Freedom of Speech

My latest Reporter editorial:

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I’m glad to see Michael Mentzer take a stand against the lies and venom that have come to dominate online forums—civil discussion is almost always an exercise in futility, and the only education you’ll receive is a crash course in human nature’s dark side.  It’s genuinely disheartening to discover what our neighbors are capable of with a digital secret identity.

However, I believe important distinctions must be made, and lines drawn, in how we respond.

The Fond du Lac Reporter absolutely has the right to insist its users attach full names to whatever they say on their forums, as well as to delete whatever comments and ban whichever users they think have crossed the line.  That’s not tyranny; it’s a private institution’s right to set the terms under which one may use its services.  Like the Trace Adkins song says: “Son, the First Amendment protects you from the government—not from me.”

But when government enters the picture, things change.  Mr. Mentzer expresses hope for new laws punishing “online users who lie with malice, falsify and distort information for their own ends, and intimidate with the intention of limiting or denying freedom of speech to others,” with violators “identified, tracked down, charged, fined or jailed.”

Libel is already punishable, if a demonstrably-false statement can be shown to have damaged the victim in some way.  But not all lies are created equal—in response to my last editorial, one of fdlreporter.com’s anonymous commenters accused me of plagiarism.  Prior to that, another cited “sources” to claim I’m “barely making it through community college.”  They’re bald-faced lies (just look up Hillsdale College sometime), but have I been damaged?  Of course not; I’m not about to lose sleep over some loser with an abundance of bandwidth and free time. (“Sources” tell me my fan is really Roman Polanski.  See how easy it is?)

The point is, a lie’s credibility matters to its potential impact—and anonymous, poorly-spelled claims made via communication technology tailor-made for the lazy just won’t cut it.  In the event that such attacks do manage to harm someone, I’m confident the proper authorities will be able to unmask the culprit.

As for “falsify[ing] and distort[ing] information for their own ends,” Mr. Mentzer has (sadly) just described much of American politics.  We have entire industries—publications, websites, advocacy groups—dedicated to spreading “the truth,” and rarely is there a consensus on what that truth is. So how could this possibly be enforced, without some government decree or administrative body established to conclude just what the “official” facts are on any given topic?  I cannot believe we would want to start down that road.

We encounter similar problems with intimidation.  Like libel, intimidation by threat of violence is already actionable, and short of that, clamping down on “intimidating” speech—and giving Uncle Sam the leeway to decide what’s “intimidating”—is another scary road that would create more problems than it would solve.

The federal and state Constitutions grant the people broad freedom of speech because our forefathers knew free and open communication was an essential bulwark against tyranny.  Whenever people are given freedom, some will abuse it, but as they say, bad speech is best countered by good speech, not government force.

Treat with caution any temptation to “fix” liberty’s imperfections, for as history shows, such endeavors always bring about more than we bargain for.  For all the beauty and wisdom our First Amendment has made possible throughout history, the occasional blemish is a price I’ll gladly pay.

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