The pieces I posted over the last two weeks prompted a thought provoking e-mail correspondence over the issues of free speech and freedom of the press. I think some of the points raised are important and will answer them here.
The First amendment prohibition of the suppression of free speech only applies to the government. It doesn’t apply to anyone else, least of all private citizens. Short of violence and the threats of violence, private citizens are entirely free to approve or disapprove of anything that is said by anyone else in the space of public discourse.
In the context of a scheduled lecture or other event, the freedom to disrupt is not absolute. But like it or not, the morality of disrupting a public speaker isn’t clear cut. It depends on the content and context of what the speaker is saying. There are times it is clearly either wrong or tactically stupid to shout down a speaker, there are times when it is a moral imperative to do so. That this becomes murky might be unfortunate, but the facile drawing of a phony bright line in a situation that is comprised of many different variables, some of life and death consequence, is irresponsible and idiotic.
The fad that took hold among liberals that held that we had to be nice about even those who advocated the denial of rights to other people, especially those in targeted minority groups is absurd. The assumption always seemed to be that conservatives would learn from our good example of niceness and broad mindedness. Well, as anyone with any grasp of real life would know, they didn’t see it as an example to emulate but proof that liberals were suckers giving them an opportunity. Did these deluded liberals really think that conservatives were going to really give liberals an opportunity for their ‘more speech’ to be heard, especially if it could have some effect in real life?
As to bigots allegedly on the left, I think I said enough about that last Saturday, I stand by that.
Freedom of the press
The freedom of the press is primarily important in so far as it is a necessary part of the right of The People to govern themselves. When the press not only refuses to inform the public of reality but actively undermines that function through propaganda, their right to freely publish effectively disappears. Our broadcast and cable media have reneged on the implied contract and have actively sought to undermine the ability of The People to cast an informed vote. I am not going to pretend that they have a right to do that which is superior to the right to self-government. It is stupid for us to promote their right to undermine the conditions necessary for the press to retain that very conditional right
I think the history of the media in the past century to today shows that mass media, in the form of broadcast, cable and others have an enormous ability to damage democracy, much more so than print. Almost all modern despots have used that fact to their advantage. The most dramatic example from recent times was the use of hate-talk radio to incite the genocide attempt in Rwanda. I’d say that example is too clear and horrible not to learn from. And the stuff that issues from our radio is not all that far removed from it. I do think it could incite mass violence. It certainly incites bigotry and I fully believe it incites violence on a more disbursed though hardly less important scale here and now.
As I’ve asked the absolutists, where is the “more speech” they’re always giving as their lofty answer to those of us who have given up on that easily stated position. The clear evidence is that liberals, leftists, even Democrats are not allowed media representation commensurate with our percentage of the population. The very far right, a very small fraction of the population, is given a a megaphone large enough so that even the most willfully denying absolutist should hear the electronically enhanced roar. About the only lesson I derive from their denial of that situation is that they have professional and personal interests unrelated to the desire for decent, democratic government. Many of the professional absolutists have careers in the media and are often quite comfortably affluent and members of groups seldom put at risk from hate-talk media.
In a media environment dominated by electronic media the position of print inevitably changes and becomes far less influential. I don’t think that print carries the same potential to damage democracy and incite violence, though it isn’t innocuous.
In both the matter of private citizens address of free speech and The Peoples’ right to have the press serve their needs, the assertion of content neutrality is absurd. There is all the difference in the world between promoting legal and political equality and the promotion of the subjugation and even genocide of entire groups of people. There is no right to suppress the first, there is no right to broadcast the latter.
It is equally absurd to assert that the medium doesn’t matter. TV, especially cable TV, and radio have enormous power to do harm. They installed an illegitimate president here and incited a war which was unprovoked, illegal which has killed hundreds of thousands. What is the difference between what our electronic media has done and what those did in Rwanda? Both produced huge numbers of dead and maimed people, both did incalculable harm. It wasn’t print media that did that here and now. History has shown over and over again that pretending the electronic media should have the same freedom as print is entirely detached from reality and that it is a dangerous and delusional practice.
Media should be entirely free to tell the truth, the facts verified and supported. That right should be absolute and trumpeted as a service to humanity. When the media informs of reality it’s rights are as close to absolute as corporate entities should be allowed. They shouldn’t be allowed to vary from that practice by replacing facts with lies, bias, pseudo-scientific polling and predictions and rumor*. Those have become the dominant content of the American ‘news’ media, they are cheaper than reporting and easier to manipulate for the purpose of propaganda. That it is impossible to effectively ban the opportunistic use of opinion in the electronic media makes the regulation of it for fairness and balance essential. The rise and dominance of right-wing, hate-talk media followed the FCC’s abandonment of those regulations, modern hate-talk media was created by media corporations in order to install politicians who would maximize their profits, impure and simple.
Liberals and others who believe in self-government, equality and a decent society can’t continue to delude themselves on these matters. If we don’t learn from the example that the history of the modern media provides we will lose all three of those. I’d rather take a chance on the status quo media from the period when it was regulated than on what has happened since it was deregulated.
* The media promotion of politically motivated rumor has led me to think that public figures should, once again, be able to sue for slander and libel. Our media, freed from the dangers of those, have used the freedom to lie against anyone who they thought would not enhance their profits.
Update: Answers to a persistent questioner.
The idea that access to use the mass media is the exercise of a speech right is a mass delusion, one at times encouraged by those habitually granted access to it. Free access to the media is a situation that has never existed in either corporate or non-commercial media. All mass media is restrictive in its content, it isn’t an open forum like some blogs allow in their comments*. Look at the troll population of some of the more popular blogs to get some idea of why that is so. Editors edit, publishers refuse material, they don’t accept all content for publication, that is the right of any media operation which doesn’t use public property in its operations and many which do.
Unlike an individual’s right of free speech, there is also no absolute right to broadcast a message in the mass media, it is a privilege granted by the government or at the whim of cable companies, sometimes on the basis of contracts. The public access channel, which in many places has apparently has gone from its perpetual sick bed to the grave in the past several years, was a fig leaf of free access covering the reality of raw corporate opportunism. As I remember it, public access channels were instituted in return for communities granting monopoly rights to cable firms. Those kinds of piddling mitigations of corporate privilege are generally disposed of in the fullness of time.
It not being a right to broadcast, it being a privilege, there is no reason that those granted the privilege can’t be forced as a condition of their continuing in that form, to serve the public whose eyes and attention they are in the business of selling. The Peoples’ time to inform itself is a publicly held resource. If that time is not partly dedicated to becoming informed enough to participate in self-government, democracy can’t exist. The People in the form of their government have a responsibility to force media to do its civic duty in reality, not in the pantomime of flag waving and slogan peddling it does now.
A broadcast corporation wanting to be unrestricted by those conditions has an absolute right to give up broadcasting and go into print. No one is stopping them from doing that.
The freedom of religion from regulation is also contained in the Bill of Rights, but the right to have tax exemptions isn’t part of that. A religious institution which forgoes tax exemption can endorse political candidates, parties, ballot questions, etc, and no one can deny them that right. But if they want to retain their tax exemption they are under an obligation to forego that kind of explicit advocacy. It’s not the right for religious institutions to advocate a position that is at question, it’s the privilege of receiving a tax exemption that is. I think it is about as close a parallel to the ability to hold a broadcast license as there is.
I advocate extending the regulation of broadcast media to cable and satellite on the grounds of necessity. They have the ability to destroy democracy and to cause enormous harm, that is reason enough to impose conditions on their ability to operate in the United States. Any right to conduct commercial activities can be regulated if there is an overriding public interest. The selling of the Iraq war, the impeachment of President Clinton, the blatant example of FOX on election night in 2000, all prove an overriding public interest. Democracy can’t be allowed to die because people can’t distinguish between a privilege and a right or between individual citizens and pretend persons in the form of corporations.
* Blog owners who restrict the content of their blog are as much practicing their rights as those who choose to have an open forum.