How Freedom of Speech Works

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Everyone spouts off about freedom of speech these days. Anytime someone says something offensive/obnoxious/just-plain-stupid, they are quick to point out that they have freedom of speech, and so anyone who disagrees with them or — God Forbid — doesn’t give them a forum in which to spew their opinions — is violating their freedom of speech.

No, kids. One of the few things that being a lawyer in the dreaded day job has given me is a bit more understanding of Constitutional Law than the average Joe who reads on a seventh-grade level. The Constitution — and thus the Bill of Rights — only guarantees that the Government won’t infringe upon your personal freedoms. It is perfectly okay, and even desirable, for private citizens to tell you to shut up.

If I own a radio station, I don’t have to give you a microphone to talk about how the President should release his potty progress reports from Pre-Kindergarten. I don’t have to let members of NAMBLA advertise for kids to mentor. I don’t have to give anyone a forum on my dime.

Now, if the Government is the one regulating speech, they gotta treat us all the same. If a school district lets the Baptists do a prayer at graduation, they have to open it up to the Wiccans, the Muslims, and even –gasp — the Atheists. That’s why so many government agencies don’t let people access their email, newsletters or other communications. If one uses it, all use it.

But when it’s private citizens doing the talking, the Founding Fathers (and Mothers, who did a lot of lobbying behind the scenes) believed that laissez-faire was the way to go. They called it the “Marketplace of Ideas.” If everyone puts their opinions out for the public to pick and choose from, just as with merchandise, the best ideas will beat out the bad ones. You’ll figure out what you like and if you can afford it. If you don’t like Talbot’s clothing, you go to Coldwater Creek. If you don’t like the Tea Party’s theories, you listen to the Green Party. Or whatever.

And the recent Judy Mays debacle has been a wonderful example of how this process works. WNEP gave a forum to some petty, small-minded parents who apparently had an axe to grind regarding a teacher at the local high school. Fine. That’s great. It’s their newscast, so they can run any damfool thing they want to.

But — and it’s a major point — the shoppers in the marketplace of ideas are free to point out shoddy merchandise. They are free to let advertisers on WNEP know that the cost of dumb ideas may be higher than they want to pay — that supporting stupidity may cost them customers.
And that is how it’s supposed to work.

I’m proud of the way the writing community has stepped up to let WNEP know that, while you have the right to say something ridiculous, we have the right — even the duty — to point out how wrong you are.

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One response to “How Freedom of Speech Works

  1. Nicely done from one lawer/romance writer to another!

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