Showing posts with label John Oliver. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Oliver. Show all posts

Saturday, May 20, 2023

EPA floats PFAS limits for drinking water

Rawpixel CC0 1.0
PFAS has been much on the lips of regulators, lately and at last. 

As I wrote in 2021, the movie Dark Waters (2019), based on a true story, first brought PFAS to my attention. I'm happy to report that we've since replaced almost all of our PFAS-coated cookware. And just yesterday, I followed the recent custom of removing a burrito from its plastic-coated-paper wrapper before heating it in the microwave.

When John Oliver gave his classic treatment to PFAS in 2021, Europe was moving to regulate it, but the United States was doing very little. Per John Oliver's invitation, I confirmed that my local water authority in Rhode Island was not testing for PFAS in drinking water.

Now, with Biden Administration support announced in March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Authority has a PFAS website and proposed regulations for drinking water. The proposal would drop acceptable levels of six PFAS chemicals from 70 to 4 parts per million (ppt).

That's a start, but not a solution. 

PFAS might now be in the drinking water of as many as 200 million Americans, The Guardian reported in March. Research shows human health risk upon any exposure to PFAS, so no safe level is known. The EPA's own guidelines since last year have called for voluntary limits on two PFAS chemicals at 0.02 and 0.004 ppt, a Harvard expert explained. Meanwhile, it's not clear that scientific testing is accurate enough to detect PFAS levels that low. Thus, the EPA proposal is vulnerable to criticism for not reaching the full range of PFAS chemicals and not setting maximum levels low enough. But the challenge truly to ensure human health might be practically insurmountable.

Spurred by burgeoning state regulation meanwhile, the private sector is ramping up capacity to test for PFAS nationwide. In February, Maine Laboratories became the first commercial lab in that state to offer testing. Maine Labs sells test kits for drinking water, waste water, ground water, and soil, with a two-week turnaround for results. Maine Labs's CEO is Katie Richards, a close friend and former college roommate of one of my sisters.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Politics complicates football: Sympathy for ... Iran

As advertised, last week in Kraków, Poland, I had the great privilege to talk law, development, and the FIFA World Cup, with the group stage under way in Qatar.

Students and faculty of the American Law Scientific Circle (KNPA) and American Law Program at Jagiellonian University (Koło Naukowe Prawa Amerykańskiego TBSP UJ and Szkoła Prawa Amerykańskiego UJ), in collaboration with the Columbus Law School at the Catholic University of America, generously hosted me.  The talk kicked off a KNPA lecture series on "Law and Sustainability." My especial thanks to KNPA President Zuzanna Maszniew and her leadership team.

Photo © Zuzanna Maszniew, used with permission.
I was no John Oliver, to be sure, but I hope I stimulated thinking about the Gordian Knot of sport and politics and its implications for the Middle East and North Africa's place at the table.

Today, November 29, the United States will round out its play in the group stage in Qatar with a match against Iran, simultaneously with a high stakes stand-off between England and Wales. It's a big day, football fans.

Meanwhile, coming home to the States this week, I've been disappointed that Americans are not more in tune with the fascinating stories of geopolitics that are unfolding under the sporting tents of the Qatar World Cup. I admit, what's happening now in China dangles meritorious distraction. But with the USMNT facing Iran today, I want to mention one of the stories from Qatar that has gripped me.

In Iran's opening match with England last week, Iranian footballers refused to sing their own national anthem (BBC).  Stony faced, the players apparently chose to stand in silent solidarity with rights protestors against the government at home (N.Y. Times). Subsequently, Iranian authorities arrested a former national-team footballer known for occasional anti-regime sentiments (Guardian). At Iran's second match, the lads toed the line.

The anthem stunt was extraordinarily courageous. The players had to have known the disgrace they brought on the regime would have consequences when they go home, if not sooner.

Iranian footballers in 2018.
Mahdi Zare/Fars News Agency via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0
More, though, I was struck by the reminder that people and their governments are not the same thing.

I'm a reasonably bright person, as people go, and I've seen a lot of the world. I come from an immigrant family myself. I grew up with a dear Iranian friend. Her stepmother taught me how to make tahchin, and her dad eagerly gave me his own well worn copy of All the Shah's Men. I shouldn't need to be reminded that people are just people, much the same around the world, just trying to make the best of things and find some joy where we can; and that it's wrong to ascribe the Machiavellian motives of states, whether others or our own, to their citizens. The protests now in China say the same.

Yet, I admit, I had followed the USMNT into the World Cup with something of a Cold War mentality, maybe because of the era when I grew up. Yellow ribbons, burning effigies, and "Death to America" chants all bounce around my long-term memory. I was determined that we and our Group B compatriots from England and Wales should beat Iran to make some kind of political point. A Miracle on Ice or Rocky IV situation.

The Iranian men's demonstration unsettled my unconscious prejudice. As a result, a part of me has been pulling for Iran in their last matches, even while, still, I had to favor the England squad, which features some of my beloved Manchester City stars, and Wales, which invokes Lasso-esque Wrexham affections. And even while, of course, I support my home USMNT today, there will be a part of me that wants to see the Iranian side make a pride-worthy showing.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Underwear for firefighters means to prevent cancer

The Defender Brief by 9 Alarm Apparel
A Massachusetts textile maker has teamed with firefighters to make cancer-preventive underwear.

In October 2021, I shared John Oliver's Last Week treatment of PFAS, the highly carcinogenic chemical that is used to make non-stick cookware, as depicted in the movie-based-on-a-true-story Dark Waters, and which can now be detected in the blood of most Americans.

At that time, Oliver lamented that PFAS is not even on the list of toxins that water quality tests look for. Indeed, as I stated in an update to that post the same month, I sought my water quality report at home in Providence, Rhode Island, and there was no mention of PFAS.

There has been progress since. Both the U.S. EPA and the European Union are moving forward with plans announced in 2021 to regulate PFAS. (But see Tom Perkins, US Water Likely Contains More "Forever Chemicals" Than EPA Tests Show, Guardian, July 6, 2022.)

In my house, we replaced our Teflon-coated cookware with a Rachel Ray set we hope is PFAS-free. I took the Teflon stuff to metal recycling, but probably, I acknowledge, it will contribute to the problem in the short term, as landfill waste is leeching PFAS into the earth.

There's a long way to go. In late June, NPR reported, "the EPA put out a new advisory warning that even tiny amounts of some of PFAS chemicals found in drinking water may pose risks." And "[s]cientists are finding PFAS everywhere." A so-called "forever chemical," PFAS persists in the environment, practically never breaking down.

Firefighters are especially vulnerable to PFAS exposure, and testicular cancer is an especial risk. Reminiscent of once seemingly miraculous asbestos, PFAS is used in fire-suppressive gear as well as the firefighting foam in which firefighters can find themselves literally swamped. Firefighters filed a wave of lawsuits in February, CBS News reported, claiming cancer resulting from PFAS exposure.

In a welcome sliver-of-hope development, Massachusetts textile makers announced in tandem with the February lawsuits the sale of PFAS-protective underwear for firefighters.

Precision Sportwear is making "Defender Briefs," a product created by Northampton, Mass., firefighter Levi Bousquet and his company, 9 Alarm Apparel. They told WBZ that Defender Briefs "block 99% of cancer-causing agents from reaching the skin." Precision is located in Fall River, Mass., and 9 Alarm Apparel in Belchertown, Mass.

9 Alarm is marketing the underwear with the slogan, "Protect the Boys."

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Miami Beach looks like a police state; Ocean Avenue shootings happened anyway

In March, I visited Miami Beach and found it to have the feel of a police state.

Uvalde and the shortly subsequent widely reported shootings happened while I was away from the United States, which was something of a mercy. I didn't have to live through the immediate trauma of it all happening again. But thinking about what happened and what could or should be done, including John Oliver's apt skepticism of the perennial calls to harden school security, caused me to remember my experience in March.

I've always liked Miami Beach. The art deco aesthetic combines with Latin-flavored food, drink, and entertainment and incomparable people watching to provide a unique and memorable experience every time. I had not been there, though, in many years, and I was anxious to see how it emerged from the pandemic.

I had a good time revisiting old haunts, but I found the nighttime police presence downright oppressive. Countless cop cars sat with their blue and red lights illuminated all along Ocean Drive and in Lummus Park. Bright spotlights made artificial daylight in the park and on the beach inside the dunes; paths to the ocean were closed. Surveillance cameras were everywhere, perched upon lamppost after lamppost. It was a police state on steroids. (All photos RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)

I could not imagine what had happened that precipitated such security, and I was inclined to be critical. Then, shortly after I returned home and despite what I'd witnessed, news broke of five separate shootings during the main week of spring break. Authorities declared a state of emergency and imposed a midnight curfew to quell further violence, NPR reported.

I have no great insights as to what is going on at Miami Beach. I can only say that one of my favorite places, a vacation destination in the United States, looks more like a police state than actual police states I've visited abroad. And that didn't avert five shootings.

I don't have the answers, but making more places look like what Miami Beach has become doesn't seem to be one.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Unregulated, 'Dark Waters' chemicals persist in cookware, clothing, sickening people, environment

Comedian and social critic John Oliver's latest top story on HBO's Last Night concerned PFAS, the artificial chemical substances behind non-stick coatings on cookware and incorporated into food wrappings and textiles, known to be highly dangerous to human health.

The stuff persists, Oliver explained, in new, unregulated, and unlabeled formulations, despite a horrific track record of illness, from obesity to terminal cancer, and environmental damage.  Oliver related recent history by quoting parts of the landmark New York Times Magazine feature by Nathaniel Rich in 2016, "The Lawyer Who Became Dupont's Worst Nightmare."  That piece inspired the unsettling 2019 feature film Dark Waters.  Oliver also excerpted a 2018 documentary, The Devil We Know.

PFAS, a "forever chemical" that persists in the environment for thousands of years, is now in the blood of virtually all Americans.  Food wrappings and clothing are our greatest risk, Oliver explained, and there is no labeling to warn us.

I just caught this on a spot-check. Adiós, sartén.
In my household, since Dark Waters brought the issue to our attention, we've exclusively adopted silicone tools to use with non-stick-coated cookware.  And at the first sign of scratching, out goes the pan or pot: a pricey luxury we are lucky to be able to afford, while we only worsen the environmental problem.  We have lately been investigating non-stick alternatives, and Oliver has ignited the gas burner under us to get moving on that.

PFAS is in the water supply, too, sometimes in alarming doses, 70 parts per trillion (ppt) being the EPA's recommended maximum concentration in drinking water.  Oliver pointed viewers to a "PFAS Contamination" interactive map created by the NGO Environmental Working Group.  The map is intriguing and informative to play around with, as it compiles water quality data from around the country.

But the most frightening takeaway from the map is the data it does not contain.  Data collection is hit or miss.  The closest results to me in East Bay Rhode Island come from a small school serving only 40 persons (4 ppt), a Massachusetts water district serving 13,627 persons (20 ppt), and the Pawtucket (R.I.) water system, serving 99,200 persons and reporting a PFAS excess at 74 ppt.

My local water authority, Bristol County (BCWA), says my water rather comes from Providence, which is not on the EWG data map, and where water quality reports appear to be missing.  It further undermines my confidence in the system that BCWA has been wanting to build a pipeline to Pawtucket, which offers, BCWA says, "another source of excellent quality water."

At last, Europe is moving ahead with regulation; I hope that will spur the United States to follow suit.

[UPDATE, 17 Oct. 2021:  Providence Water sent me a copy of the 2020 Water Quality Report in the mail. As anticipated by Oliver, there is no mention in the report of PFAS.]

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

FOIA scores among John Oliver's three favorite things

Of all the funny takes on an outraged voter's crashing of a Nevada election press conference, John Oliver's takes top honors for featuring government transparency through the Freedom of Information Act.


See the full segment on Election Results 2020 on HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Nov. 8, 2020.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Canadian privacy advocate deploys anti-SLAPP law in suit by electronic exam proctoring company

John Oliver's Big Coal SLAPP nemesis, Bob Murray, retires

Pixabay by Aksa2011
An IT specialist at a Canadian university is defending a lawsuit against a U.S. tech company over its allegations of copyright infringement and his allegations of infringement of student privacy.

Proctorio is an Arizona-based company offering online testing to academic institutions.  It's similar to ExamSoft, which is used by my law school, the Massachusetts Bar, and other academic and licensing organizations.

Needless to say, businesses in the mold of Proctorio and ExamSoft have taken off since the pandemic.  But these businesses are not without their problems, and their widespread use has brought unwanted scrutiny to their terms of service.

For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation raised a red flag over ExamSoft in anticipation of its adoption to administer the California bar exam.  Examsoft's terms of service afford the company overbroad reach into the computers of users and, worse, collection of biometric data from studying their faces on screen.  My students have raised legitimate concerns about ExamSoft, and I will not be administering a "closed-book" final exam because I share those concerns.

UBC (GoToVan CC BY 2.0)

Related privacy worries motivated University of British Columbia learning technology specialist Ian Linkletter, MLIS, to tweet out the URLs of unlisted Proctorio instructional videos located at YouTube, meaning to make his case that the company is excessively intrusive of student privacy.  In response, the company sued Linkletter in British Columbia for copyright infringement and breach of confidence.

Now Linkletter has filed for dismissal under British Columbia's anti-SLAPP law.  Linkletter told the Vancouver Sun that fighting the lawsuit for just "more than a month has cost him and his wife tens out thousands of dollars."  Read more in Linkletter's public statement of October 16.

B.C.'s anti-SLAPP law was enacted unanimously by lawmakers in March 2019.  Oddly enough, B.C. lawmakers passed one of Canada's first anti-SLAPP laws in 2001, but quickly repealed it over doubts about its efficacy.  I wrote recently about the dark side of anti-SLAPP laws.  Never have I denied that they are sometimes deployed consistently with their laudable aims; rather, my concerns derive from their ready abuse when deployed against meritorious defamation and privacy causes.   

The case is Proctorio, Inc. v. Linkletter, Vancouver Reg. No. S-208730 (filed B.C. Sup. Ct. Sept. 20, 2020) (civil claim).

Bye, bye, Bob

[UPDATE, Oct. 27, 2020. To be clear, I wrote that sub-headline before this happened: "Coal giant Robert Murray passes away just days after announcing retirement" (Stephanie Grindley, WBOY, Oct. 25, 2020).]

In other, if distantly related, anti-SLAPP news, Bob Murray is resigning and retiring as board chairman of American Consolidated Natural Resource Holdings Inc., successor of Big Coal's Murray Energy.  It was a tangle with Murray that turned HBO comedian John Oliver into an anti-SLAPP champion.  And, I admit again, HBO's use of anti-SLAPP law was textbook and laudable after Murray brought a groundless suit against the network.

While I disagree with Oliver over anti-SLAPP, he's one of my favorite comedians and social activists, and definitely was the mic-drop-best live act I've ever seen.  Here are his key Murray Energy treatments from Last Week Tonight.

The first, June 18, 2017, drew Murray's lawsuit.

The second, November 10, 2019, followed up with a paean to anti-SLAPP, wrapping up with a musical tribute to Murray.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Texas indictment surfaces problem of elected prosecutors; First Amendment protects Netflix film

Actor, model, and District Attorney Lucas Babin
(Steve Stewart CC BY 4.0)
A Tyler County, Texas, grand jury has indicted Netflix for lewd depiction of TV girls in the French film, Cuties (2020).  Sadly, the indictment says more about Texas and American criminal justice dysfunction than about Netflix or contemporary media.  

The film plainly is protected by the First Amendment, rendering the indictment more political stunt than serious legal maneuver.  I wasn't going to watch Cuties, but now I feel like I should, so score one for Netflix, nil for District Attorney Lucas Babin.  Or, I should acknowledge, this might be good campaign fodder for an elected D.A. in East Texas, so it's win-win, minus transaction costs.  

Using the criminal justice system as a means to political ends is a deeply disturbing phenomenon; John Oliver featured the issue in 2018 commentary on Last Week.

Besides being an attorney, Babin is himself, or was, an actor and a model.  His father is dentist and U.S. Rep. Brian Babin (R-Tex.).

The September 23 indictment (image from Reason) relies on Texas Penal Code § 43.262, Possession or Promotion of Lewd Visual Material Depicting Child.  The statute reads:

(b) A person commits an offense if the person knowingly possesses, accesses with intent to view, or promotes visual material that:

     (1) depicts the lewd exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of an unclothed, partially clothed, or clothed child who is younger than 18 years of age at the time the visual material was created;

     (2) appeals to the prurient interest in sex;  and

     (3) has no serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

The latter conjunctive element (3), lacking in serious value, is a typical savings provision meant to bring the law into conformity with the First Amendment, which certainly protects the film.

Promotional image of Cuties French release
Cuties, or Mignonnes in the French original, is a 96-minute drama about a Senegalese-French girl coming of age in contemporary Paris.  She struggles to reconcile her conservative Muslim upbringing with the popular culture of her schoolyard peers in the social-media era.

A Sundance 2020 award winner in dramatic world cinema, the film was written and directed by Parisian born Maïmouna Doucouré, herself of Senegalese heritage.  In a September 15 op-ed in The Washington Post (now behind pay wall), Doucouré wrote:

This film is my own story. All my life, I have juggled two cultures: Senegalese and French. As a result, people often ask me about the oppression of women in more traditional societies. And I always ask: But isn't the objectification of women's bodies in Western Europe and the United States another kind of oppression? When girls feel so judged at such a young age, how much freedom will they ever truly have in life?

The sexualization of the girls in the film is already familiar in the life experience of an 11- or 12-year-old, Doucouré further wrote. Still, a counselor was on set, and French child protection authorities signed off on the film.

Some of the flap over Cuties, and probably precipitating the Texas indictment, was Netflix's initial promotion of the film with an image of the child stars in sexually suggestive outfits and pose (see Bustle).  Netflix apologized publicly and to Doucouré and withdrew the portrayal.

Here is the trailer for Cuties.

The case is State v. Netflix, Inc., No. 13,731 (filed Tex. Dist. Ct. Tyler County Sept. 23, 2020).

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Report from Quarantine Week 2: Me and the Violet Fog

Another week in quarantine.  Technically, my latter and last.  But until there's an antibody test, who can go anywhere?  Here's my self-serving report from week 2.

What I'm Reading
(besides Dr. Grillo's blog)

John O'Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us (2008) (Amazon).  This beautiful little book with blessings for all occasions was a gift of our dear friend Sister Catherine, who missions to children on the Navajo and Zuni Reservations in New Mexico. I perused it when she gave it to us. But picking it up again now amid the present crisis, its texts (and no less its title) have a new layer of meaning. Consider these verses from the poem, "For the Interim Time":
You are in the time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.
. . .
What is being transfigured here is your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn.
There are poems about travel that are especially poignant to me in present circumstances.

First Book of Samuel (BibleGateway).  My church's yearlong Bible-reading study continues telling the ancient story of Israel.  This book, which chronicles King Saul's fall and David's rise, includes David and Goliath (ch. 17) (and Samuel on the whole reminds me of the Kings TV show, not so scriptural, but a beautifully portrayed drama, with Ian McShane as the Saul character).  I should have mentioned last week that we're accompanying the reading with videos from the nonprofit animation studio, BibleProject (1 Samuel). The studio's outstanding quick-draws are a joy to watch and learn from (también disponible en español y otros idiomas).

What I'm Watching

Doctor Who s12 (2020) (season 38 overall) (BBC trailer).  Whenever there's a new doctor, you're not sure whether it's you or the actor who isn't hitting stride.  Excited as we were about the debut of Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor, in 2018 (eat dust, James Bond), series 11 was further complicated by the departure of storyline mastermind Stephen Moffat (still waiting on Sherlock s5, Stephen!). Whatever the reason, series 11 felt like a string of unconnected afterthoughts, despite heroic efforts by the cast to make us care.  Finally series 12 reintroduces the concept of arc, and I feel like we're back on track, story-wise.  The scripts still need work, as they condescendingly tell us rather than show us the writers' social agenda.  But looking past that, we quite enjoyed e7's devilish villains, and we're looking forward to the concluding Cyberman saga.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina s3 (2020) (Netflix trailer).  Guilty pleasure, I admit, but this Archie Comics reimagining is too clever to resist.  Where Doctor Who lately clubs you over the head with social allegory, Sabrina catches you unawares like a Maine lobster.  If Riverdale is an artificially flavored orange pop for the brain, Sabrina is a delicate hazelnut gelato.  Amid exquisite sets, the narratives are intricate, the characters are surprisingly multilayered for a live-action comic book, and the actors perform whimsically.  Lucy Davis as Aunt Hilda Spellman walks away with best supporting actress.  We're only getting started in s3, but we're already absorbed and delighted.

Young Sheldon s3 (2019-20) (CBS promo).  Comedy break.  This show remains as strong as it premiered.  I am one of that odd contingent that doesn't like Big Bang Theory but adores Iain Armitage's young Sheldon.  That said, even I was moved by the closing scene of e16 in the Caltech cafeteria—after my wife explained it.

Late night.  All our favorites are back, reinventing themselves in this time of crisis, and, as John Oliver put it to Stephen Colbert, "committing union infractions out the wazoo" to keep us laughing.  For HBO's Last Week Tonight, Oliver just posted his third viral installment.  Production of the CBS Late Show has been a family affair in Colbert's Connecticut home; when did his kids all grow up?  His tech snafu with Daniel Radcliffe was an instant classic, and I enjoyed his gin-infused dialog with Ryan Reynolds.  We're looking forward to Tooning Out the News, premiering officially on CBS All Access on April 7.  Producing Comedy Central's "Daily Social Distancing Show" from his New York City sofa, Trevor Noah has been killing it.  His correspondents haven't missed a beat—see "What Day Is It?," Video Chat with Roy Wood Jr. and Jaboukie Young-White, and Ronnie Chieng with Andrew Yang on universal-basic-income-come-lately—and the Daily Show graphics team rallied in force this week.  Finally, a mellow highlight of the week was Monday night's musical "Homefest" on James Corden's Late Late Show (CBS).  Who needs a studio?

What I'm Eating

Garlic.  A lot of garlic.  Now's the time.  In quarantine, you don't have to worry about any close-talking strangers.  Vampires beware.  Thanks, by the way, to whoever gave us this great gift pack of Terra Delyssa organic infused olive oils, which we rediscovered in the cupboard when we feared our olive oil stock had run dry.

King cake.  And everything else in the freezer.  My culinarily gifted Louisianan wife made this for Mardi Gras, when I was in Bissau, and froze some for me.  I've been told that if we're ever allowed to return to the grocery store, I might get gumbo.  Damn you, quarantine!

Billy’s Bistro.  We’re ordering for curbside pickup this weekend.  Remember, if you can, support your local businesses!

What I'm Drinking

Peet's Major Dickason's Blend.  Peet's bestseller.  We're grinding the beans.  It gets the job done.  It's dark, which I like; my wife likes that less.  We also tried this week Community's Private Reserve Holiday Jazz, which I gave to my wife for Christmas as part of a haul of Community coffees to tide her over while I was (or would be, but am not now) in Africa.  We both love Community coffees.  But there was something off about this one's florals that I couldn't get over.  I'd give you the rest of it, but I breathed all over it, so now it's a biohazard.

McQueen and the Violet Fog (Vimeo).  This is a truly special gin, bearing the unique flavor of a 100% neutral cane spirit from Jundiaí, Brazil, which is just north and inland from São Paulo.  Among 21 botanicals, its six "signature" ingredients are basil, rosemary, fennel seed, calamansi, star anise and açai.  It's small-batch distilled from maceration and vapor infusion in a single copper pot still.  Wine Enthusiast's Kara Newman gave it a 93: "This gin is clear, with a distinctly sweet candied lemon peel fragrance. The soft palate finishes with mild violet jazzed up by white pepper and a hint of coriander. Tailor-made for an Aviation."  The name of the gin comes from a darkly quirky poem by Atticus; the last two stanzas are printed on the back of the bottle.

What I'm Wearing

This was a gift from my mom-in-law.  She gets me.

What I'm Doing to Stay Sane

That's my weight bench from high school in the 1980s, today in my garage.  It's lived with me in five states.  "Do we really need to move that?," my wife asked in Arkansas in 2011. "They have gyms in Rhode Island."  "Why, yes," I said presciently, "in case the gym closes because of a pandemic."

Happy weekend!  

Yeah, it's actually the weekend.  Like I can tell the difference....

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Anti-SLAPP is not all it's cracked up to be

John Oliver this week on Last Week revisited the defamation lawsuit he drew against HBO from Bob Murray and Murray Energy.  The piece brings viewers up to speed on the feud.

Murray just dropped the suit, which was on appeal of dismissal to the West Virginia Supreme Court.  That led Oliver to do this effective segment on the problem of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).  Oliver called on the 20 states without anti-SLAPP statutes to adopt them, lest nationwide speakers remain subject to lawsuit in lowest-common-denominator, plaintiff-friendly locales.

I'm a big John Oliver fan—next-level, best standup I've ever seen, not to mention having redefined social commentary through comedy—and a free speech and journalism advocate.  That said, I am on record in opposition to anti-SLAPP laws, and I remain so.  The laws are an ill fit to resolve the underlying problem of excessive transaction costs in litigation and work an unfairness against legitimate causes of action.  Our First Amendment law radically weights defamation tort law against plaintiffs like nowhere else in the world, admittedly prophylactically dismissing claims by genuinely injured plaintiffs.  Defendants don't need another weapon in their arsenal.

Oliver is right that there are plenty of cases in which litigation is abused in an effort to suppress free speech.  But anti-SLAPP laws sweep within their ambit nearly every defamation and privacy case.  Defamation plaintiffs who have been genuinely injured and have no SLAPP motivation whatsoever also must respond to anti-SLAPP motions and are likely to suffer dismissal and pain of attorneys' fees—not because their suits lack merits, but because they lack access to discovery to get their hands on real, existing evidence of malice, discovery that our civil litigation system routinely affords to tort plaintiffs in the interests of justice.

The essential concept of anti-SLAPP law is said to have originated in Colorado as a means to protect environmentalists from retaliatory litigation by developers.  If you want to see evidence of my doubts about the efficacy of anti-SLAPP legislation, look no farther than a decision by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts just today, in which, literally, a property developer is the anti-SLAPP claimant in an epic litigation that has generated enormous transaction costs over anti-SLAPP procedure without ever reaching the merits of the case.

Anti-SLAPP laws look good on paper.  But they indiscriminately undermine tort law.  The effect of denying compensation to genuinely injured plaintiffs will be the effect of a failed tort system: unfairness, increased abuse by bad actors, and, ultimately, injured persons taking the law into their own hands.  Media advocates wonder why Generation Z, et seq., are hostile toward free speech.  Be careful what you wish for.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Lewinsky calls for online civility, will speak twice in South Coast Massachusetts this academic year

Goodman as Linda Tripp, Molly Shannon as Lewinsky, in
1998 (SNL). President Clinton's escapades were good business
for SNL, which released a Best Of collection in 1999.

Monica Lewinsky has become a public figure in a whole new light in recent years, leaving behind the scandal that took her name, rather than his, mostly to differentiate scandals.  As Time put it, "Monica Lewinsky" was once the butt of a joke, many jokes.  John Goodman playing Linda Tripp (see WaPo reemergence in 2018) made for instant-classic Saturday Night Live bits (see Tripp's later perspective and a brief recollection with Goodman).

The world has changed, #MeToo, and Lewinsky figures into it differently today.  She has described herself as an original victim of cyber-bullying, before it was a thing.  Aptly, she's become an outspoken advocate against it, and a mite more effective in that capacity than the present First Lady.  Lewinsky broke her relative silence in Vanity Fair in 2014 and subsequently became a VF contributor and Twitter personality.  John Oliver interviewed her on Last Week Tonight in his excellent program on "public shaming" (below) (cf. Jon Ronson's definitive 2016 treatment of the subject in his book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, featured here on The Savory Tort in 2017).

Apparently Lewinsky's "second act" is only getting going.  Among her many projects, she is contributing to the fall 2020 season of American Crime Story, on FX, The Hill reported, in which Sarah Paulson will play Linda Tripp decidedly more darkly than John Goodman did.  Meanwhile on stage, Lewinsky has become an advocate for online civility.  Building on her 2015 TED talk, The Price of Shame, she's booked into an aggressive public speaking agenda.

I can't help but find Lewinsky to be a compelling figure.  Aside from her curious, mostly involuntary role in American history, she embodies the mass media's power to destroy reputations with the impunity the First Amendment affords.  Yet her story unfolded in the highest of political arenas, the American executive office, in which First Amendment values are most urgently implicated, and First Amendment absolutism is most persuasively justified.  Whatever the merits of the case that shaped her perspective, she shares today a meritorious message: If the internet can be tamed, to do more good than harm, it will be by people and their choices, not by law and regulation.

Lewinsky is slated to speak in South Coast Massachusetts in fall and spring.  On October 17, 2019, Lewinsky will give an endowed lecture at Bridgewater College (more from WHSV).  On May 15, 2020, Lewinsky will speak in the New Bedford (Massachusetts) Lyceum at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center ("the Z"); tickets are on sale now.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Laughing with Lenny Bruce, from schmuck to conscience

Kitty Bruce cuts the ribbon on the Lenny Bruce archive at the Brandeis University Goldfarb Library.

There is indecent language in this post.

In the last week of October, Brandeis University hosted a conference, “Comedy and the Constitution,” celebrating the life and work of comedian Lenny Bruce (1925-1966).  The conference marked the accession in the Brandeis University Library of Lenny Bruce’s papers, donated by his daughter Kitty Bruce, who participated in the conference.  The program was organized by Professor Steve Whitfield in American Studies and Sarah Shoemaker in Goldfarb Library Special Collections.  Featured speakers included Christie Hefner, former chairwoman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises, and “outrage” comedian Lewis Black, known to many through his long-running Daily Show segment, “Back in Black.”

My own paper for the academic part of the program concerned free expression and communication regulation.  Specifically, I looked at Bruce's technique of repeating indecent words with the aim of disempowering them.  If one repeats fuck again and again, the tenth repetition doesn’t sting the ear as much as the first.  George Carlin was there at least once when Bruce was arrested for “obscenity” based on the use of discrete words.  There can be little doubt that the experience directly influenced Carlin’s famous “seven dirty words” routine.  This comedic tradition at least tracked a strengthening of free expression in U.S. culture and law—think “Fuck the Draft” on Cohen’s jacket, 403 U.S. 15 (1971)—and might moreover have been a precipitating force.  For better or worse, the power today that attaches to many favorites in the pantheon of bad words is not what it used to be.  Ruth Wajnryb observed in her 2005 book, Language Most Foul, “[N]owadays it takes several fucks to achieve what one lone fuck would have achieved ten years ago.”

The lodging of Bruce’s legacy at Brandeis is a good fit for a couple of reasons.  The university is named for Justice Louis Brandeis, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939.  Brandeis was a key contributor to modern First Amendment law.  In the wake of World War I, he laid the groundwork for a more vigorous model of speech protection than had been known in the prior century.  Even amid the Red Scare, Brandeis recognized that if freedom of speech means anything, then minority perspectives on politics must be protected, however distasteful to the establishment.

Brandeis also was the first Jewish member of the U.S. Supreme Court, an experience that informed his views on social justice and antimajoritarianism.  Judaism played a key role in the founding of (non-sectarian) Brandeis University and remains today an omnipresent part of the university’s social culture.  Bruce was a Jewish comedian, and his cultural experience shaped his comedy.  

A number of academic papers at the conference focused on the role of Yiddish in the comedy of Bruce and also in the wider tradition of Jewish comedy.  I was ignorant on this point.  But presenters made a compelling case that the Yiddish tongue is especially well suited to comedic devices such as double entendre and nuanced word play.  In broad strokes, the particular compatibility of Yiddish with comedy seems a function of the truism that people have always turned to comedy to relieve suffering.

Christie Hefner

In terms of political commentary, Christie Hefner traced a direct legacy from Lenny Bruce to the sharp witted comedy of The Daily Show and Last Week with John Oliver.  I think she’s right.  Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert routinely scoffed at the notion that they produce news, despite serious research showing their influence on popular thinking about politics.  Stephen Colbert’s SuperPAC bits on The Colbert Report spoke volumes on the very real role of money in politics.  John Oliver eschews the label of journalist, but his work at HBO has at least raised awareness, if not effected reform, on critical social issues such as net neutrality.

Someone at the Brandeis conference pointed out that some of our attribution to Lenny Bruce of a desire to make the world a better place--by cursing of all things--has got to be a posthumous fiction.  I think that’s right too.  Bruce was just a person, not a legend.  He wanted to sustain himself with his flair for the funny, to fill seats at shows, and to take care of his family.  Arrests for obscenity--the more absurd the state's case, the better--were good for business.

I’m not troubled by any dissonance in the legend and the man who was Lenny Bruce.  The Old Testament is replete with the sea changes of unlikely messengers.

Lewis Black