Free Speech in the News: The Top Ten Stories of 2018

Illustration depicting Donald Trump's face opening up to reveal a smiling poo emoji
(Roberlan Borges via Flickr)
From a wedding-cake court verdict to a governmental assault on sex workers, Front Page Confidential offers an iconoclastic rundown of 2018's most compelling free-speech storylines

The battle over free speech raged in courtrooms, on college campuses, and on social media in 2018, with wedding cakes for same-sex couples and the federal government’s attack on sex workers taking center stage. In no particular order, are the top free-speech headlines of 2018, torn from the web pages of Front Page Confidential.

“Religious Rights v. Civil Rights: Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Colorado Gay Wedding Cake Case”

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker who refused to create a custom cake to celebrate a couple’s same-sex union. But the main issue — civil rights vs. First Amendment rights — remains unresolved, guaranteeing that the court will get another bite at this constitutional confection sometime in the future. (Phillips is already back in court after the Colorado Civil Rights Commission nicked him again — this time for refusing to bake a custom cake to celebrate a transgender customer’s transition.)

YouTube screenshot of Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, goateed and wearing reading glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, decorating a wedding cake with a paintbrush
Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple because their nuptials conflicted with his religious views (screenshot via YouTube)

“New Federal Anti-Prostitution Law Triggers Widespread Censorship Online”

In March of 2018, Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which essentially outlaws all erotic ads online in the name of stamping out sex trafficking. Fearing prosecution, many websites went dark or curtailed services before President Trump even signed the bill into law.

photo of a residential street in Malden, Massachusetts, after a heavy snowfall
FOSTA has put free speech into a deep freeze online (Matt Chan via Flickr)

“Tumblr Shoots Self in Genitalia, Announces Sitewide Ban on Porn”

The past year has seen a web-wide scrub of supposedly offensive speech from nearly all major internet companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Tumblr, a platform whose main claim to fame had been its status as the Baskin-Robbins of user-posted porn. Tumblr’s announcement of a sitewide ban on porn led to howls of outrage and derision from its own base, along with predictions of the site’s eventual self-inflicted collapse.

Sarah Goodridge's 1828 miniature painting, 'Beauty Revealed,' depicting a woman's breasts, enclosed in its simple wooden frame painted bright red. Photoshopped to superimpose Tumblr's lowercase 't' logo over each nipple, and Verizon's check-mark logo (black type, red check mark) between the two breasts
Artist conception (Beauty Revealed by Sarah Goodridge: public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“YouTuber Convicted of Hate Crime in Britain for Posting ‘Hitler Pug’ Video”

What would the U.S. be like without a First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech? It would be like Great Britain, where you can get hauled into court and convicted of a hate crime for posting a video of your pet pug, Buddha, sieg heil-ing archival footage of Hitler. God Bless America!

screenshot of a pug watching a computer monitor on which a video about Adolf Hitler is playing
Buddha watches Triumph of the Will in Count Dankula’s video (screenshot via YouTube)

“Will McCain Institute Return $1 Million Saudi Donation After Jamal Khashoggi’s Apparent Murder?”

Here’s another country that doesn’t have a First Amendment (much less any number of civil and human rights): Saudi Arabia. That didn’t deter the McCain Institute from pocketing a $1 million donation from the Saudis in 2014, an act of self-interest and hypocrisy that the McCain-besotted mainstream media continues to ignore, even after the Saudis almost certainly assassinated Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October of 2018.

News photo altered to appear to depict President Donald Trump shaking hands with John McCain, who appears with his head covered by a red-checkered Saudi ghutra, with an automatic rifle and bandolier strapped to his chest. Cindy McCain is in the background, sporting a burqa
Artist conception

“Los Angeles School District Teaches Students a Lesson in Censorship by Destroying a Mural”

How better to teach high school students the importance of free speech than by denying free speech to an artist? That’s what happened in Los Angeles when a painter’s donated mural depicting screen legend Ava Gardner offended Korean-born residents who claimed the work’s background resembled the war flag of Imperial Japan. Incredibly, the school district succumbed to the pressure and ordered the painting whitewashed. Class dismissed.

Photo of a mural depicting Ava Gardner in profile on a wall at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles.
Beau Stanton’s mural, The Lady of the Grove, on a wall outside the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles (courtesy of Beau Stanton)

“Aiming to Strike Down Laws That Target Anti-Israeli Boycott Movement, ACLU Scores Direct Hit in Kansas”

The ACLU has been scoring First Amendment wins left and right against state laws that deny contracts to businesses that are unwilling to pledge not to participate in the anti-Israeli BDS Movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions). So far the ACLU has had success in Kansas and Arizona, with federal judges forbidding the enforcement of these laws on the grounds that they are likely unconstitutional.

Color photo of a wall plastered with an image of a dove with olive branch in beak, wearing a flak jacket, with a gun's crosshairs on its breast.
A photo taken on the Palestinian side of Bethlehem’s security fence (Neil Ward via Flickr)

“Lawyers, Guns, and Money (And to Hell with Free Speech)”

On Friday, April 6, 2018, in an act of direct censorship, the federal government seized and shut down the online listings site Backpage.com, arresting former owners and veteran newspapermen Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, along with five others, on scores of bogus counts involving the promotion of prostitution and money laundering. Lacey, who along with Larkin founded FPC in September 2017 to report on free-speech issues,  wrote this first-person account of the FBI raid on his home, titling it with a nod to the great Warren Zevon.

Michael Lacey, dressed in black and frowning, seated at a table in front of a microphone and a placard that bears his name
Michael Lacey at a January 2017 hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, where he invoked his rights under the First and Fifth amendments not to testify (screenshot of video from Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations)

“It’s a Wonderful Parody: SNL’s Trump Skits Are Approved by the First Amendment”

Wwhen it comes to reminding the American public of the importance of the First Amendment, Donald J. Trump is the gift that keeps on giving. One day he’s tweeting that the press is the “enemy of the people,” and the next he’s suggesting that an SNL parody of It’s a Wonderful Life — with Alec Baldwin as Trump in the role of George Bailey — “can’t be legal” and should be “tested in courts.” In truth, the First Amendment protects parodies of public officials, and even if Trump doesn’t get it, the American people do. That fact is almost worth the aggravation of enduring four years with this doofus at the helm.

image of Donald Trump holding a microphone in his left hand and gesturing with the other. A primitively rendered snowman's head and scarf are superimposed where the president's head and red tie would be.
President Donald Trump, snowflake (artist conception)

“Bigoted Lawyer Aaron Schlossberg, BBQ Becky, and Other Textbook Cases of the ‘Trump Effect’”

Time and time again, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that the First Amendment protects even so-called hate speech from government sanction. But the First Amendment does not shield speakers from public condemnation, ridicule, or other negative consequences. And with the ubiquity of cell phones and social media, chances are greater than ever that bigots will be identified and pilloried online.

Bonus Yuletide Read:
“Merry Christmas from the Satanic Temple!”

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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