternal health services in places where women have little or no access.

To immunize UNFPA against future political attacks such as these, the House appropriations bill contained language ensuring funding for UNFPA for specific activities, irrespective of what kinds of determinations might be made under the Kemp Kasten Amendment under different Administrations.  Funding would support UNFPA in:

  • providing and distributing equipment, medicine, and supplies,
    including safe delivery kits and hygiene kits to ensure safe
    childbirth and emergency obstetric care;
  • making available supplies of contraceptives for the
    prevention of unintended pregnancies and the spread of sexually
    transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS;
  • reestablishing maternal health services in areas where
    medical infrastructure and such services have been destroyed or limited
    by natural disasters, armed conflict, or other factors; and
  • promoting access to basic services, including clean
    water, sanitation facilities, food, and health care, for poor women and
    girls.

The bill notes clearly that none of these activities could be used to fund programs in China.

These facts did not stop Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi from introducing an amendment to the omnibus that would strike the House language enabling UNFPA to aid women seeking contraceptive or safe delivery services, nor Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma from completely twisting the facts on UNFPA in a statement on the Senate floor.

Coburn, a "family practice obstetrician" first misrepresented the State Department findings on UNFPA in his speech on the Senate floor. 

Appearing on Fox News Sen. Tom Coburn misinforms about UNFPA’s role in China and Bush’s midnight HHS “conscience” regulation.

Couching his comments in the rhetoric of "women’s right to choose," (which Coburn does not support), he went on to complain that the:

"United Nations family planning money — is going to be used for
coercive abortion and coercive sterilizations.  There’s no question that [UNFPA] will mix this
money and we will fund forced abortion in China."

On Fox News, he said:

"The bill we have on the floor right now takes American money and uses
it through the United Nations fund to perform abortions and
sterilizations in China."

Again, UNFPA does not fund, promote or provide abortion services, and no State Department or other investigation has ever proved that UNFPA supports coercion in China or aids and abets China’s policies.  Quite the contrary.  In fact, if anything, the fact that the Chinese government owns so much of our national debt might indicate we are funding the Chinese government family planning program directly, never mind UNFPA.  But that is obviously a different blog.

However, Coburn’s misrepresentation of the facts does not stop there.  In the same appearance on Fox News this morning, he touts his status as a physician to falsely portray the effects of reversing the HHS regulations put in place by President Bush last December and now being reversed by the Obama Administration, and comparing the situation of doctors under Obama’s proposed health care plan as that of physicians coerced by the Chinese government to perform procedures to which they are opposed.

In the interview, Coburn claims that physicians in programs accepting federal money will be forced to “give birth control pills to an 11-year-old girl” and to provide abortions against their will. In fact, laws already in place clearly indicate that no health care provider may be forced to provide abortions if they object. As for giving an 11-year-old girl birth control pills, well, the Senator and I disagree on what rights should be extended to the patient’s conscience and her assessment of her own health needs.

While this is now routine, it is incumbent upon all of us to ask these politicians: Where is all this getting us?  Is it reducing the number of unintended pregnancies?  Are these politics of obstruction and misrepresentation leading to prevention of even a single sexually transmitted infection?  Are these tactics preventing the spread of HIV, or enabling women to gain access to needed health care?

The answer, obviously, is no.  Which is why it is so increasingly obvious that the issue of abortion is a smokescreen for an agenda that is at its base about limiting the rights of women to make choices about sex, marriage, motherhood and ultimately about political voice and participation.

Commentary Politics

GOP: Attack Women All You Want, But Hands Off the White Republican Ones

Jodi Jacobson

The GOP is worried that Donald Trump insulted women. Really? Have you looked at your platform lately?

Friday was a horrible, no-good, very bad day for the Republican Party.

Members of the GOP—the party of the “welfare queen,” “the slut,” and “the legitimate rape“—spent the weekend being indignant! apoplectic! and falling all over themselves because Donald Trump, the billionaire GOP presidential aspirant, ostensibly insulted Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly on national TV during the first GOP debate in Cleveland last week. It’s debatable whether there was any insult to Kelly. In Mr. Trump’s defense (words I never thought I’d be writing), I don’t think there was. Trump is and was his normal combative self and he no more insulted Kelly than he has countless other people. But the furor that has erupted tells you all you need to know: Trump was invited to the debate despite a long history of making sexist and derogatory insults to women, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and many others. But he’s become persona non grata after alleged insults to Megyn Kelly, suggesting that the GOP is A-OK with denigrating women, as long as they are not white Republican ones.

Indeed, the entire GOP platform is an insult to women. This is the party that has fought vociferously to kill insurance coverage for the contraceptive methods used by 99 percent of all sexually active women in this country. It’s the party that can’t quite understand why sham obstacles limiting access to contraception and abortion are demeaning and insulting on their face, not to mention a threat to the lives, health, and economic status of women everywhere. It’s the party that refuses to pass legislation establishing a living wage—even in its own house—to “protect jobs.” It’s the same GOP that endorses forced pregnancy for all women, whether she had consensual sex or was raped and that would sooner allow a woman to die from pregnancy-related complications than provide her a life-saving abortion (because… life). It’s the same party that has gleefully cut billions of dollars from women’s health, has sought to deny them equal pay for equal work, can’t wrap its mind around the urgent need for child care, and would rather arrest a pregnant woman for addiction than provide her treatment. It’s the party that fetishizes fertilized eggs, embryos, blastocysts, and fetuses to the point they are willing to endanger the public health, but never met a baby from which they would not snatch money for formula, diapers, or health care and never met a single mother they wouldn’t demean (unless she’s a white Republican).

The GOP, however, is crying crocodile tears. The party is not so much up in arms about insulting women as it is finding ways to undermine Trump. The Donald is the party’s own Frankenstein and one it now wishes would go far, far away because Republicans have a presidential race to run and Trump’s popularity is based on the fact that he uses an unfiltered megaphone to say what the GOP really means. Trump apparently never got the memo on “The Code,” the secret words and phrases GOP candidates use to churn up racism, classism, misogyny, and hatred without actually clearly saying the things they are saying, so they have plausible deniability.

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With The Code, you can call women sluts, but know that all the “good people” get it… you are not talking about them. With The Code, you can denigrate the working poor, but assure the white working poor you are not talking about them. With The Code you can pit people against each other and suggest that immigrants are a danger to the republic, Black people are scary, slavery was not such a bad thing after all, poor people should just suck it up, and women don’t deserve health care, without ever coming out and saying those actual things.

But The Donald does not follow rules. So while pollsters tell GOP candidates they have to find nicer and less direct ways of, for example, telling women they should go to hell in a hand basket, The Donald says these things right out loud, to wild cheering by the Roman Colosseum crowds that apparently vote Republican these days. And the very-serious-real GOP candidates do not like this one bit because the Trump Real-Talk Express exposes them for what they are—anti-woman, anti-poor, fundamentalist religious and corporate shills—and puts them that much further away from installing the Koch Brothers shadow government in the White House.

Here’s how it all started: During the GOP debate in Cleveland, Ohio, Kelly, who, it shall be noted, is white, blond, and Republican, asked Trump about his past public comments toward women.

KELLY: Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You’ve called women you don’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.”

(LAUGHTER)

Your Twitter account…

TRUMP: Only Rosie O’Donnell.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: No, it wasn’t.

(APPLAUSE)

Your Twitter account…

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: Thank you.

KELLY: For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell.

TRUMP: Yes, I’m sure it was.

KELLY: Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?

TRUMP: I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.

(APPLAUSE)

I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.

And frankly, what I say, and oftentimes it’s fun, it’s kidding. We have a good time. What I say is what I say. And honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that.

(APPLAUSE)

But you know what, we—we need strength, we need energy, we need quickness and we need brain in this country to turn it around. That, I can tell you right now.

Though you can not be faulted for thinking so, dear reader, this exchange was not the cause of the explosion of pearl-clutching concern about The Donald’s “feelings toward women.” No. That came after Trump gave an interview to CNN, in which, when asked about sparring with Kelly during the debate, Trump responded by saying that Kelly’s questions were “ridiculous” and “off-base.”

“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes,” Trump told CNN’s Don Lemon on Friday night. “Blood coming out of her wherever.”

Someone suggested Trump was referring to menstruation, and this threw the collective GOP field onto a fainting couch. For example, conservative blogger and Fox News commentator Erick Erickson disinvited Trump from a RedState event this past weekend. Erickson is known for his regular denigration of women, most recently calling them “female animals,” and hurling insults at Michelle Obama, among many others. But this has never stopped Fox News from employing him. Black first ladies can be insulted. White Republican women are off-limits.

Jeb Bush responded to Trump by crying “Do we want to win? Do we want to insult 53 percent of all voters? What Donald Trump said is wrong. That is not how you win elections. Worse yet, that is not how you bring people together to solve problems.” Bush, however, has spent much of the past month insulting women. Like the little boy who says “me too! me too!”, Bush has been rushing to prove that as governor of Florida he de-funded Planned Parenthood before anyone else thought about it! He further promised that as president he would push to end federal funding. Nothing says “I don’t want to insult women” like denying three million hardworking women a year access to basic primary preventive care.

Like in the rest of the GOP field, there is no amount of denigrating women that is not worth it if you can pander to fundamentalist Christian voters. So Bush also told a group of fundamentalists that he wasn’t sure “we needed to be spending half a billion a year on women’s health care.” I mean, what are a few thousand more deaths of women per year from pregnancy complications, breast, uterine, or cervical cancer, or other causes, when you are trying really, really, really, really hard to prove you are “pro-lifier” than thou?

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was too busy reassuring America he would rather let women die from complications of pregnancy than provide an abortion to really get into the substance of Trump’s comments. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR), who thinks women can’t control their libido and therefore don’t deserve access to reproductive health care, said he would “stand for Megyn Kelly” (because, you know, she’s white, blond, Republican). (And yes, we can confidently say according to public records that she is a registered Republican.)

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said about Trump that “attacking veterans, Hispanics and women demonstrates a serious lack of character and basic decency, and his comments distract from the serious issues facing our country.” I almost split my sides laughing at this pathological hypocrisy until I realized that Perry is probably mad about the attention Trump is getting for the very things for which Perry’s administration is so famous…. attacking veterans, Hispanics, and women. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, he of the draconian cuts in wages, assault on voting rights, reduced health spending, attacks on education, and denial of the right to protest, and he who boasts about how many women he’s cut off from reproductive health care, declared, “There is no excuse” for Trump’s behavior.

This reaction leads me to believe that the GOP suffers from a deep form of collective personality disorder. It is worth noting, for example, that no one at Fox News, which hosted this clown show, was disturbed enough by Trump’s prior comments about women to deny him a place on the podium last week. It was only after his non-insult to Kelly that he got kicked out of the party, so to speak. Sexist and denigrating comments? No problem. Just hands off the white Republican ones.

No one in the GOP or the media has disinvited, or even questioned, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and other GOP candidates for the rampant slut-shaming of women and risks to women’s lives inherent in their comments and proposed policies. No one in the GOP or Fox has ever been moved to act at the prospect of arresting pregnant women for illness and drug addiction, for insulting Black women, Latinas, Native American women, young women, and Democratic women. I don’t remember Rick Perry being disinvited from anything for leaving hundreds of thousands of women in his state without primary health care. And if unnecessarily endangering women’s lives is not insulting, what is?

No one in the GOP seems to really understand that the entire GOP platform is an insult to the intelligence, rights, and dignity of women. Full stop.

The panic that has resulted from Trump’s comments is a direct result of the fact the GOP debate proved to be its own unedited reality show resulting in a massive collision of GOP misogyny, madonna/whore complexes, and profound hypocrisy. The message is loud and clear: Insult women all you want, but hands off the white GOP women.

Memo to Mr. Bush: We got the message and we were already beyond insulted. We’re pretty smart that way.

Human Rights

The Limits of Free Speech

Joyce Arthur

Hate speech should not be tolerated in the name of free speech. It has real and devastating effects on peoples' lives and risks their health and safety. It's harmful and divisive for communities and hampers social progress in fighting discrimination. Left unchecked, hate speech can lead to war and genocide. Although the right to free speech is a fundamental value, it should not be allowed to outweigh the basic human rights of other people, especially their right to life.

The popular catchphrase of free speech defenders is a quote attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Civil libertarians often defend and support the notion that the right to freely express offensive opinions is a bedrock human right that should not be abridged except under very narrow circumstances—typically for hate speech that directly incites violence against a person or group of persons. However, I support broader prosecution of hate speech—defined here as speech that disparages a person or class of persons based on an immutable characteristic (colour, race, origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and age), or their occupation, family or marital status, and religion or lack of religion. Proscribing hate speech more broadly would, I believe, foster a more inclusive, tolerant, and safer society.

Many western countries already do criminalize hate speech in a more encompassing way, although enforcement is often weak and spotty. A typical example is Canada, where it is illegal to “expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt…on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination” (Canadian Human Rights Act) and to “wilfully promote hatred against any identifiable group” (Criminal Code of Canada). The United States, however, stands almost alone in its veneration of free speech at almost any cost. The U.S. Supreme Court insists that the First Amendment protects hate speech unless it constitutes a “ true threat” or will incite imminent lawless action.

But societies should take action against hate speech without requiring that a few specific words by themselves must directly and immediately incite violence, or be likely to. That sets a very high bar and is difficult to prove. It also allows purveyors of hate to evade responsibility simply by not making explicit calls for violence. Further, our new digital world raises the stakes—the Internet has spawned a proliferation of hate speech along with useful information such as bomb-making instructions or the home addresses of abortion providers. This has enabled others to commit violence long after the words were first published.

Violent acts of hate are generally preceded by hate speech that is expressed publicly and repeatedly for years, including by public figures, journalists, leading activists, and even the state. Some examples include Anders Behring Breivik’s terrorist acts in Norway (June 2011), the assassination of Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller (May 2009) and other abortion providers in the 1990’s, the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis (1994), the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-1995), and the Nazi Holocaust.

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Courts of law should be able to look at broader patterns of hate speech in the culture to determine whether a hateful atmosphere inspired or contributed to violence, or would likely lead to future violence. When hate speech is relatively widespread and acceptable (such as against Muslims or abortion providers), it’s not difficult to see the main precursor to violence—an escalation of negative behaviour or rhetoric against the person or group. Dr. George Tiller endured a previous assassination attempt and a decades-long campaign of persecution waged by the anti-abortion movement, which worsened over time, especially in the last year or two of the doctor’s life. Anders Behring Breivik had actively opposed multiculturalism for years and had immersed himself in Christian Right propaganda about the supposed threat of Muslim immigration to Europe, a view popularized only in recent years by a growing army of anti-Muslim bloggers and right-wing journalists.

As these examples illustrate, we can often pinpoint the main purveyors of hate speech that lead to violent crimes. In the Norway shootings, the killer Breivik relied heavily on writings from Peder Jensen (“Fjordman”), Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Mark Steyn, Jihad Watch, Islam Watch, Front Page Magazine, and others. Such individuals and groups should be charged with incitement to hatred and violence. Similar culpability for the assassination of Dr. George Tiller should rest on the shoulders of the extremist anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly.

In general, anyone spewing hate to an audience, especially on a repeated basis, could be held criminally responsible. This would include politicians, journalists, organizational leaders and speakers, celebrities, bloggers and hosts of online forums, and radical groups that target certain categories of people. We also need to hold people in accountable positions to a higher standard, such as government employees and contractors, ordained religious leaders, CEOs, and the like.

Criteria by which to assign culpability could include a speaker’s past record of prior hate speech against a particular person or group, how widely and frequently the views were disseminated, and the specific content and framing of their views. In cases where violence has already occurred, judges could determine how likely it was that the violent perpetrators had been exposed to someone’s specific hate speech, and hand down harsher sentences accordingly.

The Harms of Hate Speech

The apparent assumption of free speech defenders is that offensive speech is essentially harmless—that is, just words with no demonstrable link to consequences. But questioning whether speech can really incite someone to bad behaviour seems irresponsibly obtuse. Obviously, words have consequences and frequently inspire actions. A primary purpose of language is to communicate with others in order to influence them. If that weren’t so, there would be no multi-billion dollar advertising industry, no campaigns for political office, no motivational speakers or books, no citizen-led petitions, no public service announcements, and no church sermons, along with a myriad of other proven examples where speech leads others to act.

The majority of hate speech is targeted towards gays, women, ethnic groups, and religious minorities. It’s no coincidence that straight white men are generally the most ardent defenders of near-absolute free speech, because it’s very easy to defend hate speech when it doesn’t hurt you personally. But hate speech is destructive to the community at large because it is divisive and promotes intolerance and discrimination. It sets the stage for violence by those who take the speaker’s message to heart, because it creates an atmosphere of perceived acceptance and impunity for their actions. Left unchecked, it can lead to war and genocide, especially when the state engages in hate speech, such as in Nazi Germany.

Hate speech also has serious effects on its targets. Enduring hatred over many years or a lifetime will take a toll on most people. It can limit their opportunities, push them into poverty, isolate them socially, lead to depression or dysfunction, increase the risk of conflict with authority or police, and endanger their physical health or safety. In 1990, the Canadian Supreme Court stated that hate speech can cause “loss of self-esteem, feelings of anger and outrage and strong pressure to renounce cultural differences that mark them as distinct.” The court agreed that “hate propaganda can operate to convince listeners…that members of certain racial or religious groups are inferior,” which can increase “acts of discrimination, including the denial of equal opportunity in the provision of goods, services and facilities, and even incidents of violence.”

In democratic societies that stand for equality and freedom—often with taxpayer-funded programs that promote those values by assisting vulnerable groups—it makes no sense to tolerate hate speech that actively works to oppose those values. Further, hate speech violates the spirit of human rights codes and laws, diminishing their purpose and effect. A society that allows hate speech is a society that tolerates prejudice at every level—politically, economically, and socially—and pays the consequences through increased discrimination and violence.

Answering Objections from Hate Speech Defenders

The most popular solution to the problem of hate speech is “more free speech.” This seems to make sense on the surface, and sometimes works well in practice. For example, there are many outspoken atheists who do a good job of publicly defending themselves and their fellow atheists from the prejudice and hatred too often expressed by religious people. But even if the targets of hatred can ably defend themselves from verbal violence, why should they have to? Why should a democratic society privilege the right to free speech over the well-being and privacy of those with less privilege?

Most vulnerable groups, however, do not have a level playing field on which to respond to hate speech against them. They are often outnumbered, out-resourced, and out-funded by the haters, simply because of their disadvantaged position in society. Sexism and racism are still thriving in the 21st century, which means women and most minority groups have a harder time getting published and heard and taken seriously in mainstream society. Which brings us full circle—perhaps one of the reasons sexism and racism are still so prevalent in modern society is because free speech is exercised largely by the privileged at the expense of the unprivileged.

A common objection to prosecuting hate speech is that it might endanger speech that counters hate speech. For example, a critique may repeat the offending words and discuss their import, or it may subvert the hate message in a subtle or creative way that could be misunderstood by some. But context is everything when determining whether speech is actually hateful or not, so this objection seems nonsensical. Any reasonable judge should be able to discern the difference in intent or effect behind a hateful message and the speech that critiques it.

Another objection is that prosecuting hate speech removes accountability from those who actually commit the violence, turning violent perpetrators into victims of hate speech. But no-one is suggesting that hate speech causes people to act against their will or takes away their personal responsibility. Typically, hate speech creates an environment in which a person who is already sympathetic to the views of the speaker feels validated and encouraged to take action, with a reduced fear of punitive consequences and even anticipation of praise and support from the in-group that shares their views. Nothing prevents a hate-inspired murderer from being prosecuted in the same way as any other violent murderer—in fact, many countries mete out harsher penalties for hate-motivated crimes. But those who inspired the murderer should also be prosecuted separately under hate speech laws.

Many people seem to treat freedom of expression as an almost sacred, inviolable right, but this is far from the reality. In constitutional democracies, free speech is already justifiably restricted in a multitude of ways by law or policy, even in the United States. The quintessential example of prohibited speech is falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Besides hate speech itself, some other generally accepted prohibitions of speech include:

  •  Sedition (advocating force as a way to change the government)
  • Threats
  • Defamation (libel and slander)
  • False or misleading advertising
  • Buffer zones around abortion clinics that prevent anti-abortion protesters from harassing patients and staff
  • Quiet zones near hospitals or schools
  • Municipal bylaws restricting the location, size, type, content, and display of signs, posters, objects, ads, etc.
  • Profanity on public airwaves
  • Publication refusal, censorship, and the right to edit enforced by news websites, online forums and blogs, newspapers, magazines, radio, and other media
  • Company confidentiality policies (such as employees being prohibited from sharing trade secrets or talking to the media)
  • Gag orders or publication bans in contracts, court cases, and settlements

In practice, courts will look at circumstances on a case-by-case basis to see where a balance should be struck between freedom of expression and some other value or right. No single right trumps another in all circumstances, not even the right to life. For example, Canada’s constitution (Section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) allows a fundamental right such as freedom of expression to be limited to protect someone else’s fundamental rights, such as the right to life or liberty—or in the case of abortion, women’s right to safely access a necessary medical service, which courts have determined outweighs the protesters’ right to protest outside clinics.

Some current legal restrictions on free speech are not on the above list because they are clearly illegitimate. One of those is insulting your country’s head of state, currently illegal in at least eight countries, mostly in western Europe. This offence is called “lese-majesty,” a holdover from the days when kings were divine. But if political leaders are immune to criticism or ridicule, they have far too much power over the people and the country cannot be a true democracy. In general, the public must be allowed to pass judgment on public figures, because the latter owe their position to public support in the first place, which should not be coerced or bought. For example, public figures in the U.S. are not protected from defamation unless it was done with malice—knowledge of falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth. 

Many countries also criminalize blasphemy—the criticism of religious doctrines or practices. But the desire to protect religion from criticism is simply a reflection of the insecurity of believers who doubt their own beliefs. Blasphemy laws have more in common with hate speech actually, because they often result in hateful rhetoric and violent acts against the “blasphemers.” Further, many religious people have a tendency to confuse hate speech with dissent, such as Catholics who hurl accusations of “bigotry” when someone criticizes Church policies or dogma. But hate speech is personal—it is directed against people based on their identifiable characteristics. Dissent on the other hand is speech against other opinions, beliefs, or positions. Dissent is an essential component of a free democracy, and it includes blasphemy. In other words, you should be free to attack Catholic policies that protect abusive priests, but it would be hateful to say that all Catholic priests are pedophiles.

Examples of Anti-Abortion Hate Speech That Should Be Prosecuted

The history of violence against abortion providers makes a very strong case for prosecution of those who disseminate hate speech against them. Almost all of this violence has occurred in the U.S., which makes a compelling argument for limiting First Amendment protections of hate speech.

On a Sunday morning in May 2009, abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was assassinated while attending church in Wichita Kansas. The killer, Scott Roeder, had been planning the act for some time and had gleaned information about the doctor’s movements from Operation Rescue—an anti-abortion group that Roeder was actively involved in and donated money to. This radical group had moved to Wichita in 2002 for the sole purpose of driving Dr. Tiller out of business, and in the seven years leading up to his murder, Operation Rescue (OR) engaged in a relentless campaign of hate and harassment against him, including aggressive picketing, numerous articles and press releases, baseless criminal charges, frivolous lawsuits, and trumped-up grand juries convened against him. (Dr. Tiller was fully vindicated in every legal battle.)

Two years before the assassination, Roeder posted on OR’s blog, urging people to attend Dr. Tiller’s church. He himself attended the church a few times, and also participated in OR’s pickets outside Dr. Tiller’s clinic. Roeder was in regular contact with OR’s President Troy Newman, as well as Senior Policy Advisor Cheryl Sullenger, who was convicted in 1988 of conspiring to bomb a California abortion clinic. When Roeder was arrested, Sullenger’s phone number was found on a post-it note on the dash of his car. Sullenger later admitted having several previous conversations with Roeder, in which she gave him information on Dr. Tiller’s habits and whereabouts, including his trial dates. In the months before the murder, Roeder had attended at least one court hearing—sitting beside OR’s President Troy Newman—to hear Dr. Tiller defend himself against scurrilous charges brought by OR.

It’s clear that Roeder was not a “lone wolf.” Perhaps Roeder did not directly involve anyone else in his plans, but no-one develops their views in a vacuum. Dr. Tiller’s murder was the natural culmination of over 20 years of anti-abortion harassment and violence directed at him and his clinic, much of it by Operation Rescue. Roeder had been immersed in OR’s violent anti-abortion rhetoric for years, so his beliefs and compulsions were fed by that environment, and thrived on it. Obviously, it played an encouraging role in the violence he committed.

Another key person who helped fuel the fire was Fox TV commentator Bill O’Reilly, who has about 3 million listeners. Between 2005 and 2009, Bill O’Reilly and his guest hosts talked about Dr. Tiller on 29 episodes, including just one month before the assassination. The most common epithet repeated many times by O’Reilly was: “Tiller the Baby Killer.” Other comments by O’Reilly included: “[Tiller] destroys fetuses for just about any reason right up until the birth date for $5,000.” He ‘s guilty of “Nazi stuff.” “This is the kind of stuff that happened in Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union.” He “has blood on his hands.” He’s “a moral equivalent to NAMBLA and al-Qaida.” He operates a “death mill” and a “business of destruction.” “I wouldn’t want to be [him] if there is a Judgment Day.” Although O’Reilly didn’t specifically incite someone to murder Dr. Tiller, he put him in the cross-hairs, providing enough motivation and encouragement for someone to carry out the unspoken deed.

Of course, it wasn’t just Dr. Tiller and his clinic that were the targets of ongoing harassment and inflammatory hateful rhetoric. The reign of terror directed at clinics and providers across North America has been going on for 35 years—including 9 previous murders and 20 attempted murders of doctors or clinic staff, 100’s of arsons and bombs and butyric acid attacks, and 1000’s of death threats, stalking, clinic invasions, vandalism, aggressive pickets, and hate mail. Some shootings in the early 1990’s were directly preceded by “Wanted Posters” put out by anti-abortion groups on the doctors, complete with their home and clinic addresses and often their photographs. Doctors David Gunn and John Britton were murdered by anti-abortion extremists and had been featured on wanted posters, along with George Tiller, who was shot and wounded in 1993. (The murder of a fourth doctor on a wanted poster, George Patterson, could not be conclusively linked to an anti-abortion extremist.) The posters were deemed by a federal court in 2002 to be a “true threat” under the FACE Act, federal legislation that protects clinics from violence. Noting that the posters had preceded the murders, the court said it was the “use of the ‘wanted’-type format in the context of the poster pattern—poster followed by murder—that constitutes the threats,” not the language itself. With this decision, the judges overturned a lower court ruling that had deemed the posters and a related website to be “protected speech” because they did not directly threaten violence.

Conclusion

When people and courts defend hate speech against abortion providers as “protected speech,” it must be asked: Why are abortion providers required to risk their lives so their persecutors can have free speech rights? Why should doctors constantly have to look over their shoulder in fear, go to work in bullet-proof vests, pay out of pocket for security guards and other expensive safety measures, keep their home address a secret and their curtains permanently drawn shut, and see their children ostracized and bullied at school, just so their persecutors have the right to call them “baby killers”? Why does the right to free speech allow members of this vulnerable minority to be openly defamed and targeted for decades until they’re finally assassinated? And why do the families of the slain victims have to suffer in their grief and loss, because free speech was deemed more important than the lives of their loved ones?

The idea that vulnerable persons and groups should have to tolerate hate speech against them in the name of freedom of expression—often over decades or a lifetime—is offensive. We’re talking about peoples’ lives after all—this is not just a philosophical debate. The right to free speech is a fundamental value, but it should not be allowed to outweigh the basic human rights of other people, especially their right to life.