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Jewish World Review
January 13, 2009
/ 17 Teves 5769
Shut up, they explain
Americans have faced threats to their freedom of speech before. How else did we get a First Amendment except in response to such threats and in anticipation of more of them in the future?
But seldom have such attempts to limit freedom of expression been put forward in so superior, so condescending and oh-so-enlightened fashion. These days we're not so much gagged as politely muffled.
The various new ways to restrict our freedom of speech, it is explained, are being proposed only for our own good. And that of society as a whole. So say those who know best what we the mere people should be allowed to say and hear, read and write. It's a perfect example of the soft tyranny of the majority that Tocqueville foresaw in his classic study of "Democracy in America."
There are so many signs of the increasingly stifled times that they're beginning to add up to a whole new era of suppression always for the most public-spirited of reasons. For example:
The McCain-Feingold campaign reform act that gags political advocacy just when it's most needed 30 days before election day lest we the people, unthinking cattle that we are, be stampeded by a rush of propaganda over the airwaves rather than the establishment's enlightened, approved-for-public-consumption line.
The return of the Unfairness Doctrine, which would make free and untrammeled speech impractical for broadcasters. Obliged to give equal (and free) time to all opinions, radio and television stations would soon learn to avoid broadcasting opinion at all, which is how they reacted when the original "Fairness Doctrine" was in foul bloom.
But now this gag rule can be rationalized in the most high-flown language, like the president-elect's during his smooth campaign, when he subtly endorsed the idea. Some folks will go to any lengths to shut up the Rush Limbaughs among us, though always of course in the name of "fairness." They lack the candor to censor opinions they don't like outright; they'd much rather rig the system.
The kind of "net neutrality" that isn't neutral at all but would tell distributors of opinions (and everything else) over the Internet which ones they may distribute when and how and at what speeds rather than leave such decisions to competing interests and new developments. This is to treat the internet as a common carrier delivering head of cattle or widgets rather than a wide-open frontier of ideas where competition, cooperation, innovation and all of the above should be allowed to develop largely on their own.
Regulation that isn't working to everyone's benefit will soon enough invite the kind of competition that will. The way the stultified broadcast networks spawned wide-open talk radio. That's how Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is supposed to work if we'll let it. The Internet, like all business, needs to be policed for the public's benefit and its own, but not choked. When a centralized government decides just how a frontier should look, operate and be governed, it's no longer a frontier but a planned development.
College speech codes, it seems, we will always have with us, no matter how clear it becomes that they restrict expression rather than encourage it. That they should flourish on some of the most prestigious campuses in the country is evidence of the sad state of real dialogue within the American university. There was a time when it was considered a truism that the best answer to a bad idea was a better one; now the arbiters of thought take it upon themselves to decide which ideas are good enough to be expressed and which must be suppressed. That's not debate; it's indoctrination.
Then there are those laws that deny Americans' right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances," to use the First Amendment's phrase. Oklahoma's attorney general, Drew Edmondson, has been hounding Paul Jacob a nationally known advocate of term limits for daring to circulate petitions in that state.
Mr. Jacob's petitions seek to limit legislators' free-spending ways, but Oklahoma has a law barring nonresidents from gathering signatures for such petitions. Or at least it did have. The Tenth Circuit of Appeals, following the lead of the Sixth and Ninth Circuits, has struck down Oklahoma's law as a violation of "core political speech." Chalk one up for the First Amendment. And yet Oklahoma's attorney general continues to prosecute/persecute Paul Jacob; his office says General Edmondson may appeal the Tenth Circuit's ruling.
The moral of the story: The rights of Americans are never won once and for all. They must be defended again and again, for eternal vigilance remains the price of liberty. It takes only a cursory survey at the varied challenges to the First Amendment in our oh-so-enlightened time to reveal that, when it comes to being gagged, Paul Jacob has got a lot of company.
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