Free Speech for Dummies (and Dittoheads)

Last October, country music star Hank WIlliams, Jr. made a remark about Obama and Hitler playing golf, touching off a controversy that saw ESPN end its relationship with Williams (who had been singing the Monday Night Football intro song for what seemed like 100 years). Williams reacted predictably:

After reading hundreds of e-mails, I have made MY decision,” he wrote. “By pulling my opening Oct 3rd, You (ESPN) stepped on the Toes of The First Amendment Freedom of Speech, so therefore Me, My Song, and All My Rowdy Friends are OUT OF HERE. It’s been a great run.

So, this was a Toes of The First Amendment Freedom of Speech issue, huh? [sigh] Williams’ fans and the semi-literate sports talk DJs who cater to them were as bad, if not worse. Now the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke slut-shaming libel case is trending worldwide, and again, we get to hear about how all the evil freedom-hating socialist libruls are trampling the free speech rights of the biggest conservative talk radio personality in America, a man who because of this conspiracy was … right back on the air again today doing what he always does. It sucks that Mr. Limbaugh’s Toes of The First Amendment Freedom of Speech rights have been so comprehensively destroyed. For a nice sample of what I’m hearing around the noise-o-sphere, have a look at what an S&R commenter had to say earlier today on another thread:

This isn’t Carbonite acting with prejudice, rather, it is a small company with an eroding financial position acting out of fear induced by Liberals who wish to attack Free Speech whenever it doesn’t suit their agenda: Which, in this case, is to deny the exercise of free speech by conservatives during the course of a Presidential Election cycle. Should Carbonite go out of business as a result of pulling ads from the most popular radio program in the country, I have no doubt the Liberals will praise them as willing to sacrifice everything to “fight hate”, “support womens’ rights”, “protect free speech”, etc.

It’s hard to know what these people fail to understand worse: what free speech actually is, or what “Liberals” think about it. Since I haven’t tilted at any windmills yet today, let me slay a few photons in a doomed attempt to enlighten the Dittocracy.

First, free speech and the First Amendment aren’t the same thing. The First Amendment is a specific codification forbidding the government from restricting the exercise of free speech. As the link above explains in the Williams/ESPN case, there’s no 1A implication because there’s no government action, and the Constitution has nothing to say about corporate suppression of speech (or the suppression of speech by anybody except the government – if you start to say you love Politician X and I give you a mean look that intimidates you into shutting the heck up, I have broken no laws).

This is simple, basic stuff and if it wasn’t taught in your school then…well, I’m not surprised, given the state of education these days. So, to be clear, you can have your free speech squelched in the US without there being any violations of the law or the Constitution. (And if you don’t like increasingly powerful corporations having the ability to stomp your free speech rights, you might ought to stop voting Republican, because that’s the party that’s working hardest to remove any and all restraints on corporate behavior. Corporations are people, you know – and that’s a GOP idea.)

Second, NO LIBERALS WANT TO ELIMINATE RUSH LIMBAUGH’S RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH. None. (If someone advocates taking away Limbaugh’s right to speak, they are by definition not a liberal.) And they certainly wouldn’t countenance a government violation of the First Amendment. I know a lot of them and they may hate the ever-loving hell out of him, but they believe he has the right to speak.

The confusion comes in here – the progressive reaction against Limbaugh’s offensive spew isn’t anti-speech. It’s the exact opposite. It is the proper exercise of more speech. See, Thomas Jefferson (whom the dittoheads have heard of and whom they love to invoke, but have never actually read) and Ben Franklin and all the other Founding Fathers and John Milton, upon whose ideas so much of our ideology about free speech was based, expected it work exactly this way. Planned it. Designed it. They knew people would say things. They knew people would say controversial things. Wrong-headed things. Damnable, appalling, hateful, dishonest things. But, they also knew that when it happened, other people would respond. And in the end, Milton believed, “the truth will out.” That is, informed, engaged citizens will be able to distinguish truth from falsehood, just speech from corrupt. So, person A says something. Person B disagrees and rebuts person A. Each tries to persuade the community to his/her point of view. Community hears the argument and decides. That, folks, is how freedom works.

Unfortunately, too many Americans have in their heads an idea of free speech that is simply wrong. For instance, neither the basic principle of freedom of speech or the First Amendment says the following:

  • you have the right to be heard (you have the right to speak, but nobody has an obligation to listen – the right to hear or not to hear is the unwritten right upon which it’s all based)
  • you have the right not to be disagreed with (nope, just the opposite – freedom to speak exposes you to other people’s right to speak and subjects you to the judgment of the community)
  • other people have an obligation to provide you a forum in which to speak (nope – you have a right to speak, but you have no right to speak in my yard)
  • others have an obligation to sponsor or finance your speech (no – choosing to advertise or otherwise patronize your speech is a function of the other party’s freedom and they have the right to turn the faucet on and off as they wish and for whatever reasons they wish)
  • you have a right to be free from the consequences of your speech (no – if you offend the community, they have the right to end their association with you; they have the right to speak freely to your sponsors, if you have any, and to ask said sponsor to cease supporting you)
  • you have the right to be opposed only by those whose values mirror yours (duh, no – people have the right to oppose you for the noblest of reasons or the most despicable; if they opt for the latter, then they become subject to the rights of others within the community to speak and act against them)

So, to sum up: Rush Limbaugh’s rant against Sandra Fluke was within the scope of his right to free speech and did not constitute a First Amendment breach. (Fluke may sue him for libel, which is an established legal procedure accounted for by the principals articulated above.) Rush’s detractors were exercising their free speech and 1A rights in protesting his actions. They were within their rights to petition his sponsors. And his sponsors were within their rights to abandon him (or to stick with him, if they so chose). Consumers are within their rights to patronize a business for whatever reason they like, including everything from price to selection to political position.

And commenters in S&R threads, as well as callers to sports talk shows and idiot sports talk jocks, are within their rights to express their objections, even if they are uneducated and factually wrong. See, the people who wrote the First Amendment planned on that.

23 replies »

  1. Thank you for that. Thank you from the bottom of my black little heart. May your words be widely read, thoroughly understood and roundly applauded.

  2. To be fair, a lot of liberals get free speech wrong also. Look at Banned Books Week where they uphold some book pulled from the shelves at Middletown Middle School and call that censorship. It may or may not be right, but it isn’t censorship or suppression of free speech. I think most people don’t get it, regardless of political persuasion.

  3. I think that secretly it is not freedom of speech they worry about, it is accountability for saying dumb things. I know, radical idea.

  4. Banning I would call censorship, certainly. Where I get mixed feelings is when libraries, to free up space for modern re-design in favor of more computer stations and DVD shelves need to eliminate some square footage of shelving, which eliminates a significant number of book feet. A choice has to be made to eliminate books then, but which?

    When the library determines to just eliminate books that are rarely circulated, sections like philosophy get gutted. From what I understand, fiction is relatively untouched because it’s a draw for the general reading public. Then there’s cases where it’s clear that some sections are whittled down on a very partisan basis. Sadly, all I have is anecdotal evidence. It would be interesting to see reports based on actual public debates surrounding such policy decisions.

  5. Sam, the middle school may not carry the book, but it is still freely available. It’s not illegal to own it, the post office will send it, US-based printers are allowed print it so it’s not censorship.

    Frank, you might check with the ALA

    • Robert, the definition of “censorship” doesn’t say anything about governments or illegality:

      1 a : the institution, system, or practice of censoring
      b : the actions or practices of censors; especially : censorial control exercised repressively

      with “censor” defined as:

      to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable [censor the news]; also : to suppress or delete as objectionable [censor out indecent passages]

      Both definitions are from Merriam-Webster on-line, although my old American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition, defines both words similarly.

      If a middle school removes a book or refuses to buy acquire one because its content is deemed objectionable, that’s censorship according to the definitions above.

      There are all sorts of reasons why a school library might not carry a book, and not all of them are related to censorship. Money and available space are the two biggest reasons. But even those could be used as excuses for censorship.

  6. This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read. It is really good. I confess, I’d never thought it through either, and this helps my understanding.

  7. By the way, not sure pulling advertising will hurt Rush. I seem to remember an analysis that said Glen Beck is earning more on the internet than he was on Fox. Now perhaps over time that will atrophy, but the internet provides a viable alternate revenue model for these guys. More similar to televangelism than media.

  8. Brian–thanks for the clarifications on censorship. It’s one of the cases where intent is a significant determinant in how an action is labeled.