Sunshine Week Commentary: The U.S. is alone among western democracies in protecting “hate speech.” Chalk it up to a healthy fear of government censorship.

By Peter Scheer

An inebriated John Galliano, sitting in a Paris bar, unleashes an anti-semitic rant (“I love Hitler”) that is captured on a cellphone camera and posted on the internet. Within days the Dior designer is not only fired from his job, but is given a trial date to face criminal charges for his offensive remarks.

In the same week, the U.S. Supreme Court extends First Amendment protection to the homophobic proclamations of a fringe religious group whose founder and members, picketing near a funeral for an American soldier killed in Iraq, hold signs stating, among other things, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God hates fags” and “You’re Going to Hell.” The Court, in Snyder v. Phelps, bars a suit against the religious group for damages because the demonstrators’ message, although causing “emotional distress” to the dead soldier’s family, dealt with “matters of public concern.”

The contrast between these cases reflects fundamentally different views about the role of free speech in a democracy. France, hardly an intolerant or autocratic country, imposes criminal fines for racial epithets, Holocaust-denial, anti-immigrant advocacy and other forms of “hate speech.” And the French are not alone. To varying degrees, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada–liberal democracies, all–enforce similar laws banning hate speech.

The United States is an outlier when it comes to freedom of expression. Although we share other countries’ repugnance for hate speech, particularly the race- and religion-baiting variety, the First Amendment reflects a uniquely strong aversion to government censorship of any kind. As interpreted in Supreme Court decisions going back nearly a century, the First Amendment forbids government suppression of ideas, no matter how vile, deranged or offensive—as long as the speaker doesn’t cross the line separating speech and illegal action (or succeed in inciting others to engage in violent crimes). Continue reading

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Should the Berkeley Police Department Use Facebook?

By Thomas Lord

Recently, the local blog Berkeleyside wondered aloud whether or not Berkeley Police should be using Facebook to communicate with the public. They cited examples of other cities that have started using Facebook and Twitter, apparently to good effect.

I’m not so enthusiastic about the idea.

It would be bad policy for Berkeley to use the social networks we’ve got if the end result was a de facto requirement: citizens who want to be well informed, say, by the police department – must sign up for Facebook and/or Twitter. Yet if the Berkeley Police’s main wide-reaching tool for publishing vital information becomes Facebook or Twitter, residents who want to be well informed will have no choice but to sign up. It will be a de facto requirement. Continue reading

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The New Berkeley Census Data–and What You Can Learn From It

By Thomas Lord

Editor’s Note: We’d like to see what Berkeley Daily Planet readers can do with this information. This is  our old Berkeley Free Press blog site, which we started before we took over the Planet. We hope to give you an opportunity to inform other readers and express your opinions more spontaneously here than the Planet’s inherited newspaper format permits.

After you read this piece from this week’s Planet, tell readers what you think the new census data tells us about what Berkeley has become.   Sign your own real name, first and last, please.   Unsigned posts will be deleted.  Your email address will be kept confidential. Thanks for participating in this experiment.

The very earliest results of the 2010 Census are starting to be published. The Census Bureau has created a handy-dandy web site to help citizens explore the data. We’re only getting the first trickle of data so far but here is a kind of “citizen’s users guide” to help people get started, along with some basic facts that might be of interest.Here’s where you’ll find the Census web site

At the end of this article are some hints about how to use that somewhat confusing web site.

Here’s a very basic fact: in 2010 the Census Bureau figures the population of Berkeley at 112,580 persons. Now we know. Continue reading

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