Nearly every heated argument on the internet between Americans eventually gets to one fundamental point. All it takes is a label of some kind – racist, liberal, nazi, socialist – and within a few messages someone is bound to claim that their First Amendment right to Free Speech is somehow being squashed. This whine is both laughably silly and, like any well-cut joke, deeply reflective on our culture’s basic values.
What does it mean to be oppressed and have your right to Free Speech taken away?
This familiar whine came into old media recently with the tirade of an old source of straw-man arguments, Dr. Laura. I admit I was surprised, asking anyone who brought the thorny issue up as plainly as possible – “Dr. Laura still has a radio show?” Apparently, she did. For all the fake controversy dished up as entertainment over the years, it took repeated reciting the dreaded “N Word” over and over to make her sponsors flee.
Apparently, we still have some values. It simply takes a while for them to kick in.
Her cause was taken up by many other people in the Dark Issue business, most notably the new queen of attention gathering, Sarah Palin. The defense of Dr. Laura has focused on her First Amendment right to Free Speech – the fundamental American value that anyone, anywhere has a right to say whatever they want. Let’s look at what that cherished Amendment has to say:
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, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It’s pretty narrow on the surface of it, but those darned activist courts have interpreted Free Speech as a basic right that must be respected by all branches of government. Like all judicial activism, this happened primarily in response to a fundamental cultural value – in this case, that the USofA as a nation is defined by our unique ability to respect all forms of expression.
What people really mean when they say “First Amendment” is something far deeper than mere law. It is something that defines who we are as a people.
Leaving aside recent attacks on other bits and pieces of this value as enshrined in the First Amendment, there is a very good point underneath the relentless whine in support of Dr. Laura. Does the right to Free Speech reasonably include the right to shout down some expression as being culturally unacceptable? After all, this is far more than law – it is an expression of values. The cultural limits of 300 million people defining themselves as one are always going to be in some kind of flux over time, shifting and adjusting with each generation.
We can be sure of one thing – no one has a fundamental right to a radio show. I have no sponsors who pay me to do this, though I would greatly appreciate a contribution via the Donate Button once in a while (hint!). The right to expression is never abridged by someone losing their ability to make a living saying whatever they feel like. Free Speech is, invariably, quite different from paid speech – especially in the biz of manufacturing controversy for ratings. Dr. Laura’s case falls apart on fundamental principles far apart from the rant that caused her fall – there is no reason to think that a sponsor could ever be compelled to support someone, Dr. Laura or myself, with a comfortable living saying whatever they want.
Yet there is more to it than that. Somewhere in here we wind up back on the internet and all the other people who invariably call on the First Amendment when they are shouted down. At least in those cases the issue at hand isn’t the absurdly asserted right to be paid for speech. Do we all have a right, a cultural and social right, to shout down Free Speech that we do not agree with?
The answer comes very easily when you take a step back and realize that what we are contemplating here is a very important core value that defines who we are as a people. We are one nation, the United States of America, who share a rich history and commitment to basic principles. Shouting at each other destroys Free Speech far faster than any law that could ever be passed by Congress – but so does relentless labeling.
When there is a commitment to fight that runs deeper than the commitment to understanding, our ability to be one people with shared values degrades. One of the first things to go is Free Speech. That’s the real problem here.