Does Free Speech Exist?

The human capacity for self-deception is very great. Most men when polled think they are handsome devils, even the ugly ones. Is our pride in the freedom of speech in America based on anything?

In fact, speech has always been less free in this country than we would like to believe. There is a spectrum of what may be styled "permissible speech", and you may say anything you like within the spectrum. When De Tocqueville made his trip to this country, he had hardly set foot on land when he saw a newspaper headline styling President Jackson a "scoundrel", and he was suitably impressed both with the freedom and the nastiness of the expression. What De Tocqueville missed was that, in a two party state, insulting the President, if he is a member of the other party, is well within the permissible range of expression.

While this may make us out to be comparatively free, compared to other countries where a statement like this may lead to harassment or death, there have always been many more ideas that it was not considered permissible to express. Few people fifty years ago, or today, would feel comfortable saying that Joe Stalin would make a good President. You can safely express yourself by waving an American flag, but not by burning one. Most people would not publicly express desire for a member of the same sex, and many who support the legality of abortion no longer care to say so. A Senator who crusades to protect free speech on the Internet backed out of a promise to provide a foreword for my book on the subject because he was afraid he would be construed to be pro-pornography. People taking any kind of principled stand in the community are used to having others tell them privately that they agree but cannot be associated with their views. A curator at the Smithsonian lost his job this year because he dared to put together a show on Hiroshima that told both sides of the story (reporting that some people think the bomb should not have been dropped.) And the hapless Library of Congress has had to cancel a show on Freud, because of the number of threatening anti-Freudians who came out of the woodwork.

Why is this happening, in a country where the First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law....infringing the freedom of speech"? The First Amendment, even if applied broadly, only protects us against the government, but not our fellow citizen, who may have less respect for our rights even than politicians do.

Most Americans hate some form of speech or another, and wouldn't mind the government intervening to ban it. Communism, pornography, religion in the schools, secularism in the schools, Darwinism, creationism--we all have our bogeyman. If we think something is immoral, it is a natural next step to desire that the government get involved. Similarly, we will shun people who engage in the disfavored speech, and punish them by private means wherever possible.

Society is a web of relationships which work together to keep each of us average in the most banal sense of the word. Before expressing a strong opinion on anything, most of us carry out a practical inventory of possible results: how will the professor, the boss or some other authority figure react? What will the neighbors think? Will we still be accepted by our friends? Will we be thrown out of the PTA? Social obligations and needs, like financial debt, keep most of us from taking any risks. A college professor of mine once said, refusing to become incensed over President Nixon's behavior during Watergate, that it would take a lot more than that to prevent the milk from being delivered to his door each morning. Similarly, most of us feel that it would take a lot more than any given provocation to make it worth sticking our neck out.

One of the most important underpinnings of our Constitution is the idea that good speech will drive out bad, and that therefore the government need not. Your next door neighbor, indignantly reacting to your speech in the town council by making his own, is exercising the right to combat speech with speech when he calls you a Communist or homosexual, but the shame or fear that you feel may be almost as bad as if the government were threatening to intervene in your life. Yet few would disagree that your neighbor has exercised his right of free speech, just as you did yours.

Our fear to express any idea outside of an approved range does not raise a legal issue where there is no threat of government intervention. But it does raise a moral one. There appears to be a grievous difference between the rulebook and the game. The rulebook, the U.S. Constitution, says that we are a nation in which a free dialectic of issues will take place; with the most open and diverse discussion the people will have the widest range of choices and will choose truth. But the unwritten rules that may be deduced from the way the game is actually played say something very different: This is a nation of interests, not issues, and those positions which serve powerful interests may be expressed, while any others may not be. You can call President Jackson a scoundrel because you are advancing the interests of one of the powerful parties in this country. But you cannot oppose the draft, criticize U.S. entry into World War I, or call for the imposition of a Communist government because your highly disfavored speech opposes all of the powerful players in the American game.

While fighting speech with speech can never be legally wrong, it may of course be discourteous or even highly immoral. When I post a statement on The Right Side of the Web that the Republican "big tent" is a beautiful concept (representing room in the Republican party for a diversity of opinions) and get a reply that "big tents are for clowns", this is an example of a robust, First Amendment-protected debate. But someone has also just told me that diversity, and opposing speech, will not be tolerated; for desiring the "big tent", I will be doubly punished, first by ridicule, and later by being excluded from the party I sought to characterize as an "open system" in the first place.

This highly discourteous speech raises a fundamental question: with a rulebook which is so scrupulously open and fair, how did we become so mean-spirited and intolerant? As we approach the millenium, the quality of public discourse in this country is at a fifty-year low, with forms of hatred resurgent which had laid low so long one thought they no longer existed. In fact, this very meanness and intolerance is one way to distinguish whether any given debate is really a battle of ideas or of interests.

Most--not all--proponents of ideas imbibed a meta-meme along with the ideas they learned from parents or at school. This meta-meme--an idea about the management of ideas--encouraged respect even for those ideas with which you don't agree, and held that no-one is ever to be punished for an honest, if wrong, idea. However, most--not all--warriors of interest learned a different procedure: win by any means necessary, including indirection, misdirection, innuendo and lies. Idea warriors fight by Marquess of Queensbury rules, while interest warriors believe in winning by any means necessary. If at the end of the day, you are holding the votes, the land or the dollars, it does not matter how you got them. History is written by the winning ideas, say the idea warriors. The interest warriors reply that history is written by the victors.

Politicians are interest warriors. Last month, I analyzed Newt Gingrich's slashing attack on environmentalists. Another way to tell an idea debate from an interest debate is to see who is building a house, and who is knocking one down. Unless it is the product of a disordered mind, a meme--a structure of related ideas--has an internal structure, a logical consistency of its own. Like a house, every meme begins with a cornerstone, and piles other bricks on top of it in an orderly way. A speaker, like the Speaker of the House, who knocks the bricks out and pulls up the cornerstone but reveals no house of his own, is not an idea warrior. In the section from To Renew America which I analyzed, Mr. Gingrich claimed: to be an environmentalist and that the self-described environmentalists are radical left-wingers with a hidden agenda; there is nothing wrong with the environment; if there is anything wrong with it, nothing can be done; if anything can be done, it will be done by the "invisible hand" of the market. And so on. There is no house in the House.

Again, I distinguish between morality and law. They are not coextensive. The Speaker's slanders and innuendos are a vigorous example of the free speech protected by our Constitution. But they are grossly immoral. Where it gets serious is when people, like the Smithsonian curator, lose their jobs; here the original rulebook, the Constitution, seems futile and irrelevant. Where things become dangerous is when people are indicted, sent to jail and their lives ruined; here the rulebook is being torn up.

At times, I wonder--for the first time in twenty-five years--whether we are a nation. I am not a cultural relativist. I believe in the diversity portrayed in Star Trek, where a wide variety of races share a uniform and certain values while preserving their own attitudes and customs. In order to be a nation, we must hold some things in common. Even if we share nothing else, sharing the rulebook--the belief in free speech--would make us a nation. If we do not have even the belief in free speech in common, it is possible we share nothing. And then we are no more than a nation of interests and populations held subject to interests-- more a Bosnia than a United States of America.