Due to the nature of my work, I’ve been sort of entrenched in the topic of “censorship” recently.
Now, censorship comes in many flavors. The sort I deal with is mostly the obscenity/indecency kind, because I like to go big or go home. But there is also censorship for reasons of public safety, or for protection of the consumer, or for reasons of that ilk – it’s not just about protecting our delicate sensibilities.
And all of this dealing with the topic forces me to reckon with my own thoughts about free speech. First and foremost, it re-enforces the fact that I am not a free speech absolutist. This may come as a surprise to some people because I get so defensive about so many free speech issues, but I am not. For example – I agree with our laws that people shouldn’t be able to lie in advertisements. Especially in medicinal ones (whether there should even BE advertisements for medicine is a whole other ball of wax). And that IS a matter of free speech. There are codes to protect us from that very kind of speech because it is dangerous.
Whether people should be able to lie in political ads is tricky territory for me. If a political ad is political speech, then I’d say dishonesty is protected – political speech has to be the freest there is for democracy to function, which means the bad has to be protected as well as the good. If an ad is commercial speech, and it IS an ad, then the laws of commercial speech apply – and as noted above, you can’t lie in commercials. We have elected to protect the consumer. So what is a political ad? When you pay that much money to reach the voters, are you treating them like voters or consumers? And what does it say that as a nation we are so quick to protect consumers, but we let voters sort it out for themselves? Is that because we trust voters so much more than consumers, or do we value consumers that much more?
I AM much more inclined to see offensive speech as protected than many other people. And I mean offensive in a variety of ways – anti-religious, racist, sexist, etc. And anybody who knows me knows that personally that is the sort of thing I hate. H.A.T.E. I’ve made a teaching career out of preaching against that nonsense. BUT. I fear the power of the censor. For one, the censor is usually a hegemonic power. So while any good meaning censor may well clean up all kinds of bad stuff, they will do so by quashing some voice of the marginalized. Sometimes it’s great when the marginalized are told to shut up. If people tell the Klan to shove it, I am thrilled. But there is no guarantee that powerful institutions will always err on the side of justice – just that they will err on the side of power, in the long run. And if laws are put in place one day that allows a powerful institution to silence particular voices, even voices that I can’t stand, at will, then there is the danger that power will change hands and the new regime will apply that power differently and then it will be the voice of those that I support that will be hushed. And that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.
National security vs. free speech could be a whole blog in and of itself. For reals.
But what I’m curious about is y’all. Those of you who read this blog before heard a lot about my views on free speech (and gun control, and the 4th Amendment), and I know I’ve got some pretty disparate opinions in my readership, but I’d like to know what my audience thinks on these things. Who are you, anyway?
What are the limits? Should we censor for the sake of decency, safety, some combination of the two, never? When should we turn the power of voice over?
I’m genuinely curious as to what you think. Leave a comment below, on the blog, or send me an email. If I get more than a few responses, I might do a post about it.
Looking forward to hearing from you.