Saturday, April 28, 2018

Free speech, outrage, and facts

The thing about politics that most ideologues ignore is that very few people are consistent all the time or about similar issues. That’s not about party, or ideology, or issue—it’s about being human. One of the best places to see that in action is when it comes to free speech. But on that issue one side is conspicuously less concerned with facts than it is with outrage.

Recently, a judge dismissed a man’s lawsuit claiming that he was unfairly evicted from a New York City bar for wearing a “Make America Great [sic] Again” hat. Predictably, fans of the current occupant of the White House were apoplectic, and took to social media to condemn “the Left” for “hypocrisy”, and the newsmeda for a “liberal bias” for not reporting the story and for not standing up for the guy who wore the hat. Naturally, it’s not exactly as they claim, and their outrage, real or not, is misplaced.

The gist of the story is that the man claims he was told to leave the bar when he refused to remove his hat, and he further claimed, "I spoke directly to the owner and the owner told me that anyone who supports [the current occupant of the White House] or believes what you believe is not welcome here! And you need to leave right now because we won't serve you!"

The Right was outraged by the alleged treatment, of course, but their attack on Liberals was that, they said, we wouldn’t permit a baker to refuse to make a cake for a gay couple, but had no problem with someone being refused service for wearing a political hat we disagreed with. One would think they’d have been absolutely fine with the guy being thrown out, if the story was true as claimed, because they demand the right to refuse service to LGBT+ people, so obviously liberals should have that same choice, right? Well, no, of course not.

The Right’s outrage machine got the details wrong. The guy claimed he was thrown out for his political beliefs, however, political or supposed patriotic views aren’t protected under New York’s state anti-discrimination laws. So, the legal claim the guy actually made was that he was wearing the hat as a symbolic expression of some sort of “sincerely held beliefs”, and the hat was “an essential component of [his] overall personal and spiritual expression." The problem was that he couldn’t articulate what, precisely, those beliefs were, and he acknowledged that he never told the bar staff of his “beliefs”, so they’d have no way of knowing about the alleged beliefs. What THAT means is that the staff did not illegally discriminate against the man because of his religious beliefs, because to do so they’d have to have known about or suspected the man held those beliefs, and neither was true.

So, as a matter of law, there was no legal reason reason why the staff could not evict the guy.

Second, the guy was NOT refused service. Receipts filed with the Court [the PDF is available online] show that the guy paid $182.91, plus a $36.00 tip, for a grand total of $218.91. Those same documents show the guy spent hours in the bar.

Beyond all that, this story, like all stories, also has two sides.

In a statement to CNN, the bar’s owner said they “firmly support women's rights, marriage equality, gun control, the environment, and regard for the truth—we don't discriminate." The statement went on:
"What's gotten lost in this story is that the guest wasn't kicked out because he was wearing [that] hat—he was asked to leave after being verbally abusive to our staff, which is something we don't tolerate regardless of who you are."
That’s an entirely different version of events. If the owner’s version is correct, then the guy wasn’t kicked out because of his hat, or because of his choice of political candidate or because of his “beliefs”, but because he was abusive, and kicking someone out for that is completely legal everywhere. Considering that this came after several hours in the bar, it seems pretty clear to a fair minded person that the hat was irrelevant, there was no restriction on the guy’s free speech, and the Right’s outrage is grossly misplaced.

Having said all that, if the guy really had been kicked out because of the hat and nothing else, that would be wrong, regardless of what the law says specifically, just as it’s wrong to discriminate against LGBT+ customers. But the evidence is clear that he was not refused service (he was there for several hours and spent $218.91, including tip). Beyond that, it’s impossible to know for sure what actually happened, but the facts as presented in Court don’t support the narrative being sold by the Right on social media.

Freedom of speech is a precious thing, and so is the right to be free from discrimination. But the fight for both is cheapened, and real victims trashed, whenever false claims are made and then used to score political points. The judge dismissed the complaint because the evidence presented in Court showed that no discrimination had occurred. It’s hard to see, based on the evidence supplied, how any other result would have been just.

Facts and evidence always matter. Partisans of all stripes would do well to remember that before stirring up the social media outrage machine. Recent history suggests that won’t happen. That’s not about party, or ideology, or issue—it’s about being human these days, it seems, and that's what's truly sad about such cases.

Documents for the case, Index No. 152578/2017, are all availble online.

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