Labor unions have a constitutionally protected right to protest using giant inflatable rodents, a federal board ruled Wednesday.
“Scabby the Rat,” as it is known, has became a staple of labor protests in the United States, often rolled out when a company has decided to hire non-union contractors. The menacing inflatables were first deployed in 1990 by a bricklayers union in Illinois, according to the Chicago Tribune. Some have been as tall as 25 feet.
In this case, the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 150, headquartered just outside Chicago, had brought a 12-foot “rat” along with it to a trade show for recreational vehicles. The target was Lippert Components, which supplied parts for another firm, MacAllister Machinery, that the union accused of engaging in unfair labor practices.
Under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, unions are generally prohibited from engaging in secondary boycotts, or seeking to intimidate so-called “neutral” companies that are not the direct target of their dispute. The question considered by the National Labor Relations Board – an independent federal agency whose members are appointed to five-year terms by the president – was where to draw the line between legal speech and illicit intimidation.
The Trump administration had sided against labor, submitting a legal brief maintaining that the giant rats were “glaring in character and size and an unmistakable symbol of contempt,” their “red eyes, fangs, and claws” constituting a threat, not constitutionally protected expression. The ACLU, in turn, argued that the First Amendment was at stake, arguing that the previous administration was “attempting to exterminate Scabby because he is a labor symbol.”
Ultimately, even those members of the NLRB who were appointed by former President Donald Trump sided with the ACLU and organized labor.
In her opinion, NLRB Chairman Lauren M. McFerran, a Democrat and appointee of President Joe Biden, wrote that courts “have consistently deemed banners and inflatable rats to fall within the realm of protected speech, rather than that of intimidation and the like.”
The NLRB’s three other members, all Republicans, likewise agreed that while federal labor law limits activities targeting a “neutral” employer, it does not override the Constitution and its protections for free speech.
Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed a new bill into law on Tuesday that requires the state’s public universities to survey faculty, students, and staff on their political beliefs to measure “viewpoint diversity” and fight student “indoctrination.”
The Republican-passed law aims to determine “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” in classrooms and whether students “feel free to express beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom,” according to the bill’s text. And it mandates that students “be shown diverse ideas and opinions, including those that they may disagree with or find uncomfortable.”
It remains unclear how the state will use the information it gathers, but free speech scholars and advocates are concerned DeSantis and the legislature will retaliate against universities and their faculty for political reasons. The governor, who’s built a national profile with his Trumpian politics, suggested on Wednesday that the state will cut funding for schools it deems “hotbeds for stale ideology.”
First Amendment experts say the Florida law is unconstitutional and will do the opposite of what it purports to. Instead of promoting free speech, they fear it will both suppress certain viewpoints and undermine academic freedom, as well as force professors to waste time introducing discredited science and theories. And the effort comes amid DeSantis’ broader crackdown on free speech, including Black Lives Matter protests and the teaching of critical race theory in public schools.
Undermining free speech and academic freedom
Critics of Florida’s new law fear DeSantis and the GOP-run state legislature will intimidate universities and chill speech on campus. Micah Kubic, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the law is unconstitutional because there is no “overwhelmingly compelling government interest” to warrant suppressing the speech of professors and students.
“This is a really disgraceful move that undermines the First Amendment, that will chill speech on campuses, and I think that trying to brand it as somehow a defense of free speech is an ultimate ‘up is down’ moment,” Kubic told Insider. “Everything about it is designed to chill and intimidate, not to actually cultivate an environment of free speech or dissent.”
He added, “Ron DeSantis disapproving of what you think is not a compelling government interest.”
The ACLU is waiting for more clarity on what the survey will look like and how it will be implemented before making decisions about its legal strategy. Kubic said “all options remain on the table.”
While all public universities are already required to respect the First Amendment, the values of freedom of speech are inconsistent with academic freedom, said Robert Post, a constitutional law professor at Yale and former dean of the school. Professors differentiate between good and bad ideas, and truth and falsehoods, in ways that are inconsistent with promoting “intellectual diversity.” While the government must protect all speech equally, universities regularly grant tenure to faculty, grade students, and award grants – all actions that involve discriminating between ideas.
“We train students to become competent in their disciplines and that, of course, means it’s not a marketplace of ideas, it’s an educational ground for the creation of competence,” Post told Insider. “All ideas are not equal, if you care about competence.”
Requiring “intellectual diversity” in the classroom is akin to mandating a discredited theory like creationism be taught alongside the established science of evolution, Post said. Political science departments shouldn’t hire liberal and conservative professors, they should hire good political scientists, regardless of their personal political beliefs. He fears that the law will empower politicians “who think politics should override truth” and compared the phenomenon to Joseph Stalin’s partnership with the Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko, who pushed Marxist-approved agricultural pseudoscience that helped drive the country’s deadly famines.
A broader effort to suppress speech
The new law is one of a series of measures DeSantis and his GOP allies have taken to crack down on free speech and regulate education. This spring, DeSantis signed a law that dramatically heightened criminal punishments for protesters. Last week, he preemptively barred Florida schools from teaching about systemic racism and the history of slavery through the lens of critical race theory and The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project.”
There are a slew of reasons why classrooms are increasingly a battleground for political culture wars. Education polarization in electoral politics has deepened in recent years. College-educated voters were key to President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory and the gap between how college-educated and non-college-educated Americans vote widened last year and is particularly pronounced among white voters. In the 2020 election, Biden won 54% of college-educated white voters, while former President Donald Trump won 63% of non-college white educated voters, according to an analysis of the election results by the Democratic data firm Catalist.
As the country becomes more educated, this widening polarization could present an ongoing challenge for the Republican party across the country. Asserting more control over what is taught in public schools might be one way for the GOP to reverse this trend.
But Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, said this particular effort may well backfire. He thinks faculty and students alike will largely reject the survey and simply refuse to participate in the state’s efforts. The media headlines are the point, he argued, and the GOP’s effort will fail on a practical level.
“Professors are going to boycott it purely because this is a state messing with the education of young people,” he told Insider. “I just know as a dean, trying to get my faculty to respond to any survey – you know, professors are very busy people and they also do not take to authority well.”
Microsoft-owned search engine Bing was not displaying any image results to US users who searched for the term “tank man” on Friday, and appeared to be down-ranking some image searches for other terms related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Vice earlier reported that users in France, Switzerland, and the UK also saw no results when searching Bing for images of “tank man.”
Insider was able to confirm the lack of image results for US users, and also found significant discrepancies between the image results for “Tiananmen Square tank man” shown by Bing versus Google.
“This is due to an accidental human error and we are actively working to resolve this,” a Microsoft spokesperson told Insider.
Microsoft’s apparent censorship came on the anniversary of the student-led protests, in which the Chinese military killed at least hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators. The phrase “tank man” refers to an infamous photo of a single protestor obstructing the path of Chinese tanks.
Parler returned to Apple’s App Store on Monday after it had been kicked off following the January 6 Capitol Siege.
Apple announced last month that it had approved several changes to the app related to hate speech. Upon its return, Parler will look different – at least on Apple devices. While the Parler website allows any legal content to be viewed, the App Store version includes “enhanced threat-and-incitement reporting tools,” according to the listing on the App Store.
That means that posts identified as participating in hate speech will be removed from Apple devices, while the same posts labeled as “hate” will still be visible on Parler’s website.
Parler’s interim CEO Mark Meckler told Insider in a statement that the site worked to meet Apple’s standards, while maintaining its focus on free speech.
“The entire Parler team has worked hard to address Apple’s concerns without compromising our core mission,” Meckler said. “Anything allowed on the Parler network but not in the iOS app will remain accessible through our web-based and Android versions. This is a win-win for Parler, its users, and free speech.”
Parler’s chief policy officer, Amy Peikoff, told The Washington Post that the company is pressing Apple to allow the content to remain on the app, but with a warning label. Apple had listed banning the content as one of its conditions for allowing the application back on its store.
Peikoff told The Washington Post the milder version of Parler that is on Apple devices could be called “Parler Lite or Parler PG.”
“Where Parler is different [from Apple], is where content is legal, we prefer to put the tools in the hands of users to decide what ends up in their feeds,” she said.
In the past, the social-media app has avoided censoring its content, identifying itself as a “free speech” alternative to Twitter. The app tried to return to Apple devices in February but was blocked by the company. Apple cited several examples of hate speech, including Nazi symbols, in its decision to not allow the app to return.
During his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday, former President Donald Trump encouraged states to “punish” big tech if they “silence conservative voices.”
Trump spoke on the final day of CPAC in Orlando, Florida. It was his first public speech since leaving the White House last month.
“All of the election integrity measures in the world will mean nothing if we don’t have free speech,” Trump said. “If republicans can be censored for speaking the truth and calling out corruption, we will not have democracy and we will only have left-wing tyranny.”
Trump has frequently accused tech companies of censorship over his removal from both Facebook and Twitter for violating their policies.
“The time has come to break up big tech monopolies and restore fair competition,” Trump said, adding that section 230 – a piece of internet legislation passed into law as part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 – must be repealed.
Section 230 gives websites the ability to regulate the content that appears on their platforms. It also protects sites from being legally liable for content shared by users.
“If the federal government refuses to act then every state in the union where we have the votes – which is a lot of them – big tech giants like Twitter, Google, and Facebook should be punished with major sanctions whenever they silence conservative voices,” Trump said.
Trump cited Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who announced new proposals earlier this month aimed at social media companies. One proposal aims to block the suspension of accounts of political candidates and would impose fines for each day said account is blocked.
It’s unclear if the state would have the authority to enforce such laws, the Associated Press reported.
Tech investor Balaji Srinivasan reportedly suggested doxxing a journalist who wanted to report on ties between Silicon Valley and the neoreactionary movement, a neo-fascist philosophy embraced by the alt-right and some tech elite.
Srinivasan made the suggestion in 2013 in an email to far-right blogger Curtis Yarvin, the New York Times reported Saturday.
“If things get hot, it may be interesting to sic the Dark Enlightenment audience on a single vulnerable hostile reporter to dox them and turn them inside out with hostile reporting sent to *their* advertisers/friends/contacts,” read the email from Srinivasan, according to The New York Times.
The Dark Enlightenment is another name for the neoreactionary movement.
The email from Srinivasan to Yarvin came after the tech news site TechCrunch published an article exploring Silicon Valley’s links to the anti-democratic neoreactionary philosophy, the New York Times said.
Srinivasan did not respond to an Insider request seeking comment about the alleged email.
The New York Times article, titled “Silicon Valley’s Safe Space” by the Times’ technology corespondent Cade Metz, takes a deep dive into the website Slate Star Codex, a blog popular among Silicon Valley power players.
“Many in the tech industry saw the attitudes fostered on Slate Star Codex as a better way forward. They deeply distrusted the mainstream media and generally preferred discussion to take place on their own terms, without scrutiny from the outside world,” Metz wrote.
The alleged email garnered attention from tech reporters. “So important to remember that these bad faith attacks by Balaji etc are intentional. Their goal is to ruin your life w/ doxxing, online abuse and harassment, these men know what they’re doing,” New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz tweeted.
Sarah Cone, the founder and managing partner of Social Impact Capital, told Insider she believes journalists can oftentimes be unnecessarily hostile towards certain topics within the tech industry. She also encourages founders and VCs to eschew mainstream media and “go direct” with their messaging.