Thought of the Day “When Speech Is Not Free”

By  Sydney M. Williams Free speech is fundamental to ensuring […]

By  Sydney M. Williams

Image by © Dreamstime

Image by © Dreamstime

Free speech is fundamental to ensuring that any country remains free. Trifling with it should not be taken lightly. Three recent events in the U.S. remind us of its value. One was the Prophet Muhammad Art Exhibition and Contest in Garland, Texas. That incident created a debate between “free” speech and “hate” speech. Another was the PEN (poets, essayists and novelists) award to Charlie Hebdo, which was boycotted by some prominent writers who claimed the magazine is “racist.” The third, and scariest, was the assertion by Hillary Clinton and others that the Constitution may have to be amended; so that Congress in its wisdom can determine what is appropriate and what is not in regard to political speech during Presidential campaigns.

The example that is always used to define the limits of free speech is the crying of “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. It is malicious and is intended to scare and harm those that are there. But words that are distasteful to some, or even to most, are protected. When Chris Ofili displayed his elephant dung-covered Madonna at the Brooklyn Museum in 1996, it was described by then Mayor Giuliano as “sick,” an assessment with which I agreed. But when he tried to have the City of New York withhold a $7 million grant, the museum sued on the grounds that the mayor’s action was an infringement of its First Amendment rights. The museum, rightly, won.

The exhibition in Texas was in poor taste. The New York Times alleged in an editorial, that it was “an exercise in bigotry and hatred,” thus should be banned. In my opinion, it qualified as protected speech; despite the anguish it may have caused millions of Muslims. The Times did not seem overly concerned about the effect a manure-covered Madonna would have on millions of Christians, nor did they see anything hypocritical in using the words “hatred”, “bigotry” and “blatantly Islamophobic” to describe Pamela Geller, the woman who put the exhibit together. While the exhibit was in bad taste, probably reflected bigotry and I would not have attended, it certainly should be considered free speech. It surely did not warrant the attempt by Islamists to kill exhibitioners and attendees.

The Charlie Hebdo situation is a reminder that freedom comes with a price. There are those who, in the name of political correctness (or fear), would take it away. In terms of speech, it is not prejudice on the part of the few that should concern us; it is when society willingly accepts limits to expression. We saw that happen in colleges and universities when Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice were denied opportunities to speak last year. As a conservative, I welcome a diversity of ideas. I only wish my friends on the Left felt the same way. The decision by those like Peter Carey, Francine Prose, Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Ondaatje to boycott the ceremony at the PEN awards was reminiscent, as Amanda Foreman reminded us in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, of the Congress of Dubrovnik in 1933 when a small group of authors refused to take a stand against book-burning Nazis.

When Hillary Clinton (who says she will need $2.5 billion for her Presidential run!) asserts there is too much money in politics, she is, from my perspective, preaching to the choir. But when her answer is that the Constitution may have to be amended, so that Congress can determine what speech is appropriate and what is not, she claims hers is merely an attempt to curtail campaign spending. But, in truth, her proposal is a step down a steep, dangerous and slippery slope.

The scapegoats that prompted Hillary’s illiberal recommendation were the Citizens United decision and the Koch Brothers who have become the alleged evil stepmothers to the Left’s self-anointed Cinderella. Their names have become synonymous with money in politics, despite the fact that the recipients of the largest amounts of money, in recent years, have been Democrats. Money flows where it can get the best return; thus money from public sector unions – the largest source of money for either Party – consistently ends up in the laps of Democrats. Warren Buffett argues against the Keystone XL Pipeline, not because he has environmental concerns, but because its construction would hurt Burlington Northern. Wall Street is apolitical. They give to whomever they feel is likely to win. There are others, like George Soros and Tom Steyer, who for policy reasons give millions to Democrats. The Koch Brothers, similarly, give to Republicans. They give because the policies and values of the recipients accord with their own beliefs. That is, and always has been, the American way.

It is natural for people in politics to desire power. It was that understanding of human nature that caused the founding fathers to include checks and balances on government. The government we have today is far different from that envisioned two hundred and twenty-five years ago. Because we live in a different era, changes are to be expected. But the power and reach of government today should concern us. In 2013, the Code of Federal Regulations numbered over 175,000 pages. More than half of all Americans are, in some way, dependent on government for at least part of their livelihood. Seventy percent of the federal budget involves payments to individuals, versus fifteen percent in 1950. We have, in short, become dependent on the beneficence of government. Increased dependency and less self-reliance do not bode well for a society that wants to remain free. What tyrants fear are ideas contrary to theirs. Anything government does to diminish the ease and frequency with which ideas flow should make a freedom-loving people fearful. Snuffing out the candle that lights the darkness is not the way to a freer and fairer society.

Congress should require full disclosure of every person and organization contributing to every campaign, directly or through a PAC, along with the amount given. Anybody who makes a contribution that lends support, either urging the adoption of specific policies or helping a candidate, should do so knowing that their name and affiliation will be in the public domain. Disclosure may or may not inhibit contributions, but transparency should be welcomed by all who live and participate in a free society. “Open the books,” as OpenTheBooks.com would say!

It was limiting free speech that first characterized Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union. It is true in all tyrannical-run countries, like Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Somalia and China. When government leaders advocate limiting speech, the consequence is tyranny.

The Opinions expressed above are mine alone, and do not represent those of the firm Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co., Inc., or of any of its partners or employees.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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