Saturday, March 30, 2013 8:42 AM
My latest article for Dispatch International sets out to explain to Europeans how it could be that the mayor of Philadelphia is investigating whether the First Amendment covers free speech about Philadelphia -- specifically, the Philadelphia Magazine cover story, "Being White in Philly."
It's not easy.
WASHINGTON, DC. In the summer of 2002, the Philadelphia Daily News published a cover story headlined, “Fugitives Among Us: Sometimes, Murder Suspects Hide in Plain Sight”. Forty-one mug shots of murder suspects illustrated the story, overflowing from the tabloid’s cover to the inside pages. The suspects were mainly black men, with a smattering of Hispanics and Asians. There were no white fugitives in the line-up.
Why? There were no white fugitives in Philadelphia at the time. This reality did nothing to ward off protests by activists who accused the newspaper of “racism” for publishing the facts. Soon, the newspaper issued an apology, and maybe Philadelphia civic life returned to normal – “normal” being a disproportionately high black crime rate and a low tolerance for disseminating or discussing evidence that reflects it.
This silent treatment held for the next decade. Philadelphia school officials, for example, insisted that frequent beatings and harassing of Asian students by black students at a majority-black South Philadelphia high school were “in no way racial”, Colin Flaherty, author of White Girl Bleed a Lot: The Return of Racial Violence, reports. Tensions climaxed on 3 December 2009, when black students attacked 30 Asian students, sending 13 to the emergency room. Flaherty writes that the US Justice Department later concluded that “a contingent of largely black school officials dismissed, ignored, and even encouraged attacks on Asian students”.
Similarly, the recent rise in America of “flash mobs”– large groups of mainly young black people who suddenly converge to commit acts of violence and mayhem in malls, urban centers, festivals and fairs – is often stripped of racial context by both media and political officials. The following comment by Michael Nutter, the black mayor of Philadelphia, scene of multiple flash mobs, is typical: “There is no racial component to stupid behavior”, he told the New York Times in 2010.
The following year, however, Nutter took to the pulpit of a Baptist church in part to castigate what he said was the “less than one percent” of black Philadelphia teens participating in flash mobs.
Addressing young, black rioters directly, Nutter preached a bright line of personal responsibility. “If you want us not to be afraid to walk down the same side of the street with you, if you want folks not to jump out of the elevator when you get on, if you want folks to stop following you around in stores when you’re out shopping … then stop acting like idiots and fools. … Just cut it out. And another thing. Take those doggone hoodies down, especially in the summer. Pull your pants up and buy a belt. … Learn some manners. … Extend your English vocabulary beyond the few curse words that you know. … And if you go to look for a job, don’t go blame it on the white folks, or anybody else. … They don’t hire you because you look like you’re crazy. That’s why they’re not hiring you.”
In light of such comments, it may seem strange to behold Nutter’s ringing denunciations of the March 2013 cover story of Philadelphia Magazine: “Being White In Philly: Whites, race, class, and the things that never get said.” Surpassing all precedent, the mayor has called on the Human Relations Commission, a government agency, to “rebuke” the magazine and the article’s author for committing “incitement to extreme reaction.” As UCLA law professor and leading First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh told Worldnetdaily.com, the Democratic mayor is, in fact, advocating the “outright suppression” of speech he disagrees with.
The article in question is an anguished personal essay which links a series of interviews the author, Robert Huber, conducted with unnamed, white Philadelphians who live in the majority-black inner city. Huber’s goal was to add what he calls the missing dimension to the discussion of Philadelphia’s “vast and seemingly permanent black underclass” – the 31 percent of Philadelphia’s black residents below the poverty line. “Our public discourse ignores the fact that race – particularly in a place like Philadelphia – is also an issue for white people,” Huber writes.
Mayor Nutter couldn’t more strenuously disagree. In effect, he is attempting to nullify the right of white Philadelphians to express their opinions about life in the inner city, thereby limiting the free press. Addressing the Human Relations Commission, Nutter said Philadelphia Magazine had “sunk to a new low” by running the article, and asked the commission for an opinion as to whether the article’s “prejudiced fact-challenged generalizations” qualify as “an incitement to extreme reaction”. Such legal language tracks a landmark US Supreme Court case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, which permitted a state to censor incitement to lawless action.
Given that the magazine article calls only for more discussion about race relations, the mayor’s reasoning seems legally off-kilter. Rue Landau, the commission’s executive director, however, has agreed to “take up the mayor’s charge”, stating: “The commissioners and I share the concerns of the mayor regarding the racial insensitivity and perpetuation of harmful stereotypes portrayed in the Philadelphia Magazine piece.”
This sends up red flags for First Amendment scholar Volokh. “The government is entitled to disagree with what people say, and to criticize them for what they say,” Volokh told Worldnetdaily.com. “But here the mayor is not just calling for a response to the article – he is claiming that the article is unprotected by the First Amendment.”
Tom McGrath, the magazine’s self-described “center-left” editor, told Fox News he finds it “chilling” that the Philadelphia mayor “wants to use the government to censor a news outlet”. He added: “As a journalist – as someone who thinks free speech is really important – I find that really, really troubling.”
The commission will address the magazine article at its next meeting on 18 April.
Update: On March 27, Philadelphia's African-American Chamber of Commerce issued an ultimatum to Philadelphia Magazine: "Diversify" staff in 30 days, or else.
The magazine, the staff has been judged guilty of insufficient pigmentation, its opinions, professionalism, its very existence defective. What next, a show trial? It won't come to that, of course; it probably won't even come to a boycott.