Free Speech

Something interesting to ponder this morning–the appropriate limits to the right of free speech.

Free speech is an essential bedrock of a free and democratic society. Almost everyone would agree with that. But should any limits be imposed on speech?

Because free speech is so essential to free society generally, I suspect most of us are inclined to answer that question “No.” But in fact even in a free society there are limits to what a person is allowed to say freely. In some cases false or misleading statements are illegal–as in the case of fraudulent misrepresentation, defamation, false advertising, yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, etc. Likewise there are legal limits to when some truthful statements can be made–for example it can be a crime to reveal confidential information.

What about speech intended to be insulting? In our society such speech is generally legally permissible, but not always. For example the intentional infliction of emotional distress is a long-recognized tort, encompassing speech that is considered outside the bounds of human decency and specifically intended to cause emotional distress.

Salmon Rushdie is a well-known proponent of unrestrained free speech, having written a book that offended fundamentalist Muslims leading some to call for his murder. I’m not sure how he would respond to the examples above, but he has said, “When someone says ‘I believe in free speech, but…’, I stop listening.” He has also said, “Once you start limiting free speech, it’s not free.”

Mr. Rushdie has a purely deontological free speech ethic–meaning he believes free speech is so important that it must be allowed and defended regardless of the consequences of the speech.

A consequentialist, by comparison, would decide whether speech should be allowed based on the consequences of the speech. Speech that does more harm than good, according to consequentialist reasoning, is unethical and may be prohibited.  So for example a consequentialist might conclude that there being no positive benefit to society from holocaust denial, and some potential negative consequences from it, then it may be ethically prohibited.

That example doesn’t seem very troublesome, but what about something like climate change denial? The negative consequences may be enormous and the positive benefits minimal or non-existent (I’m just using this as an example–not looking to start a debate about climate change). So would it be best for society to prohibit climate change denial? What about “fake news” stories on Facebook? If there is evidence that gullible people are accepting the stories as true, and that is in turn affecting election results, should such stories be prohibited?

What about the Charlie Hedbo cartoons mocking Muhammad? The negative consequences were predictable and tragic, and the public benefit was arguably minimal or non-existent. So should such cartoons be illegal? A deontologist would answer “No,” on the grounds that free speech should be permitted and defended regardless of the consequences–even the deaths of innocent people, while a consequentialist would likely answer “yes,” on the grounds that it is better to prevent the likely deaths of innocent people than to permit speech that would lead to those deaths, where the speech is of no benefit to society. Of course both of those positions are easily critiqued by ethicists–would the deonotologist feel differently if the persons to die were known in advance? If they were people he knows and loves? Would the consequentialist allow the parameters of free speech to be defined by the most violent and thin-skinned members of society?

J.S. Mill said that the collision of ideas produces truth. And there is one of the rubs. Aside from the deontological attraction of free speech, allowing offensive or scientifically incorrect speech may contribute to the collision of ideas and therefore the generation of truth–a consequential benefit that is difficult to measure but would have to be factored into any consequentialist equation.

The answer to the question of where the line should be drawn isn’t as easy as it might seem on first glance. Even as we continue to grapple with the proper limits of free speech, my guess is that we’ll continue to tilt in favor of allowing speech, even when it has likely negative consequences and minimal or non-existence public benefit, on the grounds that free speech is a public good unto itself, and that seems to me the right thing to do.

I’ll close this morning’s ramblings with this quote from Thomas Jefferson, which I have loved since I first saw it on an archway on the grounds of the University of Virginia:

“For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

Wise words still.

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Leisure

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Leisure
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

W.H. Davies (1911)

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I do a lot of standing and staring these days, but not enough.

For me it isn’t enough to just admire a flower, for example. I want to categorize it. What is it called? What information is there about it?

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I am a foolish collector of information. At this stage of my life, any new stuff I cram into my disorganized mind only has room to go there if something else is squeezed out.

Still, I wonder what that star-shaped purple flower is. Is there an app for that?

Hoop House

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Growing in a hoop house is new to me, so I’m still learning.

Everything looks great, and it’s nice to work without having to slosh in the mud produced by 4.5 inches of rain this week.

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I’ve been dealing with the effects of two mistakes this week–one minor and easily remedied, the other more challenging.

The first was not realizing that pollinators hadn’t discovered the zucchini blooms. I’ve been lowering the side curtains and raising the garage door (when it wasn’t pouring down rain), and have just been assuming the bees were doing their work. But little shriveled up zukes prove that pollination didn’t occur, something I could easily verify by looking for bees in the morning and seeing none.

So lately I’ve added a new task to my regular morning chores–hand pollinating the zukes. This is done by removing a male flower and brushing the anther (the male squash part) against the stigma (the female squash part) inside the female flower. The pollen on the anther is sticky and comes off when touched. Normally it sticks to the legs of foraging bees, who pollinate the female flowers when walking around on them. Until the bees get to work, I’ll have to do it by hand.

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A male flower

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A female flower.  The females have little zukes beneath the flower, while the males have long stems and no fruit.

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This little zuke didn’t get pollinated. Bad farmer.

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Healthy and pollinated. Almost ready to pick.

The other problem is entirely my fault. I didn’t grade the pad when we built the hoop house, so the ground isn’t entirely level. I measured to confirm that it was within the allowed tolerances for the building, but didn’t consider that during heavy rains water would seep under the house as it slopes downhill. Consequently the northernmost row gets soaked from beneath during hard rains, producing lots of grass and weeds. I’m sure there is a solution to this, but I haven’t taken the time to work on it yet.

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The first row is soggy and grassy. We’re growing a bush Roma called Roma II–a flat and tasty green bean. Our favorite. We have some growing outside too.

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The October beans at the other end of the house look much better. Called October beans around here, this is a very old variety with several other names. Some may know them as Taylor beans, speckled bays, cranberry beans or “dwarf horticultural” beans.

In the hoop house this summer we’re growing 3 varieties of tomato, green beans, zucchini, delicata squash and October beans. I expect we’ll always grow some tomatoes in the house–the other items are experiments as we try to figure out what other veggies make the most sense in there.

Time now to pick for market. This week we’ll have onions, beets, lettuce, tatsoi, collards, kale, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, turnips and Swiss chard. It’s a great time of year.

The Good Old Days

Reading about regulations intended to prevent children from being exposed to agricultural toxins (HERE) brings back memories of my childhood, when that either wasn’t an issue or if it was the concern hadn’t reached this deeply into the country.

I was probably about seven years old when I first began “dusting” the garden. Our mother would send us out with a five gallon bucket, with Sevin dust in it, and an applicator she made out of old panty hose. The hose were tied at the bottom and we’d scoop out the dust (with our hands, as I recall) and put in in from the top. Walking down the row of vegetables we’d hold the hose/dust over a plant then “pop” it, lifting then jerking down suddenly, sending a coat of dust through the hose and onto the plants. Protective gear? I would be barefoot and wearing nothing but a pair of cut-off shorts.

Even worse, I imagine, was what we did in the tobacco fields, from when I was old enough to reach the top of a plant. When the plants began to bloom it was time to top them. So we’d walk down the rows, breaking out the tops. To prevent suckers we squirted some kind of poison out of oil cans or poured it out of plastic jugs, which we filled from a barrel at the end of the row. We’d squirt or pour the stuff onto the top of the stalk so it would run down the sides. Us kids would do this job barefoot, but because the black gum on the surface of tobacco leaves would stick to your hair and body (and was very difficult to remove) we had to wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts and a hat. Topping happens on hot humid summer days and the smell of the chemicals was powerful and unsettling. I can only imagine how much of that stuff I must have breathed in.

Nowadays when I see the Mexican work crews wearing face masks in tobacco fields I have to smile. Times have changed.

Bird Brains

#1

Cherie heard something bang against the window. Probably an errant bird, she thought. That happens. But then she heard it again. And then it became a regular steady thumping. What she discovered when she went to check on it, was a male cardinal, throwing himself repeatedly against the window. Presumably he was fighting his reflection.

He’ll either wear himself out or figure this out, Cherie thought as she returned to her desk. But no. This bird wouldn’t accept defeat, instead continuing to fly into the window in a hopeless effort to chase off his reflection.

So Cherie taped a large sheet of construction paper over the window, figuring the bird would relent if he couldn’t see himself. Not willing to be so easily deterred, however,  he just tore down the paper and resumed his battle.

When Cherie told me what was going on, I had an idea. I took a stuffed rooster and sat it by the window.

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And it worked. As anxious as the cardinal was to fight his own reflection, he wanted nothing to do with the rooster. The banging stopped. Problem solved.

Temporarily. Soon the bird discovered his reflection in the other windows on our front porch and he resumed his attacks.

We preferred not to allow the foolish animal to beat himself to death, and we preferred not listening to his slow suicide, so Cherie placed stuffed animals from our daughter’s childhood in front of the other windows.

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Success. The bird relented, no doubt reluctantly and crestfallen.

After a few days Cherie brought in the rooster and his comrades. And soon thereafter she heard the familiar thump. With the guards gone, the cardinal returned and resumed his attacks.

So the stuffed animals returned to sentry duty and the kamikaze cardinal has moved on.

We don’t get many visitors, so we haven’t had to explain the rooster and his friends.

#2

Last year a pair of barn swallows decided that our garage light would be an ideal spot for a nest. From there they could not only build a muddy nest in which to raise their young, but it was also the perfect location from which to drop copious amounts of swallow poo directly onto my truck.

Because we are soft-hearted bird lovers (in other words, dummies), we let them stay there. Well, let me be more specific. After I destroyed their nest in progress and they laughed it off and continued building, I decided to surrender the point. They built their nest and hatched their young.

Enter Mr. Fabulous, our bad-boy cat. Unable to reach the nest in any conventional way, he cleverly calculated that if he climbed onto the roof of my truck and leaped toward the garage light, he could swat the nest as he flew by, tumbling the unfortunate hatchlings to the garage floor, where they could then be tortured and consumed at his leisure. His plan worked, no doubt delighting him while distressing all others (both birds and humans) who discovered the aftermath of his attack.

Now, a year later, the barn swallows have returned and built a new nest, right on the ruins of the old one. Once again they are steadily painting my truck. Once again we can’t close the garage doors (because, of course, that would inconvenience the swallows). Once again they are in jeopardy of a feline commando raid. I suggested to Cherie that this particular pair should probably be edited out of the gene pool.

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Bird logic: “This looks like a good spot to build.”

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Bird logic: “This looks like a good place to sit.”

This year they have added two new items to their annoying repertoire. First, they enjoy perching on the stoop above the door that enters our house from the garage (our most used door), with the predicable consequence that we must either step over or step onto a pile of bird crap every time we come in or out of the house. Secondly, they dive bomb us when we come in and out of the garage, despite my insistence that we were here first, an argument they find either unconvincing or irrelevant.

#3

Once the chicks were old enough, I opened the door to the brooder coop and their adoptive mother took them out every day, teaching them to forage. Each night she returned to the brooder coop with them.

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This was a little annoying. In the past mamas in this situation have led the chicks to the main coop to roost. We’d never had one decide to just stay put in the brooder coop.

Well, it turns out it wasn’t the hen who was making that decision. She kept trying to lead the chicks to their permanent home, but they weren’t having it. Every night they climbed back in the brooder and she reluctantly followed.

Finally, she refused, returning to the main coop whether the chicks liked it or not. So they parted ways. The chicks, now motherless again, foraged widely during the day, but night after night returned to the brooder coop to roost. This was a new one for us.

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Bird logic: “Mom’s gone, but we ain’t leaving.”

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Getting evicted

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One of the new residents. Future bird brain.

A neighbor gave us some cream legbar chicks, who aren’t old enough for the main coop yet. So the stubborn sex-link chicks were evicted last night. We put them in a cage and carried them to the main coop where, like it or not, they’re going to stay. But I have a feeling it’s not going to be as easy as that makes it sound.

Reflecting on a “career”

Thirty-two years ago this month I arrived in Tampa, fresh out of law school, to begin my new job as an associate attorney in a law firm. It would be fair to say that I began with nothing. In fact, less than nothing would be fair. I owed $24,000 in student loans, had borrowed the money to buy my 1982 Chevrolet Citation and I had to borrow the money from my parents to pay the security deposit and first months’ rent on my apartment. The first night I was there someone smashed the window out of the car and stole my only possessions of any monetary value–my stereo and a backpack containing my favorite books. An inauspicious beginning.

I’ve complained often on this blog about how miserable I was during my law career and how unfulfilling I found it. Certainly that’s true, but it’s only part of the story.

It was a grueling stressful job that kept me away from home and family too much. But the truth is that it is because of my time as a lawyer that I’m now able to live this life. It took determination and patience, but there was a finish line and I did finally reach it.

I was privileged to spend most of my career with what I regard to be the finest law firm in the state. I was fortunate to develop an excellent client base and a good reputation with the judiciary. I worked on lots of interesting, often complex and high-profile matters. I learned a lot. My practice took me all over the world and I met lots of fascinating people. The vast majority of the time, I was on the side of the good guys.

I became a partner in my firm. Eventually I was named to the Florida Legal Elite, Florida Super Lawyers and Best Lawyers in America in both the Commercial Litigation and Intellectual Property Litigation categories. I may not have enjoyed my job, but the cosmic joke was that I became pretty good at it.

I’m reflecting on this stuff because since May 1, for the first time since that May in 1985, I have no professional affiliation with a law firm. Even though I haven’t practiced since August, 2010, my old firm had given me an honorary title, kept my bar dues paid and kept my bio on their website. But now they’ve eliminated that professional designation (for liability reasons because, you know, lawyers). Now I reckon I am fully retired from the practice of law.

This morning as I type this, anticipating a day spent picking and processing vegetables for tomorrow’s farmer’s market, I have blisters on my palms from driving t-posts yesterday and from loading and unloading 400 bales of hay. I worked until after nine last night and I’ve been up since five this morning, and have already tended the goats and chickens and raised the curtains on the hoop house. It’s a strangely different life from the one I led for over a quarter century, and I love it. And for all my complaining, I’m grateful for my time as a lawyer, without which I probably wouldn’t be able to do this.

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth…

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This morning at dawn

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter. 

Rachel Carson

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Blooms on the zucchini 

h/t Movin’ On