I went down to the University of Santa Clara today and talked with Professor Margaret Russell's class on the First Amendment. Lotta fun, very smart and motivated students, paying attention to free speech issues.
Now you can take my course wherever you are. Cal is recording all my lectures this Spring and posting them on YouTube (and soon on webcast.berkeley.edu). Here's the YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL23D64218F8E5404D&feature=view_all
Classes start tomorrow on my new course at Cal, Freedom of Speech and the Press. A rich vein of new material to work with, e.g., broadcast "indecency," violent videogames, the Occupy movement, funeral protestors, and so on. Classroom is 101 Barker (in the neuroscience building!?)
I'm giving a lecture on WikiLeaks and the First Amendment on Saturday, October 15, 1:30-2:30, in Sutardja Dai Hall, Banatao Auditorium. The lecture is sponsored for this Homecoming by the Berkeley Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, OLLI@Cal.
Here's the Syllabus for this fall's course:
FIGURES OF SPEECH: FIRST AMENDMENT HEROES AND VILLAINS
William Bennett Turner
In this course we will study the colorful characters who were involved in famous First Amendment controversies. Some of them may be considered heroes, and some villains. They all have interesting stories, but their stories have a larger point informing the 21st Century understanding of First Amendment freedoms of speech and press. The classes:
Sept. 26: WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. How WikiLeaks owes its existence to two weaknesses in First Amendment protections, and whether the First Amendment protects WikiLeaks against prosecution under the Espionage Act. Earl Caldwell, the New York Times reporter who covered the Black Panthers and was subpoenaed by a grand jury to disclose his confidential sources and all his notes.
Oct. 3: Yetta Stromberg. Subversive speech, the Sedition Act, and symbolic speech from flying Communist flags to burning American flags and Korans. Jehovah’s Witnesses. How and why a religious group came to account for 72 decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, many enhancing freedoms of speech and press, and what the key decisions mean for all of us. Clarence Brandenburg, the Ku Klux Klan leader and what the precedent in his case means for regulating terrorist speech.
Oct. 10: Rev. Fred Phelps, Robert Stevens, the Violent Video Game Industry. The funeral protesters from Westboro Baptist Church and why their picketing is free speech. Whether the First Amendment protects depictions of animal cruelty as in Stevens’s videos. And how hard First Amendment cases, like the video games decision, scramble the Supreme Court’s usual conservative-liberal lineup.
Oct. 17: Dannie Martin. The convict author’s battle with the federal prison system, and the extent to which our most despised minority – prisoners – have First Amendment rights. Raymond Procunier and Robert H. Schnacke. How the former director of the California prison system went from First Amendment villain to hero. The federal judge who presided over the televising executions case, heard Procunier’s testimony, and abdicated the proper judicial role.
Oct. 24: Richard Hongisto. How the former San Francisco Sheriff and Police Chief went from First Amendment hero -- in a case involving whether anyone has a First Amendment right to enter government facilities or obtain government information -- to villain when he directed police officers to confiscate newspapers critical of him. Larry Flynt. The world’s leading pornographer is also a provocateur whose publications and antics skate close to the edge of First Amendment protection. His encounter with Rev. Jerry Falwell in the Supreme Court led to enhanced protection for political cartoonists and for all of us.
Oct. 31: Clinton Fein. Local computer whiz, creator of annoy.com, and First Amendment activist has been at the center of challenges to Congressional attempts to regulate content on the Internet. Does the Internet medium require different First Amendment rules?
Recommended reading: Turner, Figures of Speech: First Amendment Heroes and Villains (2011). Anthony Lewis, Freedom for the Thought that We Hate (2008), is an excellent essay on First Amendment history and current issues. Lewis’s previous book, Make No Law (1991), is a more complete history, and a great story about New York Times v. Sullivan. Geoffrey Stone, Perilous Times (2004), considers, historically, the main threats to free speech in wartime.
I will from time to time post edited decisions, articles and other materials on the OLLI course web site.
I will be teaching a course based on the book, also called Figures of Speech: First Amendment Heroes and Villains, this fall at OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute), at UC Berkeley. The class meets at 10:00-12:00 on Mondays in University Hall room 150. The course introduces new characters who arrived too late for the book, like Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the Westboro Baptist Church funeral protestors, and others. For more about the course, and how to register, click here.
BILL TURNER: 'FIGURES OF SPEECH'
San Francisco Chronicle
March 17, 2011
by Louis Peitzman
(link to article)
Bill Turner has a stronger handle on the First Amendment than most: For the past 25 years, he has taught a class on the First Amendment and the press at UC Berkeley while also working as a lawyer, twice arguing First Amendment cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Now, Turner has written "Figures of Speech: First Amendment Heroes and Villains," which features profiles of men and women involved in significant First Amendment cases.
"By telling stories of the individuals who have been involved in important First Amendment controversies, (I hope) to make accessible to everyone the sources of our freedoms, their limits and how fragile they are," Turner says.
With "Figures of Speech," Turner attempts to enlighten those with only a vague conception of their rights. There are people, Turner says, who think the First Amendment protects them more than it does. In his book, Turner outlines what "freedom of speech" actually means; for all the college students crying "censorship" at Facebook's allegedly unconstitutional policies, Turner recommends some fact-checking.
In "Figures of Speech," Turner chooses from a variety of important individuals, both well-known to the average reader - for example, Hustler founder Larry Flynt - and the less mainstream - such as Yetta Stromberg, who was convicted in 1929 of displaying a red flag at a children's summer camp, which was illegal. Her case, Turner says, "was the first in U.S. history in which the Supreme Court struck down a law on First Amendment grounds."
In deciding which figures to profile, Turner opted for many with whom he was directly connected.
"Most of the figures were involved in cases that I handled," he says, "and to that extent the book is a memoir. The others had compelling stories and their cases established really important First Amendment principles."
There are those whom Turner wasn't able to include either because there was no room or they became prominent after he'd finished writing.
"Both Julian Assange and the Westboro Baptist Church folks arrived too late for the book," he says. "Maybe there will have to be a sequel: 'Son of Figures of Speech.' "
Sequel or not, the book is an important reference on the First Amendment. Turner says he considers the public's knowledge of its rights more vital than ever.
People "need help understanding that you can't give the government the benefit of the doubt when it asserts that some competing social value requires restriction of certain kinds of speech," he says. "Doing so will erode our freedoms."
7:30 p.m. Fri. Mrs. Dalloway's, 2904 College Ave., Berkeley. (510) 704-8222. www.mrsdalloways.com.
News in Context: The Supreme Court on Blood Splattering Games
by Barbara Jones on July 12, 2011
(link to interview)
On the Freedom to Sell Children Games of Dismemberment, Decapitation and Other Blood Gushing Fun!
A few months ago celebrated civil rights attorney and U.C. Berkeley professor William Bennett Turner published Figures of Speech: First Amendment Heroes and Villains, the kind of swift, smart introduction to the First Amendment we wish we’d had in school. As Anthony Lewis points out in his foreword to Figures of Speech, the book not only clarifies need-to-know law but grabs and holds a reader’s attention:
“It does not have the smell of the lamp, of theorizing at a distance. It is a report from the front lines.
“Here are men and women whose often eccentric lives led to great courtroom tests of freedom: Yetta Stromberg, who had a red flag when she was a counselor at a summer camp for young communists in 1929 and was sentenced to prison for displaying that symbol of radicalism. And Dannie Martin a longtime criminal who wrote articles for the San Francisco Chronicle about the federal prison he was in until the authorities stopped him.”
So, for clarity on the June 27th Supreme Court 7-2 decision upholding businesses’ First Amendment rights to go ahead and sell extremely violent video games to young children, we turned to William Turner for guidance:
The Progressive Reader: Two weeks ago, in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the Supreme Court handed down a First Amendment decision on violent video game sales to children under 18. Can you recap that for us?
William Bennett Turner: The Court decided that a California law that made it illegal to sell or rent violent video games to minors violated the First Amendment.
The California law covered games in which the player can kill, maim, dismember or sexually assault the image of a human being including if the game appeals to a “deviant or morbid interest of minors,” is “patently offensive” to community standards for what is suitable for minors, and the game lacks serious literary, artistic or other societal value “for minors.”
California had not denied that video games qualify for First Amendment protection. The state had contended that extremely violent games were a category of speech that had so little societal value they could be treated like obscenity. The Court declined, however, to create any such new, nontraditional category of unprotected speech.
The Court then simply applied standard First Amendment analysis. Since the California law regulated speech because of its content, the state had to demonstrate that the law served a “compelling” state interest and was “narrowly tailored” to serve that interest. California claimed that playing violent video games made kids more likely to behave aggressively. But the Court found that there was no causal connection between playing the games and actual aggression, and no other demonstrated harmful effect on children. The Court also said the law was “underinclusive,” because it left violent Saturday morning cartoons, movies, television, books and even fairy tales (noting that Grimm is sometimes “grim”) untouched, and “overinclusive” because it prohibited sales to kids whose parents didn’t care or didn’t disapprove.
Reader: I’m the parent of a game-obsessed 12-year-old boy who happens to have done his recent science fair project on raised blood pressure levels in 12-year-old males playing violent games. (Guess what? The boys’ blood pressure levels go way up.) I have to admit it’d make my life easier if I could say to my son that it’s against the law for him to see and play some of the latest cool video games—let the Constitution do some of my parenting work for me! But these are just the feelings of a worn-out parent of three, not conclusions based on legal reasoning. Can you share your theory about which kind of person is a hero and which a villain in a First Amendment case?
Turner: Geez, make it the “law” of the house, rather than depending on government to supplant parental responsibility. (This sounds a little like “Dear Abby.”)
Reader: I was joking. But thank you, Abby. I do think some parents may be shocked by this recent Court decision. Can you enlighten them?
Turner: Relying on government is not heroic. And regarding heroes versus villains, in my view First Amendment heroes are people who say what they believe, have the courage to face the consequences, and are willing to tolerate the really offensive speech of those with whom they disagree. Villains are those who want to suppress speech they disagree with or are fearful of, or who give in too easily to competing values and acquiescence in the idea that people shouldn’t have to hear certain unsettling speech.
Reader: Do you see any heroes or villains in this particular case?
Turner: Only the Justices. The views of some of the Justices smashed their usual ideological stereotypes.
The majority opinion was written by the very conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who was a hero this time out. Maybe one could say his was merely a pro-business decision dressed up in First Amendment clothes, like Scalia’s concurring opinion in the infamous Citizens United case last year. In Citizens United, Scalia reasoned that corporations using their funds to buy political ads was valuable political “speech” beyond the control of campaign finance laws, and that was what the Framers would have intended. Giving powerful corporations the same kind of free speech rights as dissidents who need the First Amendment to get their voices heard is not heroism. But Scalia’s video games opinion reveals his maverick streak (a sign of First Amendment heroism) and seems genuinely to reflect doubt that government had any legitimate business trying to police popular entertainment. He said “it is difficult to distinguish entertainment from politics, and dangerous to try.” And he parted company with his “originalist” colleague Clarence Thomas, who wrote a long historical dissent in which he concluded that the Framers would have rejected the notion that children have any constitutional right to speak or be spoken to without their parents’ consent. This was consistent with Thomas’s views in previous cases that even high school students don’t have any right to engage in political speech. Endorsing the suppression of the speech of millions of young Americans qualifies Thomas as a First Amendment villain.
Scalia’s usual conservative ally Joseph Alito, neither a hero nor a villain in this decision, strongly disagreed with the idea that playing violent video games doesn’t corrupt young gamers. He did his own research and found the violence in some games “astounding: Victims are dismembered, decapitated, disemboweled, set on fire, and chopped into little pieces . . .. Blood gushes, splatters, and pools.” Alito revealed his personal revulsion at the immorality he thought the games taught, saying “there is no antisocial theme too base for some in the video game industry to exploit.” He pointed to games allowing the player to reenact the murders at Columbine and Virginia Tech, the assassination of President Kennedy and engage in ethnic cleansing by choosing “to gun down African-Americans, Latinos, or Jews.”
Justice Scalia acknowledged, “Reading Dante is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing Mortal Kombat.” But he said these differences are not constitutional ones: “Justice Alito recounts all these disgusting video games in order to disgust us – but disgust is not a valid basis for restricting expression.” Neither is the fact that some of the games allow players to have “fun” killing innocent people or those unlike you — prohibiting speech because it offends your personal morality definitely does not make a judge or a legislator a First Amendment hero.
Justice Stephen Breyer, who ordinarily passes for a “liberal” on the Court, dissented. He was troubled by studies that indicated that playing the games seemed to have some effect on kids’ feelings of aggression. He was reluctant to say that the California legislature couldn’t rely on them, even though there were contrary studies and no one has shown any causal effect between playing the games and actual aggression. As usual (in my view Breyer is the weakest member of the current Court on First Amendment issues), Breyer was too willing to give government the benefit of the doubt, and that’s always dangerous in a First Amendment case. Faith in government’s ability to sort out worthy from unworthy speech is not a characteristic of a First Amendment hero.
List of Appearances