Sunday, March 6, 2011

Some thoughts on free speech

I'm not an absolutist when it comes to free speech, but I come awfully damn close. Speech is our most cherished right, but there are limits. The most obvious, and cliché, example is the prohibition of yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater. The danger to the public outweighs any right to speech the yeller may have. In my view, pornography is also a no brainer. As long as it is consensual and adult, one should be able to make and distribute any type porn they can imagine. Other exceptions to free speech are not quite so obvious. Where exactly the lines are drawn is often fiercely debated, and I frequently find myself questioning my own views.

Take the recent Supreme Court case involving the Westboro Baptist Church. Protest, even that with the most hateful language, is permitted, but at a funeral? I think the Court decided properly here. The families feel pain in having a funeral become a circus, but that does not warrant prohibiting protest. The state should be able to restrict the speech to a distance away from the funeral, but not so far as to make the protest invisible.

Continuing on the hate theme, some dumbass fashion designer is facing charges of hate speech in France for making anti-semitic remarks. His drunken rants were certainly hateful, but they ought not be considered criminal. Outlawing hate speech is essentially policing thought. If one feels hate, even unjustified bigotry, it is their thoughts. That cannot be policed, and the uttering of such thoughts should not be policed either. There is a very steep slippery slope here. Religious groups may claim hate when they are confronted with speech that questions their superstitions. Many Muslims considered those infamous Danish cartoons to be hate speech. They may feel it was hate speech, but others thought they were just vaguely amusing cartoons. The answer to hate is not the courts, but education and peer pressure.

Recently in New York, a retired man was arrested for jury tampering. He would spend his days standing in front of courthouses handing out literature encouraging people to use the concept of jury nullification of law in trials where the jurors may feel a law was unjust. A rather rare and often unheard of concept, jury nullification is perfectly legal, and in some cases proper. For instance, if I ever found myself on the jury for a pot dealing trial, I would vote for acquittal, and the other jurors would not be able to sway me.

But prosecutors do not like jury nullification, so some annoyed prosecutors decided to charge the man with jury tampering. I feel that this is a clear cut case of protected speech, and the prosecutors ought to be chastised, and maybe prosecuted themselves, for abuse of power. After all, this is a case of one old man handing our political pamphlets on the sidewalk, an American tradition stretching back to the Colonial days. Just the arrest itself is suppression of speech.

On piece of news got me scratching my head trying to figure out my thoughts and opinions. It seems that our neighbors to the north have a law against news broadcasters lying. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. wrote a piece recently that stated,
Canada's Radio Act requires that "a licenser may not broadcast ... any false or misleading news." The provision has kept Fox News and right-wing talk radio out of Canada and helped make Canada a model for liberal democracy and freedom. As a result of that law, Canadians enjoy high quality news coverage, including the kind of foreign affairs and investigative journalism that flourished in this country before Ronald Reagan abolished the "Fairness Doctrine" in 1987. Political dialogue in Canada is marked by civility, modesty, honesty, collegiality, and idealism that have pretty much disappeared on the US airwaves.
Now, this got me wondering. Is such a law just? Could it work in the States? Is it possible to force Fox to either be honest or quit broadcasting? I'm rather torn on this one. Fox is notoriously dishonest. Whole websites and YouTube channels are dedicated to documenting their dishonesty. And, their deceit is damaging to our nation. Far too many people (teabaggers) believe the bullshit that Fox attempts to pass as news, so their harm is readily apparent. But, would this become censoring the news? I'm afraid it may be going a step too far. Freedom of the press is cherished, and necessary for a democracy to survive. Perhaps it would be better if other news organizations kept exposing their dishonesty. Perhaps a happy compromise would be to charge them with false advertising. That "Fair and Balanced" slogan could easily be considered deceptive. I cannot decide on this issue. I like the idea, but it seems dangerous.

No comments:

Post a Comment