Is Speech really Free?

Is Speech really Free?

April 29, 2016

“Congress shall make NO law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

In a hotly contested presidential election campaign, the victor, in his inaugural address, reminded citizens that “the will of the majority . . . to be rightful must be reasonable.” You see, Thomas Jefferson wanted the majority to act reasonably in respect of the minority opinion of the day. He continued in his 1801 address, ensuring that “if there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” My views are parallel. 

I have learned over the years that my tolerance of a man’s right to opine, concurrent with intolerance for the substance of his opinion, while striving to maintain reason and respect, is a balancing act I am grateful and eager to undertake. I am not an altruist—agreement is certainly hard to come by in the realm of political speech. Nevertheless, what is lacking more than any other time in our nation’s history is the desire to embark on this balancing act. The desire, it seems, is unnecessary. In other words, the press, particularly the news media, show no ostensible desire to give relatively equal credence to voices opposite its own. In fact, the press knowingly, or unwittingly enjoy great shelter under Jefferson’s assurance that opposing voices should “stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated.” 

If such points of view adhere to the opinions implicitly proffered by the news media, generally no critique or question is asked. After all, progressive ideas are lionized in print and picture, hailed as enlightened and desired by the people. Conversely, a conservative idea is generally degraded and summarily dispatched as outmoded, racist, bigoted, passé. No First Amendment violation can be found in all this. Inescapably, however, for many Americans it violates the conscience.

The “freedom of … the press” cannot be abridged. The clause appears quite plain, seemingly obvious. The press can certainly choose freely what it wishes the public to know, just as I choose freely to teach my children what I wish them to learn. There is a crucial difference, however, between the two. I teach my children truth. They are then free to corroborate what I teach. The danger comes when my children have a vastly disproportionate ideological pool of information from which to choose. My favorite novel, Bleak House, encapsulates this protected inequity when Dickens laments: “[I]njustice breeds injustice.” Yes, freedom of the press cannot be abridged, but if the people’s right to know is diminished even one scintilla by what the press chooses the people to know, we the people have lost a much greater portion of Liberty.

I believe the power underwriting the press clause is contingent on the legitimacy of the free speech clause.  I find it no simple coincidence that the speech clause precedes that of the press. When free speech is chilled, the freedom of the press should necessarily congeal, if but a little.  In the modern era, however, the press has amassed great power, usurping, as it were, the freedom behind any point of view foreign to its own.  The moment that power contravenes the inherent rights of the people to speak freely, expressing mainstream or malignant, pleasing or repugnant ideas without barrier, that press power has overstepped Jefferson’s vision of a free and tolerant society. Indeed, Jefferson uttered the timeless maxim: “A democracy cannot be both ignorant and free.”  Prophetic and true.

The First Amendment, over the years, has become more of a firewall behind which the press huddle, professing to disseminate what the people have a “right to know”, while suppressing what the people must know to dispel their own ignorance. Reality, after all, seems to be the perception that the press carefully crafts, and the masses carelessly consume. Now, let me be clear, I do not believe that the entire institution we call the “press” is engaged in this type of information suppression. Nevertheless, many, especially the most powerful outlets of media propagation, operate today as Nixon once did—as unindicted co-conspirators—easily identifiable, and unabashed in their furtherance of biased news coverage.

Alas, I fear my soapbox has run out of suds, but my passion for truth and for the purpose of our supreme Constitution and Bill of Rights is difficult for me to bridle.  I believe, as Jefferson did, that ignorance, and the perpetuation of it, is a sharpest arrow in the press’s quiver.  We, as Americans, should not be so arrogant to assume our great Nation is impervious to failure.  Scores of civilizations have fallen throughout the course of time.  A key ingredient to such collapse always included a citizenry nearly wholly deprived of individual liberties.  Herbert Marshall McLuhan, renowned philosopher of communications theory, foreshadowed the slippery slope we will soon find ourselves on.  He said: “If the temperature of the bath water rises one degree every ten minutes, how will the bather know when to scream?”  How will the scores of aimless Americans know which way to turn, if the marketplace of ideas is not really a marketplace at all, but more like a soup kitchen?  If Americans are fed the same bland entrée from grade school to adulthood, without anything more than a glimpse of flavor from the other end of the idea spectrum, what else can result but freedom draining ignorance.

The First Amendment is the vehicle whereby all citizens of this great nation can freely express themselves, and where publishers and producers can freely print and broadcast (or not print and broadcast) those expressions.  I believe more than ever before, that those with whom I vehemently disagree deserve my greatest alliance against anyone that tries to stymie their right to speak freely.  All I ask is that those who equally disagree with me show some measure of that same defense.  I fear that is too much to ask.


                                                                           - Joshua Draughon 2012

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