you can’t kill free speech

As some folks know, I’m a member of the BMW Bikers of Metropolitan Washington, or BMWBMW. I’m also a volunteer Board of Directors member, and in addition to my role as the Media Chair for the club, I also put together the club’s monthly newsmagazine, Between the Spokes. When I first started my editorship of BtS, I decided to run a periodic editorial column called “Between the Gutters” – a play on both the title of the club’s publication and magazine design, where the “gutter” is the space between columns or the space between the right side of one page’s content and the left side of the facing page’s content.  These columns have run the gamut from ethanol to tinnitus, and in the February 2015 issue, I addressed the issue of free speech. Most of the correspondence I have received so far has been positive, but this column did draw my first ever negative response. While it was well written and not at all aggressive, it did suggest that such a politicized issue as free speech had no place being discussed in a regional club’s monthly newsmagazine.  While I disagree, it’s certainly that person’s right to say so!

Now – on with the “offending” column!

In December and January, the attacks on free speech escalated. This is not a good trend, no doubt about that, but it’s not a new trend, either. We may think quashing free speech is a political, economic or religious issue, but it permeates many layers of our society, including the many thousands of words written by and about motorcyclists as well as the machines and products on which they rely.

While part of me still thinks it was a hoax, the cyber attack on Sony Pictures surrounding its release of the buddy comedy The Interview drew our attention in a small way to the issue of free speech. The film is a satire that bases its plot on an American TV personality, played by James Franco, and his producer, played by Seth Rogen, being granted an interview with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and then being asked by the CIA to assassinate him.

The assault on free speech related to this movie came from the attackers threatening more attacks and the release of private information if Sony went ahead with the film’s release as scheduled. Sony initially pulled the film, blaming major movie theater chains for refusing to show the film due to threats of violence against any of them that did. Under pressure from a wide swath of Americans, including President Barack Obama, Sony reversed course, releasing the film in a limited number of theaters and online through various websites in late December, more or less as previously scheduled. After earning more money than any previous digital release in Sony’s history, Netflix is — as of this writing — in negotiations to secure exclusive streaming rights for The Interview.

The incident that precipitated this column was the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly satirical newspaper published in Paris, France. On 7 January, three masked men armed with assault rifles killed two policemen, including one who was serving as the editor-in-chief’s bodyguard, along with ten employees of the paper, including four cartoonists, two columnists and the editor in chief, himself a cartoonist and columnist.

Charlie Hebdo is well known for its anti-religion stance; they regularly publish full-color, front-page caricatures of Mohammed, Jesus, the pope, other religious figures including generic Muslims, Christians and Jews, and a wide variety of French and European political and social figures. Many of these covers depict these people in humiliating or sexual situations and are patently offensive to many.

The paper’s offices were firebombed in 2011, without loss of life, but this time, the frontal assault resulted in a bloodbath. One of the policemen killed was lying wounded on the ground with his hands up when one of the Kalashnikov-toting terrorists shot him in the face. The terrorists shouted “Allahu Akbar,” a common Islamic invocation usually translated as “God is great.” These shouts were caught on video by onlookers, as well as a comment from one of the terrorists that they had exacted revenge for the newspaper’s portrayals of Mohammed. The outrage and sympathy at this horrific event focused on the perceived intention of the terrorists: punishing Charlie Hebdo’s writers, cartoonists and editors for their words and images, and by doing so, frightening other writers, cartoonists and editors into silence.

DSC02426

Not even 24 hours after this terrorist attack, the Chinese government arrested and imprisoned the three brothers of a Chinese-born US citizen. Shohret Hoshur is a Uighur, and the Uighur are a long-oppressed ethnic minority under Chinese control. The implication here is clearly that if Hoshur continues to report on anti-Uighur events taking place in Xinjiang, his brothers will be subjected to unspecified punishments extending beyond the five-year sentence one of them has already received for discussing his arrest on the telephone with Hoshur.

In 2014, a dustup called “Gamergate” shook the video gaming world; while it spreads through a variety of issues, one of the core concepts is the active suppression of the opinions, ideas and efforts of female game designers, programmers and reviewers. Several women were threatened with rape, assault and death in an ugly, misogynistic attack on a perceived minority in the gaming world. In reality, females make up 52% of those playing video games according to the Internet Advertising Bureau’s study published on 17 September 2014.

Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist writer who writes for the website Feminist Frequency and regularly discusses tropes that denigrate and marginalize women; one repercussion of Gamergate was the cancellation of Anita Sarkeesian’s talk at Utah State University after an unknown person emailed the university promising to commit “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if the talk proceeded. Sarkeesian, as well as game developers Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn, later fled their homes in the wake of numerous death threats.

All of these events above are ways in which somebody attempted to infringe on free speech in ways that evoked or threatened violence. They don’t have anything to do with motorcycles, though, so I’ll give you an example that does relate to our sport.

Most of us are familiar with Motorcyclist magazine. I have a subscription and read it cover-to-cover when it arrives. It’s a good magazine, but its administrative staff once fired a writer over a negative article he wrote for a completely different publication.

Dexter Ford contributed articles to Motorcyclist for three decades, but was summarily fired in September 2009 for an article he wrote for The New York Times. In “Sorting out differences in helmet standards,” Ford examines US and European helmet certification standards, which can often be confusing as they overlap and contradict each other. He criticizes the Snell Foundation for its 2005 and 2010 standards and reports that some helmet manufacturers have stopped submitting helmets for Snell certification in favor of US Department of Transportation (DOT) and United Nations ECE certifications.

Ford’s article is clearly critical of Snell, but does not mention any helmet manufacturer by name; the closest he comes is a passing mention of a “$400 Snell-certified helmet.” In 2009 in the US, that meant only a small number of helmets.

It wasn’t long before emails got leaked showing exactly why Ford was let go. Brian Catterson, then the Editor-in-Chief of Motorcyclist, said, “I’m getting serious heat over [Ford’s article],” because, as Catterson writes, Ford “greatly downplayed” the Snell 2010 standards.

“Sorting out differences in helmet standards” wasn’t Ford’s first blast at Snell’s standards. He wrote an exposé of just how bad the Snell 2005 standards were for Motorcyclist called “Blowing the lid off.” He researched extensively for the article, even backing his assertions with data from scientific tests, proving to himself and many others that Snell standards were inferior to DOT and ECE standards. Unfortunately, the article is no longer available on Motorcyclist’s website, but you can find it with a quick Google search.

The heat felt by Catterson came from helmet manufacturers Arai and Shoei; in 2005 and perhaps even 2009, these two manufacturers dominated the motorcycle helmet media, if not the market, enjoying their heyday before the proliferation of Korean- and Chinese-made helmets. It’s reasonable to think they were also major contributors to the Snell Foundation, which is a not-for-profit group that operates with funding from helmet manufacturers.

To boil the issue down to its component parts, Arai and Shoei threatened to pull their advertising from Motorcyclist because Ford wrote an article denigrating Snell standards for The New York Times. By doing this, both helmet manufacturers engaged in an attempt to quash free speech. They threw their weight around like the industry giants they were and cost a man his job. (Disclaimer: I currently own two Shoei helmets and have owned two Arai helmets in the past. All are/were excellent helmets and a Shoei RF800 and an Arai Quantum/f protected my head during two separate crashes. The RF800 most definitely saved my life in 1999.)

According to the termination letter sent by Catterson to Ford in October 2009, Ford wasn’t being fired for the hit piece he wrote for the Times; rather, his termination came from what Catterson characterized as Ford’s inability to prevent personal vendettas from infusing his work. Catterson mentioned specifically a press conference — not even a written article! — Ford participated in after the publication of the article. Of course, the leaked email chain refuted Catterson’s assertions, exposing the real reason why Ford was fired – because he crossed two of the magazine’s biggest advertisers, who complained to management. It’s also clear from the emails that Catterson shares Ford’s opinion of Snell, yet Catterson throws Ford under the GS, blaming him directly for costing Motorcyclist about $100,000 in advertising money.

Dexter Ford only lost his job. He wasn’t gunned down like the Charlie Hebdo staffers, he wasn’t threatened with rape and murder like the women of Gamergate, and he wasn’t even arrested like Shohret Hoshur’s brothers. From the day that Ford was fired, though, nobody writing for Motorcyclist would be able to continue to do so without taking into account the magazine’s advertisers — no matter what outlet they were writing for. Arai and Shoei are heavy hitters, but once manufacturers of their size and strength were able to force Motorcyclist to punish a writer for what he wrote, it’s not hard to believe that larger advertisers — say, motorcycle manufacturers — or even smaller ones wouldn’t be able to do the same. Once the seal is broken, as they say, it’s all downhill.

I’m not in any way trying to equate the firing of one motorcycle journalist to the brutal murders of ten political/cultural/societal satirists and two policemen, but both situations show the extent to which people will go to prevent the publication or dissemination of information with which they disagree or find offense.

There’s a reason that the freedom of speech is one of the very first things codified in our Bill of Rights. Free speech and a free press are fundamental concepts of social contract theory, a body of sociopolitical philosophy that has come to govern much of the world since its emergence in the 18th century. The American and French Revolutions, and the Constitutions that came after them to guide each country, were built upon the bricks of social contract theory. The citizens of the free world should never allow the actions of radicals and malcontents to curtail this fundamental freedom and must endeavor to protect these freedoms at all costs.

Without the freedom of speech and of the press, there is no freedom at all.

The article that got Dexter Ford fired is available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/automobiles/27SNELL.html.

Advertisements