Freedom of speech, it’s one of our most important liberties. It allows us to have a free press, and to voice our dissent. It also usually winds up being shouted by one side or another in political discourse these days, and it’s usually used in the wrong way. Today we’ll try to untangle some of the misconceptions about freedom of speech and examine some of the ways that our freedom of speech has eroded in dramatic ways in the post 9/11 world.
Freedom of Speech is not Absolute
Without formal polling, I dare say that most people know that even though we have freedom of speech, it is still illegal to shout the word fire in a movie theater or phone in a bomb threat. It is a simple concept, so we’ll cover this one quickly. Your freedom of speech is often constrained by the freedom of others to not be endangered by your speech. Worded a little better, other people have a right not to be trampled in a stampede and that right overrides your right to say what you want.
This concept will come back later on when we discuss the maligned part of the headline.
Freedom of Speech does not Entitle you to a Platform
This is a big one, and I’m not sure enough people realize this. You hear it often when a group complains that they are not being given air time or what they feel is their due time from anyone who controls a communications platform. They say that if their group is not allowed to speak at a University or something similar, it is infringing on their rights, but it just isn’t.
If your group is speaking, and other groups are pushing to stifle it by holding counter-protests or pressuring the venue, it is well within their rights to make that speech, so long as they are doing it peacefully.
Nowhere is it written that the freedom of speech we all enjoy entitles us to a platform from which to speak. In fact, you can argue that the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine by the Reagan administration essentially affirmed the opposite. As an aside, if you have a few minutes to read something, look into the Fairness Doctrine. Abandoning that rule was the thing that allowed the talk radio and partisan news to grow into the swollen propaganda monsters that they are now. It was a watershed moment for the degeneration of our informed electorate and our public discourse.
Freedom of Speech does NOT mean you can say whatever you want without consequence
This is another vexing misconception of freedom of speech. Every time someone loses their job for saying something publicly that offends enough people, some cry out that it shouldn’t happen that way because it is freedom of speech. Well, it is and it isn’t. You’re free to say the things, even if it is offensive, so long as it doesn’t directly incite violence or endanger other people, but you’re not free of the consequences.
If you work for a business and publicly say something that is not reflective of the stated values of that business, they are free to part with you.
Every freedom comes with a responsibility, and freedom of speech is no different.
Freedom of Speech has been Attacked and Eroded
Those in power should count their lucky stars that people in this country largely misunderstand their freedom of speech because it makes it easier to infringe upon that freedom. If people think freedom of speech is one of the things we’ve discussed, they already think they’ve lost it because those things aren’t included in their freedom of speech to begin with.
Freedom of speech was included so that we don’t wind up in a North Korea or Soviet Russia situation where only state sponsored media is allowed. The Soviets were told that they were producing record-breaking amounts of food and supplies while people starved. North Koreans think Kim Jong Un is some sort of God, and who wouldn’t with those amazing cheeks! He’ll never be hungry in Winter with all the food he’s got stashed away in there.
Seriously though, freedom of speech and our free press were also put in there so that there would be another layer of checks on the government’s power. Journalists could speak out against abuses and throw sunlight on corruption.
This important aspect of freedom of speech has been attacked over the last fifteen years. Not only has government transparency declined sharply and steadily since 9/11, but the prosecution of whistle blowers has reached an all time high. If a whistle-blower exposes illegal or corrupt activities of the government, by law they are entitled to protection. Instead, these days they’re just as likely to face a federal criminal case under our arcane and ill-defined espionage laws.
Most recently Mike Pompeo, current Director of the CIA, said in comments during a speech that we can no longer allow Wikileaks to use our freedom of speech against us, and that their thoughts that the first amendment protects them are incorrect. Whatever you think of Wikileaks (my opinion can be found here, and it’s not all flattering) you have to realize that all of the legal precedent up until 9/11 allowed for a journalist to report on leaks and grant their sources anonymity without facing repercussions so long as they weren’t complicit in the gathering of the secrets. That just isn’t the case anymore, and that is a dangerous fact.
Freedom of Speech is being Warped
The parting though on freedom of speech today regards the Citizens United case. Someone somewhere along the way coined a phrase similar to, “in America you have socialism for the rich and capitalism for everyone else.” It’s a true statement, and there is a similar situation with the Citizens United decision.
If you recall earlier, we said we would revisit the restraint on speech when it would harm another. Citizens United essentially cleared the way for infinite, uncapped, unreported money to flood into politics on the premise that corporations are people and money is speech, which is stupid and bullshit, respectively.
Infinite money in politics has done as much harm as screaming fire in a movie theater, only this theater is our entire country and instead of screaming fire it’s screaming something vague and angry at outsiders. There has been harm, dramatic harm, to the discourse in this country and our ability to ever see a political candidate that will work for the people instead of big money corporate (or lunatic billionaire) donors.
If you want to trace back a bit of the harm, you can see the way the GOP managed to usurp the title of the party of the working class. It involved getting infinite money in for their groups, pushing right to work laws, and enacting a one-two punch to knock out union influence in politics. Before Citizens United, the unions were pretty well-represented on the list of top ten political donation groups. After the decision and the push for right to work, the only groups left at the top of the list of deep pockets were corporations and the Koch brothers (and their ilk). So, the Democrats, in a damned if you do-damned if you don’t situation, leaned toward corporatism to keep the coffers full.
We’re in a rough spot for our freedom of speech and unless we actually understand what it is, we’ll never know how to protect it.
It never ceases to amaze me how many Americans I talk to who love, “freedom,” but haven’t actually read the constitution to understand what their freedoms actually are.