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Publisher’s Threat to President Tests Free Speech

By Ben L. Kaufman · February 7th, 2012 · On Second Thought
Atlanta publisher Andrew B. Adler’s “kill Obama” column challenges my “fight-words-with-words” standard response to vicious publications and speech. It never should have been published. 

No, he’s not a racist, anti-Semitic crank or advocate of sex among boys, clerics and coaches. Sick as they are, I wouldn’t muzzle them so long as they are willing to accept the consequences. 

Adler’s column in The Atlanta Jewish Times suggested Israeli agents consider a “hit” on President Obama as a response to Iran possibly building a nuclear weapon. Obama is insufficiently protective of the Jewish state, Adler indicated, although Vice President Biden is. 

This is no Tea Party harrumph with its familiar themes. It’s no conspiracy nut’s rambling about Jews secretly controlling everything. Adler’s column goes beyond offensive to deranged.

Adler wrote that Israel could “give the go-ahead for U.S.-based Mossad agents to take out a president deemed unfriendly to Israel in order for the current vice president to take his place and forcefully dictate that the United States’ policy includes helping the Jewish state obliterate its enemies.” Moreover, he added it would be naive to believe that killing Obama hasn’t been discussed in Israel’s “most inner circles.”  

If Adler knows, he’s blown it for the Israelis. Adler’s alternatives were Israel attacking Iranian surrogates Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, or attacking Iran directly. 

If he wanted to give aid and comfort to anti-Semites and others who accuse American Jews of divided loyalties or worse, he couldn’t have done better. I can imagine partisans all over the political continuum must be rubbing their hands with glee and muttering, “See, Kaufman, this is what real insiders know!”

With friends like this, Americans and Israelis don’t need enemies. “A shanda fur die goy.” 

Jewish reactions have been muted, as if there is a conspiracy of silence. Organizations’ condemnations are getting little attention. The New York Times, always sensitive about its Jewish family ownership, published a one-paragraph story when Adler stepped down as publisher in the wake of criticism from national and local Jewish groups.  

The U.S. Secret Service confirmed to CityBeat that it is investigating this among many potential risks to the president.  

Adler’s legal future probably rests on whether he went beyond the wide protections of the First Amendment for political speech. Was it what the courts call an unprotected imminent “true threat” or permissible hyperbole?  

The key case arose in Cincinnati. Klan leader Clarence Brandenburg told a 1960s suburban rally that Klansmen might have to avenge themselves on the federal government if Washington continued to oppress whites. Also, he called for Jews to go back to Israel and blacks to Africa. 

A Hamilton County court convicted Brandenburg of violating Ohio’s 1919 criminal syndicalism law. That all-but-forgotten anti-Red act forbade advocacy of “crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.” 

Brandenburg was fined $1,000 and sentenced to one to 10 years in prison. Cincinnati civil rights lawyer Allen Brown, a Jew, argued Brandenburg’s appeal. Lawyer Eleanor Holmes Norton, a black woman and now a member of Congress for Washington, D.C., joined Brown’s team. 

The Supreme Court reversed Brandenburg’s conviction 8-0 in 1969. According to Chicago-Kent College of Law’s OYEZ Project, the court said the Ohio law violated Brandenburg’s right to free speech: “The Court used a two-pronged test to evaluate speech acts: (1) speech can be prohibited if it is ‘directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action’ and (2) it is ‘likely to incite or produce such action.’” Brandenburg didn’t advocate immediate violence.

That protection soon was expanded by the “true threat” doctrine. According to legal database Justia.com, Robert Watts opposed the military draft, telling a public rally, “If they ever make me carry a rifle, the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.” He was convicted of violating a federal statute that prohibited “any threat to take the life of or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States.”

The Supreme Court reversed his conviction 5-1, saying “true” threats lose First Amendment protection but that Watts indulged in mere “political hyperbole.”

Since then, however, federal appellate courts have created a muddle of interpretations of  “true threat.” That might save Adler’s bacon.

Curmudgeon notes: 

• Andrew Adler’s mad essay, suggesting Obama’s assassination, probably wouldn’t have been printed in The Atlanta Jewish Times were Adler not the owner and publisher. This recalls A. J. Leibling maxim, that  “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” and the Duke of Wellington’s response to a courtesan’s threat of kiss-and-tell, “Publish and be damned.”

• Where was The Enquirer when the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals downtown gave a major 3-0 religious discrimination victory to an evangelical Christian late last month? I read about it in The New York Times.

A teacher in a graduate counseling program, Julea Ward, asked that a client be referred to another student counselor, saying her faith makes her reluctant to work with anyone in a same-sex relationship. Eastern Michigan University expelled her after proceedings in which her understanding of counseling and Christianity were challenged.

• She sued and lost in the lower court. The 6th Circuit, however, sent the case back for a rehearing. It said EMU “cannot point to any written policy that barred Ward from requesting this  (client) referral.” Her lawyer said Ward would have done the same thing if a heterosexual client went beyond her understanding of “the bounds of biblical morality.”

• Even if Ward’s suit turns on whether EMU has and followed a written policy, it is the latest case arising from faith-based refusals to sell morning-after pills, to fill certain birth control prescriptions, and to participate in medical procedures that critics equate with abortion or sterilization.

The Enquirer is digging into the implications of union contracts signed by previous Cincinnati city administrations. Good. Will reporting prominently displayed on page 1 matter? I wish. Craven surrender has been a nonpartisan/bipartisan posture by City Council sojuourners courting union support and fearing City Hall’s lifers. Council members and administrators know they won’t be in office when bills come due.

Article 25, the Cincinnati street paper dedicated to human rights that began publishing last summer, is struggling to survive. It’s raising funds to resume publication. The latest issue was devoted to homelessness in Cincinnati, including a cover story on special perils of women living on the street and/or in squatter encampments on the downtown fringe.  

• Republicans who loathe each other are spending zillions on toxic TV political advertising. Credit or blame the 2010 decision by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case for allowing corporations to spend any amount to support their favorite Republican. It opened wallets in previously forbidden ways and the very conservative Koch brothers reportedly have put together a $100 million fund to support Romney.  If the GOP hasn’t settled on a presidential candidate before the March 6 Ohio primary, Republican ads will poison our local TV and give a boost to local stations’ profits.

• Publications often risk accepting ads that might contradict what the papers or magazines stand for. A few readers complain and cancel subscriptions. They prefer ideological purity to economic stability. CityBeat is free, so there are no subs to cancel but otherwise, it’s no exception. Now, flak is coming from the left.

In his cincinnatibeacon.com, gadfly blogger Jason Haap tasks gay-friendly CityBeat over a quarter-page ad by Prodigal Ministries. That Christian group’s ad promises “support for unwanted same-gender attractions in a spirit of gentleness, humility and love.” Prodigal is active on both sides of the Ohio River and Haap characterizes it not unfairly as a group promising to “pray away the gay.”

Haap quotes CityBeat publisher Dan Bockrath at a 2008 rally arising from conservative attacks on the paper’s sexually-oriented advertising. Bockrath said then that, “We accept advertising from all enterprises that represent themselves as providing legitimate and legal products and services. We do not make relative moral judgments on any business placing ads in CityBeat. Doing so would place us on a very slippery slope and would also be inappropriate.” Bockrath added, in part, “CityBeat believes in tolerance, diversity, creativity and progressive ideals. We believe in the repeal of Article 12 and in gay pride.”

So Haap asks, “If CityBeat believes in ‘gay pride,’ then why is it carrying advertising for people who are ashamed of their sexuality?”

Bockrath responded to Haap with a classic defense of media that accept offending ads. “In the same (2008) statement that you referenced in your inquiry, I also said ‘Most importantly, CityBeat believes in and values freedom of speech and freedom of the press’. While I am not in agreement with this organization's (Prodigal’s) philosophy, I did not feel it would be appropriate to deny them the ability to advertise to our audience. We have chosen to accept advertising from controversial businesses in the past and I expect that we will continue to do so in the future.”

That prompted Haap to wonder whether CityBeat might accept an ad from the Ku Klux Klan.

• Ad controversies also embroil student papers. More than one paper has had to defend a decision to run or reject an ad for Israeli or Palestinian activism on campus, abortion, gay rights, etc. Most recently, The Columbus Dispatch says, “Many Muslim students at Ohio State University have been outraged by an ad in the student newspaper that ties former Muslim student leaders in the U.S. to terrorist groups. The advertisement ... lists 10 terror suspects under the headline: Former Leaders of the Muslim Student Association (MSA): Where Are They Now? The ad also pitches a pamphlet called Muslim Hate Groups on Campus, published by FrontPage, an online publication funded by the conservative David Horowitz Freedom Center. The center, based in Sherman Oaks, Calif., paid for the ad.”

This is not Horowitz’s first provocative ad in a student paper or attack on campus Muslims nationally and probably not his last.

The Dispatch said all 10 individuals listed in the ad “appear to have been linked to terrorism by authorities, but they have not all been convicted of a crime … Dan Caterinicchia, faculty adviser for The Lantern, said the newspaper can reject advertising that denigrates individuals, groups or organizations based on such things as race, nationality, ethnicity and religion. ‘In this, the adviser and co-chair of the publications committee agreed that the ad did not violate the policy,’ he said.”

• The Associated Press reports that  “A handful of freelance journalists and computer programmers are (sic) launching what they hope will become Appalachia's own version of WikiLeaks, a website where government and corporate whistleblowers can anonymously share documents. . . Co-founder and spokesman Jim Tobias says it will be a place where people can safely post information without fear of being identified as the source and suffering retaliation. Users download a software program to render their own computers anonymous, and the Honest Appalachia team then strips out other data that could make the document traceable. Before the documents are posted online, Honest Appalachia staff will verify their legitimacy and will work with other journalists to publish it . . . Honest Appalachia will focus its initial outreach efforts on seven states: West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.”

• Another journalist is in trouble for an indiscreet tweet. JimRomensko.com reported — and The Cleveland Plain Dealer confirmed — that Browns beat writer Tony Grossi is being reassigned. Grossi tweeted about Browns owner Randy Lerner, saying, “He is a pathetic figure, the most irrelevant billionaire in the world.” Grossi’s intended private tweet landed on his Twitter page for all to see.

Here’s my take on this “social” medium: Keep it social and don’t use it at work.  I know it’s a way to post a scoop but what if no one shot the president, or Jo Pa wasn’t dead, or The Donald would endorse The Newt, or any other screwup where truth is the first casualty of Twitter wars.  

•    Still another rush to tweet left casualties in its wake. They include student journalists at Onward State who prematurely tweeted that Penn State coach Joe Paterno was dead, and Adam Jacobi, the CBS Sports journalist who picked up the erroneous tweet and posted it without attribution or verification. Demonstrating a double-barreled lack of class, CBS plagiarized the original, mistaken tweet without crediting Onward State but blamed it when CBS had to admit its mistake. Poynter.org said “the Onward State tweet that erroneously reported Joe Paterno’s death Saturday night . . . was based on the work of two student reporters: One was snookered by a false email, and one overstated his knowledge of the events, according to the site’s co-founder.” A third student, the managing editor, made the decision to go with what they had, Poynter added.

• The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation v. Planned Parenthood fiasco carries a couple lessons. Most obvious is that people who live by publicity can die by publicity. It appears that Komen didn’t realize it applies to them. A corollary is that naiveté is no defense after kicking the news media beehive.

Komen created and applied a defunding formula that affected only breast screening grants to Planned Parenthood. Komen was unprepared for the immediate media firestorm. The stink of GOP politics and anti-abortion sycophancy further distorted Komen’s inept crisis communications.   

Confused justifications and denials further worsened Komen’s plight in the news media. Within days, Komen apologized and said it would honor commitments to Planned Parenthood. And as such things go, massive media coverage of the brouhaha assured both sides a sudden increase in pledges and donations.

TheDailyBeast.com suggests one reason why Komen blew it. “Former George W. Bush press secretary and current GOP operative Ari Fleischer helped the organization find a new senior VP for communications. Fleischer confirmed that he was involved in the search for a fee, but Think Progress is reporting his role extended into grilling candidates about how they would handle Komen’s partnership with Planned Parenthood.” Komen chose Karen Handel, a Republican politician from Georgia who is anti-abortion and hostile to Planned Parenthood.

• Despite lapses like the recent snarky obit of Jim Leo, the dean of Cincinnati’s Christ Church Cathedral, The Telegraph in London does the best obits I read in English.  Storytelling and the odd bits uncovered by Telegraph reporting can be delightful.

This is from a recent obit of Freddie Sagor Maas, a 111-year-old former silent screen star who was 99 when she wrote an expose of her experiences in the predatory and sex-fueled industry: “As a comely brunette then in her 20s … keeping her legs together and steering clear of the casting couch did not prove a wise career move.”

• Arrests at a second Rupert Murdoch newspaper in Britain and renewed attention to a third widen the phone hacking/police bribery scandals. This time, an active duty London copper is among those busted along with daily tabloid Sun journalists. Investigators also want to talk to senior journalists again at Murdoch’s London Times. This could yet spill over into this nation. Murdock’s parent, News Corp., is regulated by the  U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. The U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 makes it illegal for such firms to bribe foreigners. That’s the same law that forced Cincinnati-based multinational Chiquita Brands to pay a U.S. fine for paying off terrorists in Colombia.

• Another case of Cops Behaving Badly: ABC24.com says photographer Casey Monroe was photographing Memphis police ticketing a restaurant owner’s vehicle for parking illegally. Although he was on public property, Monroe said, he was told by police, “You can't be taking pictures of us.'’ He was detained and released without charge after cops deleted all of the images from his camera phone. Why do they do this? Because they can.



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