BY EDWIN E. VINEYARD
“Hate speech” has been prohibited on many college campuses across the country. Such censorship is roundly criticized by conservatives, most of whom already see universities as hotbeds of liberalism. Conservatives tend to have a general mistrust of intellectualism – as per Spiro Agnew’s attack on “effete” intellectuals as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
But free speech is indeed a precious right. Great caution should be exercised in regulating this right, and by the judiciary in permitting such regulation. However, it is acknowledged that there must be some regulation at times. That limitation has generally been referred to as “yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded auditorium.”
To most the use of insulting nicknames and derogatory language against minorities [racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual preference] is offensive. To some, however, such language may be inflammatory and provocative. In some situations, that is the equivalent of yelling “fire.”
However, universities also justify the limitation on grounds of an educational goal of promoting acceptance of diversity among people. Also, they foster the habit of non-violent, hate-free, civil discourse on issues and differences. Hate speech conflicts with these goals.
Courts have tended to be cautionary, but not totally prohibitive of such regulation. Would they could do something with the Internet, placards, pulpits, and “tea parties.”
FREEDOM TO LIE
Does free speech include the freedom to lie? It is apparent from experience that it does.
Individual, private citizens have some protection from lies by libel laws. However, these are limited in their coverage. In order to prove libel, one must prove the falsehood first. Then, one must prove that he/she has been harmed by acts of initiation and circulation of that falsehood.
That same principle generally applies to both lying by other citizens and in the media. Because most mainstream media are ethical in trying to report truth, most of their offenses are handled peacefully by retractions. Ethical media seek to do no harm, and most will quickly correct inadvertent errors. Not so for some scandal publications or partisan political cable channels.
Under certain conditions almost free rein is given to slander and libel. One of these is as applied to “public figures,” particularly government office holders and politicians. Running for office or holding office exposes one to all kinds of lies and unfair criticism, even about personal matters. Some college presidents and school superintendents have been surprised to find themselves included as “public figures,” thus allowing not only critical but dirty speech about them.
Ordinarily, truth is irrelevant, although some celebrities have sued scandal magazines successfully for personal slander. Clear speculation is rarely suppressed in any medium. Selective excerpting from information without context is practiced by all media, primarily due to time and space constraints, but public figures may be made to look worse by such.
Truth is no requirement in political speech. Liars may attack candidates with false accusations and false labels. Records are misrepresented. Candidates themselves are not obligated to abide by the truth when speaking of one another. Their followers are as free as the wind.
Associations or groups with high sounding, patriotic names may pillory a candidate’s or office holder’s personal character, fabricate false personal stories, and generally prevaricate and rail against him or her with legal impunity. Having no limitations of ethical newspapers that sometimes screen their ads, these liars take to the airwaves of money grabbing TV stations and cable networks.
These “issue advocacy” groups, from which we have seen and heard much, do not have to reveal their financiers or their controllers by name. So their lies are anonymous, but they cost big money. These groups are not to be aligned a candidate’s official campaign or political party, and therefore the candidate and the party claim no responsibility when their lies are revealed.
There is currently a move to “free” political speech from the campaign laws designed to keep candidates and parties from taking unlimited donations and doing freewheel spending and buying of elections by overwhelming advertising and related campaign activities. This would free corporations, as well as millionaire donors, to have all the “free speech” their money will buy, as they claim to be entitled in their lawsuits. Money corrupts politics.
Past Supreme Court decisions have upheld limitations placed by Congress, but it remains to see how the current court will rule on this issue. Of course, as many have suggested, the best remedy for the corruption by money is to prohibit it altogether in favor of public financing of election campaigns.
The Internet has introduced a new dimension for false speech and distortions of truth. All with e-mail have fallen victims to the viciously false political material that is circulated as factual. Another one came this week with a picture, accusing President Obama of not saluting, claiming it was the national anthem on Veterans’ Day. It turns out that it was Memorial Day, the tune being played was “Hail to the Chief,” and others were saluting in his honor. People actually believe this propaganda, and they send it along.
Political advertising has become terribly offensive to a lot of us. It is so wild, so far out, and so repetitious of attack words – preying upon the ignorant. There is no requirement for truth in any of it, and consequently much of it lacks truth. We need to find a remedy for this. Maybe some screening process like the Good Housekeeping Seal by some jointly formed non-partisan group would help, if it became known that ads not having such approval were likely irresponsible.
Until another occasion …
– Dr. Edwin E. Vineyard, AKA The Militant Moderate, lives in Enid, OK and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer