Sunday, February 13, 2005

"Congress shall make no law..."

...respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

That's the text of the Amendment I to the Constitution of the United States. I've seen a couple of distrubing pieces of news in the last week on the state of the First Amendment. The first is a study on the opinions high school students had on free speech. The second is a TCS piece by Ryan Sager on the future of campaign finance reform. Both scare me.

One in three U.S. high school students say the press ought to be more restricted, and even more say the government should approve newspaper stories before readers see them, according to a survey being released today.

The survey of 112,003 students finds that 36% believe newspapers should get "government approval" of stories before publishing; 51% say they should be able to publish freely; 13% have no opinion.

Asked whether the press enjoys "too much freedom," not enough or about the right amount, 32% say "too much," and 37% say it has the right amount. Ten percent say it has too little.
In the age of McCain-Feingold, embedded reporters, and wardrobe malfunctions it's not surprising to see something like this. These kids see a huge disconnect between the words of the First Amendment and the actions going on around them.

Come to think of it, the disconnect often happens on the very same campus. Students hear about the right to free speech that they have, and then they find their own speech restricted. When it comes to things such as speech codes and free-speech zones, do you think that the rhetoric and teaching of the First Amendment overcomes the underlying message that speech is a thing best approved? I certainly don't. Mind you, this is only the cognitive dissonance for most students on campus. Then, they take the already battered message about free speech and see McCain-Feingold-ed campaign ads that conclude with "I'm Bugs Bunny and I approved this message." How do you think the message that we have the right to free speech comes out? Yeah, that's what I thought.

What students should instead be learning is that the remedy to offensive speech is more speech. If I don't like what someone says, I'm going to pipe up about it. Hopefully, the speaker and I will get into a debate (or an argument) and I can use the strengths of my arguments to convince the speaker, or anyone within earshot, that I've got the better view.

The problem with this process, especially when it gets to the media, is that it's messy. Very messy, in fact. In the end, the truth emerges from the mess, having prevailed in numerous debates and arguments and shouting matches against ideas coming from people ranging from experts to tinfoil-hat-clad nutjobs. Very rarely in the process is the truth there from the outset. More often than not, various people will have various bits of the truth that have yet to come together. When their ideas come out, those various nuggets of the truth work their way through argument after argument, and mind after mind. Then various people will start getting multiple pieces of the puzzle and putting them together, and those larger chunks will work their way through the same process. Then at one point, people will start to get all the pieces of the puzzle and put them together. The process is complete, and we get the truth. Along the way, we've also gotten a lot of material which was not true. Along the way, we didn't quite know what to believe. It's not clean and easy, nor will it become so with stricter controls.

In addition to students, legislators should be learning this as well.
"It was an unintended consequence of McCain-Feingold. Instead of going to the parties, rich people are putting money into these 527s in the dark of night," Lott told the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss.
As my mom is fond of saying, "It's my money and I'll spend it any way I want." The same thing goes on this one... If this is a free country and money is necessary to disseminate speech, do we not have the right to use our money to support our speech in any way we see fit? Should we not be forced to send our political message through a political party for it to be heard?

Like I said in a previous post, the political parties already act to filter who we can elect. Why then should they act as a filter to our speech about their candidates? Corruption, of course!

"Surely we cannot have people whose intentions, qualifications, and affiliations aren't known speaking out on a political race. Why, that means a mobster or environmentalist or libertarian might have his voice heard! It would be messy, and our elections should be neat, civil affairs."

Let the mobsters and environmentalists and libertarians and tinfoil nutjobs and university professors and CEOs have their voice heard! Let the process be messy! (And don't call me Surely, dammit!)

Let the media run free with the nuggests of truth and the lies and the misinformation, and let that messy process by which we find the truth play out. If our speech in politics is filtered through the parties for the sake of neatness, we will never know the truth about anything and the First Amendment will be relegated to civics class as a vestige of history.

TOPIC: Education
TOPIC: Politics