A Word About Freedom

In days of yore here at Redstate, we often explored the philosophical underpinnings of conservatism, sometimes without any grounding in practical politics.  We are more or less over that now, thankfully.  But longtime Redstater Amy Miller asked me to explore what we mean when we demand free speech and free press. They are one and the same. Further, we should recognize the identical rights of amateur bloggers and professional journalists.

Before we get into the heart of the matter, though, let’s dispense with a red herring. In every form of expression there are exceptions and limits to absolute freedom. Just as we do not allow people to shout something false in a crowded building that would likely cause a panic, we don’t allow someone to hold up a sign saying the same thing. More importantly, for every form of expression there will be reasonable limits placed upon the content of the expression based on the particular attributes of its medium.

So just as inappropriate speech is restricted to avoid a riot or panic, inappropriate content on a blog or web content can in theory (if not in practice) be restricted, as well.

But the nature of Internet posting is that it is less likely to cause a public panic or offend the viewer than is public speech or broadcast content. Internet users must choose to access its content, and cannot receive it passively.

Ah, someone has a hand up at the back. What if there is someone playing a web video in public on a large screen, so passers by are exposed to it?

The answer, of course, is that the content being played in public could be stored anywhere. And when it is being played it is not, in any real sense, “on the Internet”, but in public. The fact that the content is being in distributed in public makes it a fundamentally different form of expression than something which Internet users must seek out. Even so, we protect the public expression of ideas, and so we must protect the public storage of those ideas on the Internet at least as much, or they will never be expressed.

With that foreground, let’s get to it. The point of the First Amendment is to protect the free expression of ideas, whatever form that expression takes.

  • I can read aloud something someone wrote. Should I be less free to read aloud what they wrote than they were to print it?
  • I can transcribe something someone said. Should I be any less free to transcribe and then quote in print what they said than they were to say it?
  • Since I am no less free to do one or the other, I must be as free to do both.

A similar argument holds for any form of expression, whether it is an Internet blog post or writing stamped in cuneiform tablets. If a person is free to perform the physical act of expression, whether it be skywriting or oral speech, then the content of that expression should not be infringed, subject to the usual caveats.

Speech and press, therefor, should be just as free.

As the Missouri Constitution says,

That no law shall be passed impairing the freedom of speech, no matter by what means communicated: that every person shall be free to say, write or publish, or otherwise communicate whatever he will on any subject, being responsible for all abuses of that liberty; …

Another question concerns the difference between amateur bloggers and professional journalists, and sometimes comes up in discussion of reporter shield laws. Should someone who writes professionally be more free than someone who doesn’t?

That is really two questions: 1) are bloggers and print or broadcast journalists the same, and 2) should amateurs and professionals have the same rights?

As for the first question, we have already noted that traduction from one form of expression to another does not or ought not change how the content is protected, subject to the usual caveats. In particular many or most newspapers now have online versions, some of which feature amateur bloggers. Clearly, whether the content appears in print or online ought not matter.

As for whether amateurs should be covered by shield laws, the question really boils down to the definition of “professional”.

What if a journalist, such as an intern, only makes minimum wage? Clearly if the intern says something controversial or latches on to a source desiring anonymity, they have as much right to protection as someone making more than minimum wage.

Similarly, what if the journalist owns a small publishing business, and makes $100/week? What if they make $1/day, or a penny a year, or lose money one year, as has happened to many newspapers? Obviously the amount of money earned ought not matter.

Not to beat a dead horse, but what if all a journalist receives in compensation is a promise of repayment? What indeed if the only recompense is intangible, like the accolades of a grateful nation for the brilliant refudiation of her ideological opponents, delivered from Facebook?

It seems obvious, then, that amateurs deserve the same legal protection as professionals, if such a distinction can even be made.

A major purpose of a free press is to check the power of government. Restricting that freedom or the protection of our laws to those who are paid would have a chilling effect on free expression, limiting whistleblower activity to those who can profit from spreading the word about it, rather than to the press pool of all citizens.

OK, then, enough belly-gazing. Let’s get back to rousing the nation to throw out the Marxists.