Thursday, 7 June 2012

LARP Ethics and Why Linda Gibbons' Case Isn't Inflaming the Passions of Civil Liberty Groups

     The other day, a friend called my attention to the case of Linda Gibbons, who has spent a great deal of time in jail in connection with picketing abortion clinics. My friend was concerned about what he sees as hypocrisy among civil liberty groups who have not rallied to defend Ms. Gibbon's free speech, apparently because it's speech that goes against the right to have an abortion which civil liberty groups support.

     I was troubled by this as well at first, and still am to some extent. My own view is that freedom of speech is the most basic, most fundamental, most indispensable right in any society that aspires to being in any way just. I've long held that the proper approach to things like hate speech is to counter it forcefully with intelligent and persuasive criticism, rather than to attempt to silence it through censorship. So my gut feeling is that people ought to be permitted to peacefully express their opinions anywhere and at any time, and my instinct is that injunctions against peaceful protest had better have very, very good reasons or they shouldn't be granted.
     The problem for me is that I don't really know if the injunctions in this case were really warranted. On the one hand, there's the freedom of speech point, which militates very strongly against any such injunction. Yet at the same time, we have to remember the situation on the ground in the access to abortion issue; it's not always easy to draw the line between legitimate, peaceful demonstration and intimidation which has no place in a free society.
     Intimidation, real menacing intimidation, can be quite subtle, and depends very much upon context. Let's consider the circumstances. First, genuine violence has been carried out against abortion clinics, their staffs and patients. Moreover, not all involvement in violence is direct; there have been (and for all I know still are) websites that publish the names and home addresses of abortion providers with the implied intention of facilitating harming them. So the act of peacefully standing by an abortion clinic, expressing your disapproval, isn't necessarily going to be interpreted that way; there's also the unavoidable unspoken message: "I see you, I know what you're doing, and I think you're a murderer."
     Second, consider the demographics of the targets of protests: women with unwanted pregnancies. A significant number are likely alone, feeling especially vulnerable and struggling with a very difficult life choice, and especially in need of privacy. Some may have parents or friends or family from whom they wish to keep this decision. In that context, even a genuinely peaceful protest can be especially intimidating.

     I think what made me sensitive to this issue was thinking about a question in LARP ethics, of all things, several years ago. The question arose: is it ever okay to roleplay a rape scene? (I am assuming that the roleplayed scene would be described rather than physically acted out.) In general, I see LARP (when it's done well, that is) as an expressive medium, a legitimate form of theater in which no subject matter should be off-limits. However, one always needs to be sensitive to one's audience, and especially so in LARP where one's audience may be just one person. If I and a female player are off in the woods ostensibly seeking the lair of some ogre, and then when no one else is around I suddenly turn on my partner and roleplay an assault, I had better be very sure she knows and trusts me very well, and understands the artistic legitimacy of what my character is doing and why, because otherwise the unintended message she receives could be "Oh look. We're along in the woods, I'm bigger than you, and the thought of raping you just crossed my mind. Of course, it doesn't have to be rape..." That is absolutely not a message you want to send, and so I reluctantly concluded that, in some contexts, it's legitimate to limit certain kinds of speech, even when the intent is perfectly innocent.
     I'm not entirely comfortable with that, but I can live with it, in part because other contexts exist where it is safe to discuss the same themes without realistic fear of being misunderstood. (Some people will misunderstand you no matter what, of course, but that can't be helped.) If one can't responsibly address issues of rape in a LARP, one can still write novels, essays, and discuss the topic in safe environments where no threat can reasonably be inferred.

     And so the same seems to me to be true of the injunctions Ms. Gibbons violated. It does seem extreme, on the face of it, to prevent all protesting within a certain distance of the abortion clinic, and so I'm not fully comfortable with that. At the same time, I can see arguments for why such an injunction might well be reasonable, and of course she is still free to express her views anywhere else.

      (I feel a need to contrast this with other so-called "free speech zones", by the way, where authorities prohibit any demonstration or expression of certain views within a certain distance of a motorcade route or conference site. I am steadfastly against those sorts of limits, and the difference there is about who has the power, and who gets to control the message. A lone young woman going to terminate a pregnancy has virtually no power, and is very vulnerable. The President of the United States giving a speech to campaign contributors doesn't fall into that category, and his purpose in clearing the streets of signs and t-shirts of contrary messages isn't to be shielded from intimidation, but to control the image: he looks better on TV when he appears in front of crowds of enthusiastic supporters than if there are signs of dissent.)

     But as I said, I'm not really sure where I stand on this one, because I'm not fully convinced the original injunctions were fully reasonable. I can see reasons why they might be, but I'm uncomfortable about any limits on free speech. And that, at least, I think explains why there hasn't been as much of an outcry from civil liberty groups about Ms. Gibbons' case. Two important civil liberties are in conflict here, the right to seek lawful medical intervention without being intimidated, against the right to free speech. The case is nuanced, and it's not immediately clear which side someone who values both liberties should take.


  1. Let me begin with this disclaimer. Though I find the very thought of abortion disturbing, I do not share Ms. Gibbons's views that it should be illegal. However, I staunchly believe that all should have the right to express themselves provided it is in a peaceful.

    Having seen the terms of the injunction, they seem extreme by today’s standards. Furthermore this was, and still is, a temporary injunction. At the time it was granted in the early 1990’s the terms may have been appropriate (though I still think they would have been extreme even then). However we are approaching 2 decades, and this "temporary" injunction still stands.

    Tom makes a very valid point with his "lone young vulnerable woman" concern. However, I cannot accept that a solitary elderly woman sitting quietly holding a placard denouncing abortion should be viewed as so threatening that it requires the full force of the criminal justice system to intervene. If I am correct, Ms. Gibbons’s has served more than 9 years in jail (intermittently, with one 2 year straight stretch). Murderers have served less jail time, and yet Ms. Gibbons’s has not performed any acts of violence.

    Indeed I can list off many other far more threatening daily encounters, starting with aggressive pan handlers, or perhaps a beter example is the masked protesters in Quebec who defied an injunction and have inter alia stormed into classrooms breaking up classes, and in at least one instance dragged a female student out of a class and damaged electronic equipment, or those “protesters” who have been throwing large objects of bridges, or bottles at police officers, and otherwise damaging and burning property. I suspect Tom’s young woman could list an number of other greater threats as well.

    I do am not sure that Ms. Gibbons is viewed in a threatening manner, but rather that her presence is making people uncomfortable. Her presence causes them to consider an issue that they have not fully resolved within themselves.

    Those who know me will acknowledge that I will generally speak my mind on any subject. Yet I will be the first to confess the topic of abortion makes me uncomfortable, and it is one that I would rather avoid. Ms. Gibbon’s very passivity makes it easy for the police to step in and remove her from our view. She will not put up a fight, will not break windows, nor burn police cruisers...

    Abortion is a controversial issue. It makes the majority of us uncomfortable as it sits at an overlap of rights, forcing us to firmly decide which right we will give priority to and which right we will quash. But feeling uncomfortable is not sufficient grounds to deny an individual or group of the right to peacefully express their views. If my hoodie and dark sunglasses make you uncomfortable should I be jailed as well?

    This is not a case where one’s right to medical intervention is being blocked or impeded. There are no gangs of masked thugs dragging the young women out of the building, no human chains to prevent one from entering, no large mobs with torches and batons yelling in threateningly in front of the building at anyone who approaches. There is only a solitary elderly lady quietly holding a placard. For some reason, perhaps her steadfast belief in peaceful protest, her perseverance, or perhaps her willingness to accept the consequences of her actions, I can not help but think of Ghandi.

    Therefore I must disagree with Tom. For me freedom of speech, so long as it remains peaceful, must be protected in a free society.

    To paraphrase Voltair... I disapprove of what you say, but we must defend our mutual right of peaceful expression.

    David Busch

  2. Thanks, David, for your comment. I suppose the only point on which I'd take issue is that of the perceived threat. You're absolutely right that no one should be afraid of a silent, elderly lady holding a sign. The problem is that, in the context of people conducting campaigns to "out" abortionists and their clients, that silent elderly lady can (even unintentionally) convey a tacit "we're watching you, and we know who you are..." And frankly, I don't see how anyone COULD protest in such a place without that subtext creeping in.

    WIth respect to the jail time served, I'm not sure it's fair to compare Ms. Gibbons' case to that of violent criminals. Ms. Gibbons' time in custody is largely a result of her steadfast refusal to accept bail. I don't know what terms the Crown would have been asking, probably just the standard good behaviour stuff (including no further violations of the injunction), but I can't imagine they'd have asked for a cash bond. So really, the only reason she spent time in jail was because she insisted on going to picket again as soon as she was released. If she promised not to picket anymore, she'd have been free. I don't blame her for her civil disobedience in accord with her conscience, which is admirable (although I happen to disagree with her), but she chose jail, and therefore I'm not at all distressed at the amount of time she chose to spend there.

  3. You are correct in that the Crown is insisting that she sign an undertaking not protest, which she is refusing to agree to, hence she remains in jail.

    As for the perceived threat, it's been a while since I've heard of anyone "outing" abortion receipients, we'll have to agree to disagree, though I could see how it may have been a live issue back in the 1990's.

    I'm still trying to figure out how a temporary injunction remains in force for the better part of 2 decades.


  4. Cynically, I'm tempted to say because the people who should have moved to have it quashed were too busy martyring themselves in jail.

  5. @David: Apparently you missed the news on March 19, 2012, when the Tennessee House of Representatives Health and Human Resources Committee sent HB 3808 to the full House for a vote. This bill requires public disclosure of the names of each doctor who performs an abortion and detailed statistics about the woman having the procedure, including her "age, race, county, marital status, education level, number of children, the location of the procedure and how many times she has been pregnant."

    Here are two more articles about the bill:

  6. Thank you for those links, Jack. Up here in Canada, things have been relatively quiet on the abortion scene for a few years, so it's easy for us to forget just how volatile things remain elsewhere on the continent.