Freedom of speech is the rare exception of history. In the United States of the last 250 years, it has been more prevalent than ever known before. But that has not been the case for most of human history; and it’s not the case in most of the world, even today.
Many Americans do not realize, or perhaps do not care, that violations of free speech are happening in their own country. Too many of us arrogantly and ignorantly take it for granted that free speech will always exist, and need not be defended as a matter of principle. “So long as nobody is stopping me from saying whatever I want to say, whenever I feel like it, I really don’t care.”
Like the attitude on the famed ship Titanic, that mindset will eventually come back to bite even those who presently yawn indifferently.
In Wisconsin, police raided the homes of political activists, accusing them of illegal “collusion” with campaign staffs. Authorities confiscated their computers and cell phones, and ordered them (and their children!) not to speak to anyone about the raids. Recently Wisconsin’s Supreme Court revoked the speech ban, saying prosecutors “employed theories of law that did not exist.” But by then, Republican activists had been silenced for 5 years.
Such speech bans start with campaign finance laws claiming to “end money in politics.” Ignorant voters are asked, “Is there too much money in political campaigns?” Since everyone can think of political candidates they dislike, the vast majority answer, “Yes.” Should we “do something” about it? Of course. When do we ever ask the government not to “do something”?
Once these laws are in place, as people with dissenting views in Wisconsin soon discovered, free speech is out the window. The police who raid these homes work for the state government authorities. The state government authorities determine the priorities for enforcing the law. “Colluding” is a difficult or impossible concept to prove or disprove. While this makes it convenient for those in power, and for attorneys who profit off the legal system, it only undermines the cause of individual rights and equal justice.
Campaign finance laws are about power and restraining dissension, not justice. If their advocates really wanted money out of politics, they would remove politics and government from economic activity, making special favors, grants and subsidies all irrelevant.
If you’re in political power and you learn of people spreading views of which you disapprove, it’s fairly easy to activate the troops or the authorities to “investigate” alleged collusion and intimidate those you dislike into silence. In the end, the Wisconsin Supreme Court did its job and struck down the law. But such laws are now operative on the federal level too, and most of the politicians presently in power are seeking to intensify them. This means that those whose views and opinions are not held in high favor by the authorities may intimidate and, in effect, silence their critics.
Does this sound like freedom of speech to you?
The former CEO of Mozilla Brendan Eich, Pax Dickinson of Business Insider, Paula Deen of the Food Network, and real estate entrepreneurs David and Jason Benham all lost jobs because of something they said.
These individuals all worked for private companies. Just to be clear: It’s the right of a private company to expel whomever it wishes (so long as contracts are not violated), including anyone of whom it morally disapproves or otherwise deems bad for business.
However, these large companies operate in a legal system where unjustified lawsuits are prevalent, particularly against high-profit companies. The people running the Food Network knew full well that Paula Deen’s comments were taken out of context from an unrelated legal deposition where she admitted under oath that, in the past, in the privacy of her own home, she had made racist comments to her husband. It was the Deep South of the 1960s, and many did so, particularly in the privacy of one’s home. Deen was simply being honest.
While the Food Network had every right to fire her, they made this decision in a legal context where it’s easy to sue for words or actions which — even if deplorable — should not be against the law. While the Food Network did not violate Ms. Deen’s freedom of speech by firing her, both her own and the Food Network’s freedom of speech are undermined by having to exist in a legal context where “saying the wrong thing” can get you sued so easily, particularly if you’re a successful and therefore well-off company. Ditto for the other examples given here.
Mark Steyn was prosecuted by the Canadian government for criticizing Islam. He spent his own money to sue and win the right to speak. He explains why more speech, not less, is the answer to diverse ideas. Half a century ago, gay rights was an extremely minority idea. “It’s only because…you could argue your case…that a tiny little minority idea expanded.” That doesn’t happen in “control freak societies,” like the Muslim world, where “there’s nothing left to do but kill, and bomb, and shoot.”
Mark Steyn was forced to defend his right to free speech, and spend a lot of money doing so. While Canada is not the United States, it’s largely recognized as a free society, at least with respect to rights such as freedom of speech. What do you think President Obama, anyone in the Democratic Party and probably even a lot of Republicans think about the Canadian laws and regulations making it wrong to “say the wrong thing” about Muslims? At the rate we’re going, we will have such laws (or perhaps executive orders) in place before long.
Steyn makes another compelling point. The anti-free speech police are almost always on the side of the progressive/political left. Campaign finance laws, hate speech laws, laws or policies preventing hurting the feelings of Muslims all come from the political left. Yet so did the movement for gay marriage. How far would that have advanced if the people in power in earlier decades had been permitted to silence them, as progressive leftists are now permitted to silence anyone who disagrees with them?
Americans fear speaking about Islam – and with good reason. Ten cartoonists were recently murdered for drawing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. Other critics have been shot, firebombed, and hacked to death. I interview people brave enough to speak out, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is on an Al Qaeda “Wanted Dead or Alive” hit list, and Bosch Fawstin, who won the “Draw Mohammad” cartoon event in Garland, Texas that was attacked by Islamic gunmen. They argue that if Americans want freedom, everyone must refuse to be censored by violent extremists. [Source of quotes: John Stossel, FoxBusiness.com 10/8/15]
The widespread attitude about this incident, reflected in the comments of people like Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump, who all but said these cartoonists got what they deserved, shows just how ignorant and cowardly even the supposedly most politically incorrect of our cultural icons really are.
People lose what they have when they take it for granted. One day, they wake up and it’s gone, and they realize how badly they always needed it. It’s true of any value, and it’s certainly true of free speech.
Today in America, those who defend free speech with consistency and principle are considered wild-eyed extremists. Tomorrow’s version might be just a little bit different.
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