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Andy Pattantyus: Freedom of speech is not for free

Right Here, Right Now

Posted: December 3, 2009 8:35 p.m.
Updated: December 4, 2009 4:55 a.m.
The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

To guarantee an open public arena for a vigorous competition of political ideas, freedom of speech is the First Amendment. This is the very foundation of liberty.

Freedom of speech has a price. There is the monetary cost of getting the word out, and the personal cost of “going public” with a point of view.

Historically, influencing public opinion to any meaningful extent has always required a costly campaign. Big money is needed for organizing, lobbying, producing and airing national advertisement campaigns and arguing Supreme Court cases.

For a long time, for every mass media channel (print, radio and TV) distributing information was expensive, and was thus available only to those individuals or groups with means.

Battles for public opinion have been fought for centuries. Until recently, only the wealthy could afford to affect the outcome.

The Internet changed the financial equation. Today, distributing information to a large number of people costs very little. The resulting avalanche of information exceeds the capacity of most persons and companies to process efficiently.

To rise above the clutter, content must be really good. Viral videos and jokes rapidly permeate the Internet because each recipient thinks it is good enough to forward to friends and family. Such content must be well-crafted and thus takes more effort (costs more) to generate than casual content.

For example, compare a good opinion column with the typical Tweet or text message between two friends. It takes time, research and fact-checking to write a solid article or prepare a speech. Still, in the Internet era, creating really good content is well within the means of a single individual.

The First Amendment gives each of us the right to say and write what we believe within some legal constraints, but this freedom of speech bears the personal cost of going public.

Anybody who writes or says anything in any public forum is just as likely to be vilified as to be hailed. It takes courage and the willingness to be challenged by those with different views. Words that are published or spoken can never be retracted.

Platforms of politicians are challenged today by their own term papers and theses written decades ago. If you say it or write it, 50 years from now, somebody will still be able to look it up. Knowing this, many people don’t speak out publicly or write letters to the editor.

Why risk writing or speaking? Words and ideas are very powerful, shaping minds and opinions, and inciting actions and inactions.

“The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Over the millennia, the first act of the conquerors was to burn the libraries of the vanquished. The “really important things” are literally carved in stone and cast in bronze and buried, all at great cost. Centuries later, we know only what was really important to the rulers and the wealthy.

Since the founding of our nation, it has always been a constant contest of ideas, battling for the hearts and minds of our citizens.

Each side wants to impose constraints on the other, with an unfortunate readiness to sacrifice the First Amendment on the altar of expediency in the process.

To be self-evident, the First Amendment is worded very plainly and tersely. No Supreme Court rulings modified freedom of speech until 1917, about 125 years after the Bill of Rights was passed.

Since then, the USA has been on a long, slippery slope of Supreme Court rulings and congressional acts that have incrementally eroded our freedom of speech.

Since 1971, Supreme Court rulings on political speech impose restrictions on campaign contributions, campaign spending, air time and political books and films. Such legal constraints affect the outcome of elections, counter to the original intent of the First Amendment.

Freedom of speech has been restricted without eliminating mischief, because the mischief is disguised as legislation and court rulings.

Only many individuals, all willing to write and speak publicly, can slow down the erosion of our freedom of speech.

Why must we protect free speech? James Madison said: “Oppressors can tyrannize only when they achieve a standing army, an enslaved press and a disarmed populace.”

Andy Pattantyus lives and works in Santa Clarita and is the president of Strategic Modularity, Inc. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Right Here, Right Now” appears Fridays in The Signal and rotates among local Republicans.


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