Your First Amendment freedom of speech ends when you falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. At least that’s what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in Schenck v. U.S. in 1919.
It was a bad decision by the Supreme Court since it sent a Socialist to prison for distributing a pamphlet opposing the World War 1 draft. Comparing “Fire!” yelled in a theater to the “clear and present danger” posed by an antiwar pamphlet was a bit of a stretch. The ruling was carried even further to censor and even imprison critics of the government. It 1969, it was overturned by the Supreme Court in Brandenburg v. Ohio. From Atlantic magazine:
There, the Court held that inflammatory speech–and even speech advocating violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan–is protected under the First Amendment, unless the speech “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
Which brings me to a recent opinion piece in the Missoulian entitled, “Prosecution would deny free speech to skeptical Americans.” It was written by H. Sterling Burnett, “a research fellow on energy and the environment” at the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank funded by the likes of the Koch brothers, The Walton family (Wal-Mart), ExxonMobil and Phillip Morris.
The column paints a picture of climate change deniers being prosecuted for their beliefs:
The most recent evidence of this came last month when Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and said the Department of Justice has discussed pursuing legal action against companies, research institutions and scientists who debate whether humans are causing catastrophic climate change.
The revelation that the Obama administration has asked the FBI to investigate people involved in an ongoing scientific debate should shock the sensibilities of all Americans.
It was not Obama nor Lynch who first broached the idea of prosecuting climate realists for exercising their free-speech rights; that dishonor falls to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who in a May 2015 op-ed published in The Washington Post argued that the fossil-fuel industry is collaborating with conservative think tanks to disseminate research contradicting the scientific consensus on man-caused climate change.
“Climate realists,” writes sheldon (an Orwellian term if ever I saw one) are going to be hauled into court for exercising their First Amendment rights. If the Ku Klux Klan gets a waiver on hate speech, I’m certainly not worried about climate science deniers being persecuted or prosecuted, but the message of fear and paranoia does resonate with the anti-critical thinking crowd.
Of course, the fossil fuel industry IS collaborating “with conservative think tanks to disseminate research contradicting the scientific consensus on man-caused climate change.” Since Heartland won’t reveal its donors, we don’t know exactly how much or who in the oil industry contributes but leaked papers show where some of the money is coming from and where it’s going:
The documents contained details of payments to support climate skeptics and their programs, namely the founder of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change Craig Idso ($11,600 per month), physicist Fred Singer ($5,000 plus expenses per month), geologist Robert M. Carter ($1,667 per month) and $90,000 to blogger and former meteorologist Anthony Watts. The documents also revealed the Heartland Institute’s plan to develop curriculum materials to be provided to teachers in the United States to promote climate skepticism, plans confirmed by the Associated Press.
This shouldn’t be surprising as Heartland did the same with the tobacco industry in the 1990s. From Wikipedia:
… the Heartland Institute worked with tobacco company Philip Morris to question the links between smoking, secondhand smoke and health risks. Philip Morris commissioned Heartland to write and distribute reports. Heartland published a policy study which summarized a jointly prepared report by the Association of Private Enterprise Education and Philip Morris. The Heartland Institute also undertook a variety of other activities on behalf of the tobacco industry, including meeting with legislators, holding off-the-record briefings, and producing op-eds, radio interviews, and letters.
In the opposing opinion column, Michael Kraft, a professor emeritus of political science and public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, sites precedent for holding industry accountable:
Dismissal of well-established climate science has parallels to decades of debate over tobacco use and its effects on health. Tobacco companies long denied any causal relation between smoking and disease even when their own studies showed the opposite to be true.
Similarly, some fossil fuel companies for decades publicly rejected established climate science and the role of burning fossil fuels in anthropogenic climate change while their internal studies confirmed both.
The tobacco companies eventually paid a steep price for their actions. In 1999, the Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit against them, charging that they “engaged in and executed” a “massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes,” in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.
Specifically, the lawsuit said the companies engaged in a conspiracy to launch a public relations campaign challenging scientific evidence that demonstrated the health risks of smoking at the same time that their own research confirmed smoking’s danger.
I’ll defend a climate denier’s right to spew his or her fallacies, and they shouldn’t be sued, fined or imprisoned for their misstatements. But what these industry funded think tanks are doing is the opposite of yelling “Fire!” They’re claiming there is no fire, at least not human caused, as the planet burns and melts around them. Whether this “speech” is protected under the First Amendment or it’s a violation of RICO is beyond my legal capabilities, but there’s certainly collusion and it’s despicable. It’s these 501(c)(3) non-profit, dark money “charities” that need to be held accountable.
Finally, I’ve really had it with the weekly ‘point-counterpoint’ columns that run on the Opinion Page. They usually have a learned Ph.D economist or scientist or political expert with no ax to grind countered by some paid hack from Cato or Heritage or Heartland, as if they deserve equal weight in such matters. Then there are the bios at the end of each column. For example, “H. Sterling Burnett is a research fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan research center Arlington, Ill.” One simply has to Google The Heartland Institute to see just how “nonpartisan” it is.