A good friend sent me a link to a Change.org petition put up by Heidie Stanton-Sharpe of Mukilteo, Washington, suggesting that I sign it. Heidi had announced that she wanted to take down a website called Chimpmania, writing,
“This website spews hatred and promotes violence against people of color. It targeted my family and posted pictures of my children. It is vile and extreme and if the internet is an international forum we should have regulations about promoting violence against people. It’s not humane, it’s barbaric and there is no place for that type of behavior anywhere in society and most definitely not on a public forum.”
Heidi did not articulate a legal or Constitutional justification for closing down a website (because there is none) , and I was surprised that my friend would support such an effort. Spewing hatred is acceptable free speech for the most part. I think the Daily Kos and right wing talk show host Mark Levin spew hatred, but I’ll defend to the death their right to do spew it. “Promoting violence” has to become threatening and genuinely illegal before it qualifies as conduct that can justify censorship; what is inhumane and barbaric is a matter of opinion. Being in the mood to flag civic ignorance as I watched live feeds of a responsible, brave, unquestionably correct jury verdict in the Zimmerman case being protested around the country, I started to write my friend a little primer on the First Amendment. I decided to check out the website in question first, though, and “Cowabunga!” as Bart Simpson used to say* in such situations. Chimpmania is one ugly, hateful racist website.
It is, in fact, a useful tonic for anyone whose position in the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman Ethics Train Wreck analysis is informed by a false belief that this is a “post-racial society” (the episode itself disproves that) and that virulent racism in American can best be found by watching old movies like “The Heat of the Night.” The website is almost a parody of a racist hangout, as if Chris Rock and Seth McFarland decided to put together the most horrible website imaginable. It literally hurt my eyes: I perused it with the half-shut lids that I have used when looking over autopsy photos or pictures or the aftermath of grisly accidents. How many sites like this are there? How does someone raised in the U.S. become as diseased of mind an soul that they would think the way these people do?
Being able to ponder that question, of course, is one of the many reasons it is important to leave that website up to spew all the hate its sick visitors and founder want to spew. Free speech is indispensable in knowing the full spectrum of opinion, values and political views percolating in the public; we can not argue against what we don’t see, hear or understand. The other reasons to guard free speech should not be necessary to explain, though clearly Heidi and the nearly a thousand signatories to her petition need a refresher course. If Chimpmania can be shut down by the government based on the fact that what is deemed sufficient numbers of people find its views offensive and barbaric, so can Rush Limbaugh, MSNBC and Ethics Alarms, when the winds change and prevailing views of what is politically correct create powerful and censorious majorities.
On the Change.org page where the petition is offered, Canadian Verna Warner sensitively writes, “I will not visit the website because it then gains popularity by people visiting. I will however sign the petition to close it down.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the beating heart of feel-good censorship, and smoking gun proof of insufficient respect for free speech. I don’t have to know what views I’m censoring, Verna says. I’ll take your word for it, and support telling Americans what they can and can not say, write and believe.
The irony is that the arrogance, ignorance and insufficient regard for basic rights behind the noble petition to shut down Chimpmania is far more of a threat to our freedom and liberty than the racist site itself.
* But who said “Cowabunga!” first?
Spark: Chimpmania, Change.org