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Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Speech Crimes & Ethics 101

There are, apparently, crimes against humanity and vicious crimes against humanity. The latter aren’t committed by violent despots in nightmare nations but by corporations. The ultimate act of barbarity, apparently, occurs when corporations attempt to persuade others of their point-of-view.

So says Donald A. Brown, professor of ethics at Pennsylvania State University, in a ridiculously muddled-headed blog post. His argument goes something like this: People opposed to taking certain actions against climate change don’t care if untold generations of humanity suffer so long as their corporate bottom line is maintained. They are, therefore, evil incarnate – and must be held responsible for lying to the public.

These views aren’t new. You can find them baldly stated at Greenpeace’s ExxonSecrets website:

There’s a difference between free speech and a campaign to deny the climate science with the goal of undermining international action on climate change….Freedom of speech does not apply to misinformation and propaganda.

You can also find them in the right-hand banner on virtually every page of the DeSmogBlog website:

Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.

It so happens I know a thing or two about freedom of expression, having served as a Vice President of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (1998-2001). I can assure you that none of the big thinkers on this topic has ever argued that free speech “does not apply to misinformation and propaganda” or that it “does not include the right to deceive.” Quite the opposite. Free speech advocates have consistently held that the only way to determine who is telling the truth and who is pushing propaganda is to permit the airing of all points of view.

Prior to becoming an ethics professor Brown worked as an environmental lawyer. According to this bio, he is also currently the director of “an organization of fifty-six Pennsylvania universities that advocates sustainability on campuses.” When this ethics professor turns his attention to climate change, therefore, he is hardly a neutral party. Instead, decades of advocacy and activism are brought to bear.

Climate views that differ from Brown’s are, according to his first three paragraphs, deeply irresponsible. They involve the spreading of untruths and distortions, deeply misleading distortions, and further untruths. Moreover, they encompass the promotion of outright falsification, distortions, and disinformation.

Brown offers no proof whatsoever – other than to mention that a number of books containing these sorts of allegations have been published. But if the mere fact that a book has been written renders something true, I can direct you to an entire shelf authored by skeptically-minded scientists and economists who think much of what has been said about global warming is total bunk.

I’ve critiqued DeSmogBlog’s position in detail here. The same concerns apply to Brown. He believes there is an established “truth” regarding climate change. Anyone with a different point-of-view is engaging in “outright falsification” and is not, therefore, entitled to free speech. Thus, Brown genuinely believes he isn’t impinging on free expression.

The screamingly obvious flaw in this logic is that many official truths have turned out to be wrong. A hundred years ago the medical establishment considered both women and non-whites to be intellectually inferior. Free speech is meaningless if it can be revoked the minute I challenge anything society has deemed to be an official truth.

It’s amusing, in a macabre sort of way, that Brown wants to introduce a new category of crimes against humanity. It seems to me that, as an admirer of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he should be focusing his attention on concerns far more concrete – such as the fact that one of the IPCC’s four most senior personnel is a representative of the Sudanese government.

The president of Sudan (who came to power via a military coup) has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur. You can read all about it at Amnesty International’s website here. Among other things, Amnesty says the Sudanese government:

…allegedly ordered attacks on villages and camps, targeting groups on account of their ethnicity, while using rape, hunger and fear to create conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction.

When I first blogged about Sudan’s prominent role in the IPCC back in May, the Sudanese representative was only an acting Vice-Chairman of the IPCC (there are three of them, and they are one step down from chairman Rajendra Pachauri). Since then, the word acting has been removed, indicating that the IPCC has altered his status – but in the wrong direction.

Any discussion of crimes against humanity needs to begin by asking what kind of message the IPCC is sending by rewarding the violent and unsavoury Sudanese government with such a high-profile position. But a search of Brown’s website reveals no concern at all regarding this matter.

He’s an ethics professor, is he? That word must mean something different at Penn State.


h/t to Richard North for alerting me to Brown’s post


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