Built on Facts

Free Speech

Saturdays I tend to use for soapboxing on things which may or may not be related to physics. Today I think it will be free speech. There’s a Supreme Court case involving Hillary: The Movie in the context of McCain-Fiengold campaign finance law. Suffice it to say that free speech is non-negotiable in my opinion, political speech most of all. SCOTUS really screwed the pooch by not overturning the law with prejudice the first time it came up, and here’s hoping they get it right this time.

“It’s not a musical comedy”, sniffed Souter and Breyer. No, it’s not. It is obviously partisan political speech, probably prohibited under the law by virtue of its funding. And that’s what makes it so important to protect. Political speech is the most important kind of speech, no matter where the money comes from. Whether it’s George Soros or Mitt Romney, I don’t care. Free speech is free speech is free speech. “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech” is not negotiable. Period.

I regret that it’s a film that supports my side of the aisle. I prefer to defend free speech of people who disagree with me, so that it’s clear that I think free speech is far more important than whatever may benefit my side of the aisle at the moment. There’s nothing in the political world more important than the fundamental freedoms in the bill of rights.

“Matt you fascist pig,” you might be saying, “your side had Bush tearing up the constitution for years. You have a lot of nerve complaining.” While I think some of the abuse his administration took was unwarranted, I was more than happy to vehemently oppose many of his initiatives in that regard, from McCain-Feingold to the very existence of DHS and many other issues. Freedom is far more important than party.

One of the things I was really looking forward to about Obama despite by disagreement with him on most issues was his commitment to undoing a lot of these civil rights changes.

Perhaps that was a bit optimistic.

It’s hardly just the US. The UN recently urged passage of laws designed to insulate religion from criticism. While I disagree with many of the principles and methods of (say) many atheist ScienceBloggers, I am more than happy to fight for their rights to say what they say. And I will be more than happy to do the same for whomever else finds their free speech rights suppressed. Even if it’s for a “good” reason – say, prohibiting some neo-Nazi organization from speaking – remember that whatever you consider good may not be the majority opinion tomorrow, and in that case it will be only be the consensus that free speech is sacred that stands between you and the slammer.

So long as your speech doesn’t directly interfere with someone else’s constitutional rights, We the People must be vigilant to keep it protected regardless of how wrong we may find it. Now go tell some politician something offensive. It’s your right.

Comments

  1. #1 Joshua Zelinsky
    March 28, 2009

    Well said. This is a restriction of basic First Amendment rights, pure and simple. Whether or not one agrees with the movie, this is a danger to us all and violation of basic rights. I hope that the court will use this as an opportunity to strike down most of the remaining restrictions on campaign finance but I’m not optimistic.

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    March 28, 2009

    Gods, their leeches, and their meat puppets may be burned, stoned, drowned, hanged, torn limb from limb,… burned at the stake. Test of faith! No god can survive ridicule. When you meet a priest upon the road, laugh at it.

    We send [Hillary] to treat with our enemies as an act of reprisal. What neo-Nazi ever bused your child? The difference between racists and Liberals is that racists tap their own wallets and Liberals plunder yours.

  3. #3 Matt Springer
    March 28, 2009

    In a slight irony, I’ve actually had to slightly censor a comment on this entry, which I almost never need to do. #2 used a phrase for Hillary Clinton that I don’t think I can keep on a kid-friendly site.

    How do I square this with free speech? It’s simple – you have the fundamental right to say whatever you want. But you don’t have right to make someone else say what you want. In this case that someone else is me by virtue of me publishing the site. I in turn can’t make Seed Media Group say something they don’t want to say.

    But should you want to publicly write something that I don’t want to have on my site, I’m more than happy to fight for your right to say it on your own site.

  4. #4 Kobra
    March 28, 2009

    Matt, you sir are a doodie-head. :P

    No, I agree. Especially with “Freedom is far more important than party.”

  5. #5 TheEngima32
    March 28, 2009

    [quote]virtue of me publishing the site.[/quote]

    That alone is enough justification to censor speech. This is a semi-public affair, but you publish it, and you set the standards that are accepted and what are not. Think of it like a school – students have the right to free speech to a fault (c.f. the Tinker case).

    Free Speech has limits; we’re all familiar with it. It’s not free speech to step into a theater and yell “Fire!” It’s also not free speech to tell someone you’re going to kill them (although we do it out of jest every day anyway – there are obvious circumstances where it’s not, and where you’re in danger). Free Speech is the ultimate slippery slope; I image our Founding Fathers recognized this when they built it into the Bill of Rights (and are currently laughing their collective butts off at us trying to interpret it).

    That said, I love free speech, and I guess the fact that we have these conflicts alone show we’re doing something right. There’s a segment of the population willing to stand up for just about anything, and it’s good. Every society needs a Devil’s Advocate, otherwise we end up looking like Saudi Arabia or some other Oligarchic, Religo-Fascist nation.

  6. #6 meichenl
    March 28, 2009

    Pardon my political ignorance, but on reading the Slate article, it doesn’t sound like the lawyers are discussing free speech. They’re discussing campaign finance. Apparently there are rules about how you can and can’t use lots of money to support a campaign, and that’s really what they’re worried about.

    I think if free speech were the central issue, those involved in the case would be concentrating on whether what the film says is factually true. For example, if the film is full of harmful lies or grossly out-of-context depictions, then free speech might be abridged due to defamation (or libel, slander, whatever the correct legal term is). Instead, they seem to be worried about the partisan nature of the film not because it is partisan (which is certainly allowed) but because it might represent illegal campaign financing.

  7. #7 Joshua Zelinsky
    March 28, 2009

    Meichenl, money and speech are fundamentally intertwined. A newspaper editor publishing an endorsement of a candidate is not very different from an individual who giving a candidate money to put out their message. The current system which tries to distinguish money and speech leads to the ridiculous situations we have now. Consider how much money endorsements by Oprah or Chuck Norris are effectively worth and then consider that an individual who lacks that appeal is restricted in influence because they cannot give more than a certain amount of money and no one would listen to their endorsement. Both from a pragmatic and from a philosophical perspective, money to campaigns is a form of speech. (The Court has agreed with this to some extent, striking down previously some campaign finance restrictions under more or less this basis)

  8. #8 meichenl
    March 28, 2009

    Hi Joshua,

    Thanks for bringing this up. I hadn’t considered that one might think of money and free speech as being so closely related. However, on some consideration I am not convinced by your argument. I don’t have any strong opinions on campaign finance. I’m not well-informed enough for that. I am simply responding to the specific argument made in your reply.

    Let’s take it as given that money and speech are distinguishable. (It’s a debatable point, but we have to agree on something to start.) Then it is in principle possible for the law to discriminate between money and speech without amibiguity. The question is whether it is correct to do so.

    Your argument, as I interpret it, is that if campaign contributions are restricted, famous people have far more opportunity to support a political campaign than people who are not famous. I agree that the statement is true, but I do not understand why this is a priori a bad situation.

    It is inevitable that some people will have more political influence than others. This is not due to innate inequality in the law or society. It’s due to differences in the people.

    I do not think many people would agree with the general principle, “anything that some people have, anybody should be able to buy if they want to and have the money.” As counterexamples, consider whether people should be allowed to buy sexual services specifically because other people are sexually attractive and can get as much sex as they want for free, or whether people should be able to buy slaves specifically because other people have devoted friends who will do whatever they ask. I cite these examples not to compare campaign finances to various iniquities, but just to demonstrate that the general principle is flawed. (I had to come up with examples of apolitical things you’re not allowed to buy.)

    However, as I understand it, the argument you presented relies on the principle I reject. The logic is:
    1) Some people have lots of influence on voters and can make themselves be heard.
    2) If some people have a thing, anyone should be able to buy that thing.
    3) Therefore, anyone should be able to buy influence over voters and buy platforms to make themselves be heard.

  9. #9 CCPhysicist
    March 28, 2009

    We don’t really have a free-market economy nor totally free speech. We are not free to say whatever we want, even in political speech. Individuals can be sued, and lose their entire life’s savings before proving they have a right to say what they said or did in a public forum. (They are called slap suits.) If we had a totally FREE market, you could do whatever you wanted to get even for what someone else in that market did to you, not be limited to just what the law allows. Companies have been certified as “persons”, insulating their owners from the death penalty for murder, and yet the company cannot be tried and executed for murder – only subject to civil penalties. You cannot extract an eye for an eye if the person does it via his company.

    I find it interesting that you say “your side of the aisle” supports statements that would likely be actionable as libel if made against someone who was not a public figure. Did you feel the same way about claims that Sarah Palin did not give birth to her last child? Can you imagine a movie being released telling that story just before the election? Would you have been happy to see a movie reenacting how McCain broke under pressure (Cheney said it wasn’t torture), where the story (unlike the swift boat ones) would actually be true?

    Did you feel the same way about the charges made against George Bush regarding his evasion of the draft? You know, the ones where no one noticed when a secretary said something to the effect that “Those documents were not the original letters, but the original letters said essentially the same thing.” That is, the charges were accurate but the actual letters had been shredded to protect the guilty? I seem to recall lots of people from your side of the aisle questioning the freedom of the press in that case despite what the secretary said about the validity of the underlying story.

    PS –
    Happy Three Mile Island Day. Thirty years without another accident, and counting, thanks to the lessons learned!

  10. #10 Uncle Al
    March 28, 2009

    Matt is entirely justified in maintaining a quality level of discourse on his site. It was a lovely portmanteau word, though. Let’s try it as a two-letter displacement cipher for the grownups: Hillary Ramrod Clinton, more aptly referenced as “Enkvngt”.

  11. #11 Matt Springer
    March 29, 2009

    Interesting points, CC. I’m going to go bit-by-bit.

    I find it interesting that you say “your side of the aisle” supports statements that would likely be actionable as libel if made against someone who was not a public figure.

    I can only speak for myself, anyone else’s opinion on the right is their own. I meant only that it’s a shame that it’s possible to construe my defense of “Hillary: The Movie” as having an ulterior motive. But I would do the same if the film in question was some Michael Moore production. However, I don’t think anyone has argued that this film would be libelous even if against a private figure. As it is, I tend to take a dim view of libel laws regardless. There may be a place for them, but in a society that respect free speech it will have to be very limited at best. As indeed it is in the US.

    Did you feel the same way about claims that Sarah Palin did not give birth to her last child? Can you imagine a movie being released telling that story just before the election? Would you have been happy to see a movie reenacting how McCain broke under pressure (Cheney said it wasn’t torture), where the story (unlike the swift boat ones) would actually be true?

    I found those claims repulsive and their publishers repugnant, but I did not and would never support using the force of law to suppress such claims. I did just what is often suggested: fight free speech with more free speech. There’s (iirc) two posts in the archives of this site doing just that.

    Did you feel the same way about the charges made against George Bush regarding his evasion of the draft? You know, the ones where no one noticed when a secretary said something to the effect that “Those documents were not the original letters, but the original letters said essentially the same thing.” That is, the charges were accurate but the actual letters had been shredded to protect the guilty? I seem to recall lots of people from your side of the aisle questioning the freedom of the press in that case despite what the secretary said about the validity of the underlying story.

    I believe you’re probably talking about the Killian documents, the famous fraudulent memo claiming Bush skipped out on National Guard service. It’s dereliction of duty on the part of CBS, but a free press is a free press. If they don’t want to do even minimal due diligence, that’s their right. There were plenty of people saying they shouldn’t have published or should have retracted, but I don’t think you’ll find many people (certainly not me) who think the government should have forced them not to publish in the first place. To the extent that anyone did, I reject that view with the greatest possible vehemence.

  12. #12 CCPhysicist
    March 29, 2009

    Thanks, but you did not address the possibility of a massive film distribution (a’la “JFK”) of those tabloid claims as part of an election campaign, timed so that the person attacked as a murdering liar, traitor, whatever, would have no chance to respond. I also oppose prior restraint, but only if corporations and their officers can be punished like individuals who commit a similar crime. What makes these cases unique is the use of a corporate shell as cover for political speech.

    I still say the most interesting thing about the forged Killian documents is that the statement “Knox felt the memos reflected the truth about Bush’s alleged service failures” (cited in the Wiki article you linked to), along with the question of what happened to the originals, got lost in the issue of the forgery of the documents that found their way to CBS. I suspect a disinformation campaign to distract the media from the truth.

  13. #13 dawn
    April 18, 2009

    This is possibly an unheard of point but I shall try to make the point. In depth scholarship of free speech has not been an avenue I’ve pursued with much fervor or much intent…..however, I often find wonderment in the following…the constitution seems to address free speech in the free exercise of religion, the freedom to behold a certain doctrine and to not be punished by the government in the exercise of this right. So, i find it amazing that proponents of free speech often don’t allow me to say I believe in God, they correct me and say well you know it’s really us. But i want to say that that day when I nearly drowned and the life guard spotted me among the long expansive ocean front was a lucky day indeed for me that that single individual and the hand ful of people yelling that there was some danger occurred. I often try to exclaim my sense of wonderment in a higher power with this example. And have stopped viewing the “correction” “you know it’s us don’t you” as neither dismissive nor an affront to my belief or value. It’s merely that the miracle of the floating life raft as a mirage notion is suppose to be grounding. For instance, after many misses in the Atlantic Ocean, we as a state decided having life guards on the populated oceans beaches was indeed important. We the people did that. We the people brought out and built those little kiosks on the beaches. So yes while it may have been a miracle that the trained life guard on duty was close enough to reach me, it was we the people who put the life guard on the beach such that the act of wonderment could occur. So, the notion that we the people make decisions about how our society functions is not lost on me, I am most amused that so many revolutionary era repubs are out sporting their uniform (now in the post Bush days) probably like me they have a little more extra time on their hands and probably like me they’re feeling a bit left out of the “we can’t wait” speech. What exactly did the “unteethered” run off and do? We thought bringing a new space station was pretty impressive, what were the ones “being held back” by us bumpkins do? We thought talking about the space station, about running out and seeing all the meteor showers reported on the internet was validating for the internet? (we thought learning how to get online and blog was pretty amazing) (We’re still impressed by the languages it takes to do all this) (But mostly we thought that everyone counts and that we all have a role to play) So, what from and who have we, slowies/slackers (not) held the shiney new dollars from. If it seems I’m a bit, well bitter and sarcastic (if free speech is our first amendment) a bit of revile is necessary. Here’s what I think because we didn’t run out and openly protest the Bush administration we’re being punished by the Democratic speeches. (afterall, we reacted badly to the stories that people were disappearing and that unheard of wiretapping and intrusive HLS was going on) (So very sorry for looking out for my a_s when it appeared much was breaking loose) Mr. Obama my taxes didn’t go up as you promised, my job disappeared. So, you’re asking for patience and understanding, i’m just confonded though because I want to get an idea of how I’m supposed to understand that “everyone” is hurting. I look at my neighbors they look pretty busy, but their younger and I don’t think you even register on their radar or that there’s a recession registers on their radar because like me when i was a student I had the capacity to implement my life without intrusion from the dawgone “political” elite agenda. Then, not being a profound football fan, though well aware of what a metaphor is, I found that some of us are playing tackle and tightends and fullbacks so the wide receivers can get the scrimmage BECAUSE we’re all suppose to win when that happens. (J’espere)

    thanks for coming up from the rear and making this great gesture of 1776 era practice possible. (very truly)