Category Archives: Scandals

About the attacks on “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Critics keep claiming that Francis Scott Key used a racially charged swipe in the seldom-sung third verse of our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The vandals who attacked his statue in Eutaw Place, Baltimore this summer seemed to think that too, scrawling “Racist Anthem” at the statue’s base. But, I argue at National Review, there’s plenty of reason to think it’s the modern wave of racial revisionists whose interpretation is off Key.

More about the controversy at PRI last year (“Historians disagree”) and Snopes; contemporary English-language references to “slave” as a politically subordinate person, unrelated to race or to chattel slavery, are routine in the literature known to readers of that and earlier periods (as in “Rule Britannia”). On Francis Scott Key and persons of color, see also Key biographer Marc Leepson.

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The campus speech wars come to Hood

The campus speech wars have now arrived at Hood College in my hometown of Frederick. (I’ve written about these often as to other campuses.) The furor over a large hall display by the college Republican club, in a space given over for rotating use among student clubs, is covered by Katherine Heerbrandt in an early report here at Frederick Extra and by Nancy Lavin at the Frederick News-Post. Among the most controversial elements are a quote from pundit Ben Shapiro claiming that “Transgender people are unfortunately suffering from a mental illness that is deeply harmful,” and posters terming abortion “genocide.”

This episode has played out so far along a familiar script, with conservative students saying the most abrasive arguments seen in the display were meant to stir discussion, should not necessarily be taken as their own views, and pose a test of the college’s free speech principles. Some offended students and alums have demanded that the Hood administration take down the display before its scheduled removal next Tuesday.

A few words about the problems I see on both sides in online discussion (borrowing from what I wrote earlier there):

Dear Republican club students:

Much of the content in this display exemplifies simple-minded, talk-show-caliber conservative sloganeering, and some of it (see above) is pointedly insulting to some members of the Hood community likely to read it. Hood is an institution of higher learning with standards of rigor and civility to uphold. Please find better examples of intellectually sound conservatism, or expect to lose the battle of persuasion.

Also, if you post memes calling groups of your fellow citizens and Hood students mentally ill or supporters of genocide, you must expect that they, and many of the rest of us, will judge you and think less of you for doing that.

Finally, Hood as a private institution is as a background matter entitled to set its own rules for expression, and the First Amendment does not bind its hands in the same way that it would U-Md. or Towson. It may decide that some controversial views are okay to vent and others are not. There is one very important exception here, however, which is that if the government or the law are twisting Hood’s arm to crack down on speech then the First Amendment and its principles may come into direct play after all.

Dear offended Hood students, alums, and others:

Some of you may not have thought out all the implications of your comments and demands for the intellectual life of the university, which depends on a wide freedom to air ideas and assertions with which others strongly disagree.

Thus several of you have voiced versions of the slogan “this is not free speech, this is hate speech.” “Hate speech” has no status as a concept in American law; speech that is otherwise protected by law does not lose it simply because it is hateful or embodies hate. Although Hood as a private institution is free to play around with the concept if it wants, its ambiguities, subjectivity, and resulting inconsistency of application are among the reasons the law cannot force Hood to draw distinctions based on your having dubbed something hate speech.

Others assert that speech is violence. No. Speech is not violence. Violence is violence and speech is speech. Whether by design or not, the “speech=violence” slogan leads down a road that ends by rationalizing the use of violence against speech, since it can be framed in that case as self-defense.

A related assertion is that to be insulted, overlooked, ignored, or misunderstood is to be erased or to have one’s “very right to exist” at stake. No. Being insulted, no matter how nastily, is not the same as being physically annihilated. Once again, to confound the two is to raise the stakes in a case of insult to the same as they would be in a case of murder, the implication being that the keeping of peace requires the legal banning, not merely the condemnation, of insult.

One Frederick public figure asserts, in response to the display, that “Free speech does not give you the right to marginalize and attempt to demonize another person …[or] the right to propagate misinformation and fake statistics.”

Again, Hood as a private institution is free to set its own rules. But no one should take the above statement for an instant as a correct assertion about freedom of speech in the outside world where First Amendment principles are fully in play. There, on the outside (as to some extent within state-run universities) free speech definitely does include the right to adhere to and promote ideologies and systems of thinking that marginalize or demonize other persons. Nor is there a government power (absent some special circumstances such as fraud in commerce) to punish the propagation of misinformation and fake statistics in political, religious, or social argument. If every book that included misinformation, fake statistics, “marginalization” and so forth were removed from the Hood College library, few books would remain. If every person who uttered or wrote such things were removed from campus, Hood (like every other college) would soon be bereft of students and faculty.

Finally, for now, several local observers, again including public figures, have suggested that Hood may face liability under Title IX or other federal laws if it does not require the prompt removal of the display. The basic logic is that the students’ statements are said to create a so-called hostile environment based on transgender status or another protected class, and the university is legally obliged to act to end that hostile environment. To those who make this argument: be aware that by doing so, you are transforming the situation from one in which the students may not have First Amendment rights to one in which yes, they may have important rights of that sort. If the government or private parties filing complaints under its laws are trying to get them punished for their speech — and that includes arm-twisting the Hood administration into acting — then it may be that their right to quote Ben Shapiro rises to a constitutional dignity it would never have acquired otherwise. In that case, the Republican students might see a losing position turn into a legal winner.

I do not presume to prescribe what Hood should do, except that it should consider ignoring the voices who urge that federal law requires it to remove the display or punish the students.

Update Apr. 21 via The Frederick Extra: In her statement, Hood President Andrea Chapdelaine says the college will not remove the exhibit before its scheduled take-down on Tuesday, but that “I have requested that we follow College procedures to determine if these messages have violated policy, with appropriate sanctions to follow should such a determination be made.” Hood College Policy Statement 55, cited by critics of the display, is a broad ban on acts of discrimination and harassment. It can be found here (as policy statement) and here (as brochure).

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Baltimore’s DOJ police consent decree

Yesterday the city of Baltimore signed a 227-page consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice putting the city’s police department under wide-ranging federal control for the indefinite future (earlier).

The decree (document; summary of high points) mingles some terms that rise to genuine constitutional significance with others that no court would have ordered, and yet others that appear not to be requirements of the law at all, but at most best practices. Many are virtually or entirely unenforceable (“professional and courteous” interaction with citizens). Whether or not the decree results in the less frequent violation of citizens’ rights, it is certain to result in large amounts of new spending and in the extension of the powers of lawyers working for various parties.

In November David Meyer Lindenberg of Fault Lines, the criminal justice website, wrote this opinion piece about the failure of DoJ police reform consent decrees to live up to the high claims often made for them (more: Scott Shackford, Reason). Our consent decrees tag traces the problems with these devices in a variety of public agencies such as those handling children’s and mental health services, as well as the budgetary rigidity they often impose.

Since Congress passed enabling legislation in 1994 in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, the Washington Post and Frontline reported in a 2015 investigation, “Twenty-six [police] investigations — a little more than half of them since President Obama took office — have led to the most rigorous outcome: binding agreements tracked by monitors. More than half were consent decrees, meaning they were approved and managed in federal court.” As of that point only Ohio, at 4 agreements, had had more than Maryland, at 3.

This 2008 report from the Alabama Policy Institute by Michael DeBow, Gary Palmer, and John J. Park, Jr. takes a critical view of the decrees’ use in institutional reform litigation (not specifically police), and comes with a foreword by Sen. Jeff Sessions, now the nominee to replace Loretta Lynch as Attorney General of the U.S. Speaking of which, there’s something so weird about some liberals’ eagerness to hand the keys to big-city police departments over to Mr. Sessions. It’s as if they think once Main Justice is calling the shots it won’t think of using that leverage on issues like, say, sanctuary cities.

[cross-posted from Overlawyered. Note also Reuters’ new investigation of police union contracts, and related coverage in the Baltimore Sun (McSpadden case), Ed Krayewski/Reason (three years to fire misbehaving cop), and more Sun (deadly effects of police slowdown)]

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Environmental cronyism: not just an Oregon phenomenon

Green-barrel insiderism brought down Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, but as close observers of Maryland policy know, Portlandia’s not the only place with these problems.

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Officials sought gang members’ advice on how to run Baltimore jail

Another day of astounding revelations from the state-run Baltimore jail:

Officials at the Baltimore jail held “town hall meetings” with Black Guerrilla Family gang members to get tips on how to better operate the institution, a corrections officer told the FBI….

Angela Johnson, the officer, also told investigators that gang members were allowed to search other inmates for contraband, which they often kept for themselves.”

You have to wonder what it will take for the Martin O’Malley/Anthony Brown administration to begin shouldering responsibility for this scandal. Baltimore City Paper, which has been good on the scandal, noted in April, long after the scandal broke, that

O’Malley and his Corrections chief, Gary Maynard, who oversaw the gang takeover have even now done little to amend the systemic problems that made it almost easy for gang members to turn jail guards into their puppets.

Mid and upper Department of Correction management has remained relatively unscathed so far…

Earlier coverage of the scandal at Overlawyered; also see Charles Lane, City Journal.

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The IRS Scandal’s Hometown Maryland Angle

In contrast to online media and the talk-show world, the metropolitan newspapers that define the old-line press have been caught flat-footed by the re-emergence of the IRS nonprofit targeting scandal (an exception: the Wall Street Journal opinion page). Last Friday it was disclosed that more than two years’ worth of external emails by former IRS nonprofit director Lois Lerner had been wiped out in a computer crash, and more recently it was revealed that email records of another half-dozen key players in the scandal have also been lost. The Washington Post ran only AP coverage of the June 13 revelation, while the New York Times did not go even that far, ignoring the story entirely for more than three days. Many other newspapers, too, played down the story with back-pages coverage or none at all. And no doubt one contributing factor was that as budgets have been cut in the newspaper business, many papers have gutted or even closed their Washington presence, and are willing to devote independent resources only to stories that involve some local angle.

But the IRS scandal does involve a local angle for citizens of many places, for a simple reason: individual members of Congress were among those pushing hardest for an IRS crackdown on politically adverse nonprofits. Democratic Senators from Michigan (Carl Levin), Illinois (Dick Durbin), New York (Chuck Schumer) and Rhode Island (Sheldon Whitehouse) were among those leading the pack, as, on the House side, were Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Elijah Cummings (both D-Md.) This is the crackdown that soon proved abusive, and one of the questions to be answered is whether the members of Congress were in direct touch with agency insiders seeking to make life difficult for the nonprofits. It’s known, for example, that Lois Lerner inquired of staff whether they had handled a request from Rep. Elijah Cummings regarding a conservative group he disliked by the name of True the Vote. Another agency email suggests that Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s appearance on a talk show may have been part of a public relations push coordinated both inside and outside the agency to build support for a crackdown.

Wouldn’t it make sense for the Frederick News-Post (whose circulation includes a large stretch of Van Hollen’s MD-8 district, and a small portion of Cummings’s MD-7) to look into these connections a little more closely? Or the other newspapers such as the Washington Post and Gazette papers?

Some links to get an editor started on Van Hollen’s role are here, here, here, here, and here.

Some links on Cummings’s role are here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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