Free Speech Has a Price
Chatterers on cable shows, talk radio and Internet blogs are promptingsome Americans to worry that these electronic public criers arecrossing the line from routine rhetorical clashes between liberals and conservatives into something closer to hate speech or outright sedition.
Most of the time, the verbal battles between commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, for instance, are little more than political entertainments. They provide amusement to listeners and material for Comedy Central to skewer the talk giants of CNBC, CNN and the Fox News Channel.
But several weeks ago opponents complained that anti-abortion rhetoric, especially but not solely from Bill O’Reilly, is fomenting an atmosphere that led to the killing of the Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Kansas. Others railed that racial and anti-Semitic rhetoric is partly responsible for the gunman who recently stormed into the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and killed a guard.
Some fear that these public commentators, not elected and not responsible to anyone but their audience and advertisers, are stoking unprecedented hatred and division among Americans. The New York Times columnist Frank Rich suggested this week that he is not alone in worrying that fanatics listening to such vitriol might act out their fantasies against President Obama or others in authority.
The angry politics of the last decade, since the disputed 2000election of President George W. Bush, worries others that American society is changing for the worst and could destroy itself. Even those less apocalyptic claim the rise in invective represents a loss of civility.
Then suddenly another event showed the excesses that come with freespeech are nothing compared with the absence of free speech.
Demonstrators poured into the streets of Tehran this week to protest their own disputed election. But quickly Iranian police began shutting off communications, tossing out foreign journalists, closing Internet websites and blocking cell phone traffic.
As protests continue, the government appears to be heading to even more restrictions and more arrests. In comparison to that struggle, even the most vitriolic conversations on American talk shows seem nothing more than, as one scholar put it, a "necessary evil" in order to guarantee free speech for all.
For sure, there is a public demagoguery now that has a lot in common with the language of the anti-Semitic and anti-Roosevelt radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin, who ranted from the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Mich., to tens of millions of listeners in the1930s.
Such extreme language is becoming more common and familiar in the 24-hour news and opinion cycle. Whether on television channels, on the radio and on newspaper websites, charges barely have time to be heard and read before they are answered with counter-charges. When Limbaugh insists he wants the president to "fail," for instance, a chorus of Obama supporters quickly describe such talk as treasonous.
But the history of the United States is one of raucous debate, of political opponents blasting outrageous and unfounded denunciations. Public discussion was routinely tough and biased. Claims against political figures have been painful and completely unfair, yet Americans accepted that as the cost of doing democracy.
While political invective may seem dangerous and dastardly to our modern ears, such rancor was common even at the beginning of our nation.
Newspapers became more responsible (you might also describe them as tame) in the last century, but the kind of speech that the country’s earliest politicians wanted to protect was not polite, not responsible and certainly made people’s blood boil.
John Adams and his vice-president, Thomas Jefferson, were not timid political souls and the rancorous language (was Jefferson really"godless”) that their supporters used against each other was just the beginning. Over history, public figures called their opponents traitors and cross-dressers, crooks and pedophiles.
But the founding fathers understood that much was at stake, that the enterprise of forming a new nation could only be accomplished by allowing genuine freedom. Of course, everyone understands there are limits to free speech, but the complaints against today's public commentators are not the equivalent of wartime censorship rules or yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. The rhetoric of today doesn't exceed anything in the past, though the technology behind this super-heated conversation has changed.
The passions that scorched the pages of competing newspapers and pamphlets in the past are still present. But the Internet, with its chat rooms and comment sections that are open to all anonymous postings, creates an electronic mob. People shout across the nation from the protection of a faceless crowd and stir even more passion or fuel more hatred.The argument for maintaining anonymity on the Internet is that it is the ultimate freedom to be heard (or read) and that anonymity guarantees that those who speak out against the government or anyother authority need not fear retribution.
“The speech we dislike and believe harmful may still be offered shelter within the first amendment; but, if it is, it will generally be regarded as a necessary evil protected because we believe we are fallible—we cannot eradicate speech we believe as harmful and debasing without diminishing that which is beneficial.” The writer, Lee C.Bollinger, a First Amendment expert and now president of Columbia University, wrote that nearly two decades ago, about the time the Internet was coming to widespread civilian use.
Considering our fears about the consequences of free speech, what a tremendous juxtaposition it is to see the images and stories comingout of Iran during the past week.
The citizens of Tehran and other cities are eagerly protesting on the streets and telling the world through blogs and YouTube, through email, cell phone videos and Twitter, of their grievances over the disputed election and it is producing real consequences for them.
Just as evident as the protests is the Iranian government’s attempt to shut down the demonstrations and the social media networkthat is helping fuel the anger.
There is, I suspect, a universal desire to speak freely, to have an open flow if information and the right to gather and complain. As the citizens of Iran are showing the world, the desire for freedom is strong and, even though the speech that we are hearing in our own country is sometimes “harmful and debasing,” we have learned to live with it.
Putting up with all sorts of language, we have decided collectively, is still worth the price of democracy.