Friday, January 2, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Freedom of Speech

I was amused the other day when I noticed a poster intended to condemn conservatives for their supposed hypocritical support for free speech.  It showed the Dixie Chicks singing trio with the words “If there is one thing people in the red states respect, it is freedom of speech. Just ask the Dixie Chicks.”  I had to laugh at the foolishness of the meme based on just how far it reaches to condemn the right, how little its author and those who publish it understand about freedom of speech, especially how it might relate to commerce, and the hypocrisy they display in the campaign.

So it got me to thinking about free speech as it stands in America.  That term is used commonly to refer to a much broader set of understandings than what was originally defined in the Bill of Rights, but let’s start with what the Constitution says and move on from there.

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, ad to petition the Government for redress of grievances.
So in the eyes of founding father’s it seems clear their intent was to insure the government does not become a theocracy endorsing one religion over another, or forcing its citizens to become members of one church or another.  It is equally clear they understood the power of the press and the right of people to discuss the issues of the day without fear of repression.  They had fought a war with England over these ideals and although not included in the main body it was the first amendment endorsed with the ratification of the Constitution.

Since our founding, the issue of what the first amendment says, or intends regarding the right to free speech has come before the US Supreme court on a great number of occasions.  Interestingly, but not unexpectedly, different judges have taken differing views on the scope of what the government can or cannot do to regulate speech.  “Some like Justice Hugo L. Black, have believed freedom of speech is absolute.  But most jurists, along with most U.S. citizens, agree with Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr, who felt the Constitution allows some restrictions on speech under certain circumstances.”[1]  As Justice Homes noted in Schenck v US, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”[2]

The footnoted reference offers a good discussion on limits the government has placed on the individual and corporations with regard to their rights to free speech.  For example, reasonable people agree that restrictions on the creation, use, and retention of child pornography fit within the acceptable limits to free speech, since this speech presents a clear and present danger to the children it exploits.

So at the end of the day the idea that free speech is an absolute right in America is at best an optimistic belief, and at worst one subject to court interpretation when the assorted political bodies that make up the federal and state governments weight in with limiting legislation they think is appropriate.

Again, keep in mind the constitutional construct is to limit the ability of the government, not the individual, to restrict speech.  It has been established that community standards are an acceptable basis for determining if speech should be protected, or is subject to restriction.  What is acceptable speech in Los Angeles may not be acceptable to the residents of Boston or NYC. It has always been assumed an individual can choose what they want to view or listen to, as long as it does not fit within an accepted or approved area of restriction.  Likewise, it has been established employers have the ability to limit or restrict how their infrastructure can be used and advise its employee’s on corporate policies regarding what they may say on those social media outlets as long as it is not “protected speech.”[3]  But the case with the Dixie Chicks involves neither government imposition or employer restriction.

As a reminder, the Dixie Chicks, a country music singing trio whose public statements against the Bush administration, and the war in Iraq significantly impacted their popularity and financial fortunes. For those who may not be familiar with the issue let me summarize the events. The Dixie Chicks were performing in London in 2003 before the Iraq invasion.  During the concert the lead vocalist, Natalie Maines, announced to the audience “We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” The story was picked up in the US media, where her comments received wide condemnation in the conservative media, and within the country music community (both fans and performers).  In two weeks their cover of the Fleetwood Mac song “Landslide” fell from #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 to obscurity.  Their sponsor Lipton Ice Tea dropped them, and attempts to repair their reputation within the country music fan base have met with limited success.  The American Red Cross refused a $1 million dollar promotional partnership with them, and according to the Red Cross an association with them would have violated its organizational principles of impartiality and neutrality.  They continue to record and perform, but have made a transition into the rock and roll genre rather than what had been their original fan base.  Wikipedia notes that at the time of the original statements and controversy Merle Haggard supported their right to speak their mind.  When President Bush was asked about Ms. Maines comments he said “The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind.  They can say what they want to say… they shouldn’t have their feelings hurt when people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out…Freedom is a two-way street…”[4]

So we come to the principle point of the poster, did Red State Governments restrict Ms. Maines speech?  I see no evidence of this. 

Was the rejection of their position only in the Red States?  I don’t believe this has been proven.  Indications are that a majority of country music fans, regardless of where they lived, and a great many live in Blue states, objected all the way to the point of stopping their support of the band and its merchandizing.

Were there individuals who reacted inappropriately and made death threats, and in so doing attempted to violate their right to express their opinions? I think there is enough information to say yes, within in a limited scope.  There is every indication that authorities dealt with them on a case by case basis and I seen nothing to suggest the government held their views against them in rendering protection. 

Were those people conservative?  I see no indication that any research has been done to confirm the political positions of the individuals who made these threats.  It is therefore a useful assumption, but not a fact for the meme.

Does mass condemnation of an individual’s opinion, and loss of profit; constitute a lack of respect of the right to free speech, or rejection of the protections of the US Constitution?  I think this would be an extremely hard argument to make.  As noted earlier individuals have the right of choice to agree or disagree with public statements.  Even the organized boycotts were not viewed as violation of the Groups right to speak as they wish, and as far as I can determine in my limited research neither the group itself, nor their supporters made anti-trust claims.

One of the foundations for conservative thought is the acceptance of responsibility, and recognition there are consequences for your words and actions.  The fact the group felt they could make inflammatory statements and not alienate their fan base is an indictment on how out of touch they were; a failure to understand the core values of a nation that had been attacked just 2 years earlier.  In their song, “Not Ready to Make Nice” the group continued to stand behind their position and antagonize the audience they would seek to reclaim.  It would seem they have chosen to place their politics ahead of the their commercial product.  That is fully within their rights, but in doing so you cannot condemn others for doing the same.  Evaluating how to spend their money is an individual choice based on personal preference.

It strikes me that we humble fans often make our entertainment choices based on scant information.  For the most part we neither know, nor care to know, the politics of a performer.  We enjoy their art for what it's worth, that is until more information is made known, and perhaps thrust into our consciousness by some noteworthy event.  At that time we are forced to make a choice.  For example, in the 80's and 90's the character Peewee Herman was hugely popular, until it was discovered his alter ego Paul Reubens was involved in a scandal and drew considerable negative press.  Where is Paul Reubens/PeeWee Herman today?  Sound familiar?

Now lets talk about hypocrisy, or specifically the hypocrisy of those who would push this meme to condemn those who take an opposing view.  As in most propaganda there is a nugget of fact, there must be or the propaganda is immediately dismissed, but idea that the commercial impacts to this group reflects an intolerance of free speech is unsupported by either a rational definition of the term or the facts as they stand.  The people who push this notion have, at the same time, shown an especially rabid desire to limit speech on college campuses, have pushed for the boycott of Israeli scholars in academic conferences and campus venues, and as congressional hearings indicate have used positions of authority vindictively against those who would speak in opposition of the administration’s positions.  So who really is on the side that restricts speech?

There was a term attributed to Vladimir Lenin, but more probably it came into vogue in the time of the McCarthy hearings in the US.  “Useful idiots” are defined as individuals who supports one side of an ideological debate, but who are manipulated and held in contempt by the leaders of their faction or is unaware of the ultimate agenda driving the ideology they subscribe.  As illustrated by Professor Gruber, of MIT, described variously as an economics advisor or architect of the Affordable Care Act, those in positions of power within the liberal establishment do not hesitate to leverage these useful idiots to push the party line.


Jeannette said...

Dixie Who?
Some people enjoy lining up and shooting carnival toy ducks all the day long but don't know what they are going to have for dinner.

Voting with one's dollar is just another form of speech...and money always costs someone...many times it costs more than once.

Well...anyway those are the thoughts that popped up in me after reading your excellent essay. Did you ever think of being a lawyer? You make a good argument from facts and principles and precedents and,oh yes, The Constitution.

John said...

Thanks Jeannette.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...