Free Speech Isn’t Just for People That Don’t Tick You Off
Today’s CNN Poll demonstrating that 45% of respondents don’t value the First Amendment.
It never ceases to amaze me how selective some people can be when they talk about free speech. For some, it means that it’s acceptable to stand on a street corner telling people they’re going to hell for consuming alcohol, but not acceptable to protest outside a government building that the wealthy have too much influence. For others it may mean that it’s fine to camp as a form of protest in public parks and deprive others the use of that land, but not okay to protest to express your religious views on abortion. The latest target of the anti-free speech crowd (a label I have given them for the sake of argument) is Rush Limbaugh. As anyone with a TV, radio, newspaper, or computer knows, Limbaugh has taken a lot of heat and lost a lot of advertisers for referring to women like Sandra Fluke a “slut” or “prostitute” because in his opinion, demanding that insurers or employers pay for contraception amounts to being paid for sex. Now don’t get me wrong, Rush Limbaugh is not a classy guy. If I were to use a list of words to describe him, tasteful, logical, and appropriate wouldn’t appear anywhere on the list. But that’s not the point is it? The point is he called, whether directly or indirectly, this woman a “slut”, and now some liberals and feminists are calling for his head. Gloria Allred, another well known public figure with a penchant for drama, has called for legal action against Rush. I have no doubt that she’d love to be selected for that lawsuit. Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem want the FCC to take action against Rush. CNN’s homepage had a poll today asking if Rush Limbaugh should be kicked off the air, and so far over 40,000 people have voted “Yes”. Let me say that I think, in no uncertain terms, all of these people are wrong.
These people, some of which are well known for their own inflammatory remarks, seem to have lost their understanding of what free speech means. What Rush said was not hate speech. It may be hateful speech, it may be offensive speech, but it in no way posed an immediate threat to Ms. Fluke through instigating violent action or hate crimes, which is what hate speech is typically defined as in the United States. If Ms. Fluke wished to pursue it as a slander case that may be possible depending on the state laws involved, but federally speaking, what Rush said was legal and well within the protection of the first amendment. Even the ACLU, an organization I don’t often love, has specific articles relating to instances of offensive speech and why we must protect the rights of those saying these things. In fact, here’s a quote from that article I find particularly applicable: “How much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most. Speech that deeply offends our morality or is hostile to our way of life warrants the same constitutional protection as other speech because the right of free speech is indivisible: When one of us is denied this right, all of us are denied." You may hate what he says, and you may hate this comment of his specifically, but if you value our Constitution and your own right to free speech, you are obligated to protect his right to say it.
It is simply stunning to me that so many fringe elements of our political system want to be able to say or do whatever they want under the label “free speech” but the second someone offends them, they demand legal actions, regulations, or the removal of that person from their position. To all of you I say this: Free speech is not just for people that agree with you or you simply don’t care about. Free speech ensures that you are going to hear people say things you find offensive and distasteful from time to time, just as they may find your speech offensive and distasteful. What protects your rights protects all our rights. The way to beat Rush Limbaugh and those like him (don’t kid yourself, they exist on both sides of the political spectrum) isn’t to try to infringe on the rights of all Americans, but rather to speak out yourself. Use your right to free speech and tell people why you think he’s wrong. Tell people why they shouldn’t listen to him. Just don’t tell the government that he shouldn’t be allowed to say it and then get mad when they turn around and take your rights away too.
Tobacco Companies Have Rights Too
Federal Judge Richard Leon got it right. The new proposed labeling on cigarette packages, which were passed in 2009 and required more aggressive wording and half-pack sized graphic images of the various diseases and related effects smoking cigarettes can have, simply go too far and are well beyond what the government should have the right to impose on a private company and their product. You can read the CNN article here. How far did these new mandates go? I’ve included a few of the images that were to be placed on packages below. Please note these images may be considered graphic.
Those are just a few of the images the government was going to force tobacco companies to put on their product. Don’t get me wrong. Smoking is bad for you in all kinds of ways. You shouldn’t smoke, and smoking costs our healthcare programs and insurance companies billions each year in avoidable medical expenses. However, the government shouldn’t be able to force a private company to put graphic images, obviously designed to cause an emotional response and have a negative effect on the sales of a product, on their goods. Tobacco products already have labels warning you that they are addictive and can cause cancer. It’s also pretty safe to assume that anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock for the past 15 years is well aware that cigarettes are bad for you, addictive, and can shorten your life.People that are still smoking or start smoking are aware it’s bad for them. HHS may try to paint these warning labels as an education campaign or an attempt to communicate the side effects of the product, but it’s pretty obvious it goes well beyond that.
Think about this rationally for a moment. There are all kinds of products that are legal to sell that can have very negative effects. Take alcohol, for example. Does your beer or bottle of whiskey have a half-label picture on it showing a cirrhotic liver, a child affected by fetal alcohol syndrome, or a grisly fatal wreck caused by a drunk driver? Or you could consider those delicious snack cakes you find in the bread aisle. Do their labels have a half-box image of an obese person in a hospital bed? Or a person with an amputated foot due to complications from diabetes? The list goes on and on.
Yes, people need to be healthier (in so many ways). Yes, stopping smoking or not starting smoking in the first place is a smart decision and is in the best interests of a person’s health and the overall healthcare system. But are we ready to let the government force private companies to place grisly images of health problems (or dead bodies) on their products to try and achieve that goal? Judge Leon said no. In his decision, he said “Congress did not consider the First Amendment implications of this legislation” and “the graphic images here were neither designed to protect the consumer from confusion or deception, nor to increase consumer awareness of smoking risks”. He said that the legislation goes too far because it forces a company pay to place a message and image it has no say or control over on their product and advertisements for their products, (reducing the space to place their own logos/advertising/etc. as well) and therefore makes the company promote a message (or image) from the government against their will. He therefore decided that the legislation was in contradiction to the right to free speech, and I think he’s right. If the government wants these images and statements out in the public as part of its anti-smoking campaign, it should buy billboard space and ad space on CNN, etc. to achieve that goal. It doesn’t have the right to force any company, making any legal product, to pay to place a graphic image or negative message on their products and I wish the government would brush up on the Constitution before it passes more invasive laws and regulations expanding the government’s power over private businesses.
As always, your comments, questions, and rants are welcome.