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Friday, November 26, 2010
 
HOW FREE SHOULD FREE SPEECH BE?

So much nonsense and stupidity abounds , it becomes increasingly difficult to decide on which aspect of the "passing parade" to comment on any given day. The idiocy of the TSA’s "scans and feels" is one that needs endless comment - until it stops- is just one example - but for today I want to make a few observations - long overdue and that should be made by any serious thinker in the United States - about freedom of speech and what its limitations should be - if any.

I’m a fairly regular viewer of MSNBC and I’ve been observing their ridiculous "rules" about on air personalities making political donations with increasing disbelief. Apparently, this network has a work rule entitled "Citizenship by Permission Only." O.K. They have no such rule. But that’s what it amounts to when they can suspend without pay - first Keith Olbermann and now Joe Scarborough - for making political donations without permission!! Not that they would actually prevent anyone from making such contributions under threat of dismissal - that I am sure would be illegal and grounds for a law suit - but they insist that they be informed in advance of any on air personality making a contribution - which, the way I interpret it, amounts to an infringement of their constitutional right to free speech.

At the other end of the spectrum are Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity and an assortment of far right radio and television motor mouths who, operating under the protection of the first amendment to the constitution, say anything they like about anybody - lie about people with impunity and not only make political contributions without the kind of restrictions imposed on employees of MSNBC - but use their bully pulpits to promote fund raisers for their preferred political candidates. And nobody stops them

Then there are politicians and candidates for political office who lie about their opponents and about government programs and about economic conditions and security threats and scientific research - and a general assortment of yahoos who, while not having the advantage of a national bully pulpit, nonetheless manage to spout lies and hatred in the public arena - and for the most part, nothing happens to them either. That good old first amendment has a wide umbrella under which this assorted array of irresponsible nitwits have blithely been sheltering for decades. And I say it’s time to fold up that convenient canopy and expose this ancient protection to the elements of truth and responsibility.

I am sure that when the First Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in December, 1791, no one could have predicted how its few words would be used and abused a couple of centuries in the future. If they had, they might have been a little more specific than
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
They might have added something about the application of common sense. Yes, there have been some limitations placed on that freedom since the time of the First Amendment - but for the most part, "speech" has not only run amok in the United States, but has been interpreted by the Supreme Court as a right for corporations and secret financial entities to BUY United States elections!

In Germany, people have the right to express themselves freely. They can be as critical of their government as we are permitted to be. But if they publicly deny that the Holocaust ever took place, they can go to jail. In the United States, Holocaust deniers could flood the airways with opinion and advertising and while the good folk would raise their hands in horror and condemn the lies - nothing would happen to the hate mongering bigots. No U.S. law against being a bigot. Over in England, speech is as free as it is here - but the Brtits do what they have to do to curb "speech" that is dangerous or harmful. For example, at one time during "The Troubles" - the BBC was banned from putting the Sinn Fein’s Gary Adams voice on the air. It couldn’t have happened here. That First Amendment thing would have stopped it The Brits also have laws that make it tough on politicians who lie. Phil Woolas was a Labour Party MP who has just been kicked out of Parliament after an "Election Court" - we have no such thing - ruled that he had lied about an opponent in his campaign literature. He’s appealing, but his chances of prevailing are slim. Can you imagine the chaos if we had something of that system here? Would anyone ever get elected or be allowed to hold his or her seat?

Of course we could never have an "Election Court" here, with the power to depose an election winner who was found to have lied. Nor could we ever enact an ad hoc speech restricting law to deal with a particular problem that was deemed to be harmful to the good of the nation. The good old First Amendment would prevent it. But does that mean that we should do nothing about how the noble ideas of the framers have been distorted beyond recognition? We Americans seem to have no confidence in our ability to use common sense when it comes to what should and shouldn’t be protected as free speech. We all agree that yelling "fire" in a crowded theater is a free speech no no, but surely the daily outpouring of hatred, bigotry, slander, false accusation and totally imagined "facts" that are spewed out from dawn to dusk on hundreds of radio stations and on cable television - in addition to assorted hate groups - such as the nuts that show up at the funeral of fallen service men and women with their disgusting signs - are just as dangerous - if not more dangerous than shouting fire. We have this idea that if we restrict any kind of free speech, we will have started a journey down a slippery slope to unrestricted prohibition of all kinds of speech. It doesn’t happen in free nations around the world. Why should it happen here?

Here are a handful of exceptions to free speech that some of the world's democracies have imposed on their citizens.

In India, propaganda for war , incitement to violence or advocacy of hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion is not protected free speech. Also, Indian citizens, while they can appeal supreme court decisions, can’t criticize those decisions or they can go to the poky for three months. In France, you can’t write or say anything that incites racial or religious hatred - and as in Germany, Holocaust denial is not protected free speech. The French also can’t promote the idea of drug use. It’s a criminal offense. Not for using drugs - just for saying that you should be free to use them. In Sweden, you’re in trouble if you sound off against someone because of their race or religion or sexual orientation. Maybe you could get one the air here and say that you consider a nappy haired queer to be the lowest form of animal life and maybe get a raft of complaints or lose a sponsor. Just don’t try it in Oslo. You’d be breaking a law. A sensible law.

The last time I looked, these countries were still free democracies where free speech could be read and heard loud and clear. You might have noticed recently that the French didn’t feel any free speech restriction when they were mad about the idea of having to work beyond the age of 60. O.K. We’re not India or France or Germany or Sweden or the United Kingdom - but you have to ask if these countries have more confidence in the strength of their democracies than we do. We say that virtually all speech should be free and out in the open so that all can see and hear and speech that a majority finds unacceptable can be balanced out by other voices. Unfortunately, this is not the case - particularly when a large segment of the population only listens to one set of voices and is influenced by and acts upon their suggestions - directly stated or implied. I’m not suggesting that the sort of speech that I would classify as "hate" or "harmful" be banned by law. You can’t control what goes on behind closed doors - of a person’s home or a church or any other private gathering place. But we have ample evidence from around the world that keeping that kind of speech out of the print and electronic media is not harmful to a democracy and in fact makes the air less toxic and easier to breathe.