A CNN poll this past week revealed that 40 percent of Americans are willing to trade some of their civil rights for “protection” against terrorism. By contrast, in the early days of these United States, our founding fathers were a courageous and not easily intimidated bunch. Questioning the Crown’s authority, talking of freedom and independence—these simple things were offenses punishable by death. The men who actually signed the Declaration of Independence knew they were likely signing their own death warrants. Their desire for freedom from British tyranny ran so strong that it didn’t matter.
After the “colonials” were victorious in the Revolution, when it came time to set up a new government on the American continent, they knew that the freedoms they had just won must be protected by the highest law in the land. That’s why the First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech….” They wanted to ensure that future generations would always be able to speak their minds and question their leaders without fear of retribution. There is, however, a vast difference between freedom of speech and free speech.
The content of what a person says or writes is consequential; the message and the messenger are not separable. Even though Congress can’t make laws abridging the freedom of speech, they can set other limits on “speech” that may be inaccurate or deliberately misleading. This is why laws against slander and libel exist. These types of deliberate defamation have consequences to the originator and spreaders of the false and damaging statements.
Here in our new digital age (as well as certain print outlets), there have arisen opportunities for the messenger to hide behind the curtain of anonymity. “Gosh,” the anonymous messenger must be thinking, “I can just send my message to this column or online blog, and say anything I want about anyone with absolutely no fear of any consequences!” This isn’t freedom of speech—this is abject cowardice, pure and simple.
The unwillingness of someone to stand behind his or her own statements isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s just easier to do these days. Publishing an anonymous defamatory message is as simple as pressing the return key and sending it to the World Wide Innuendo Web, or the few print media outlets that accept them. The publishers of these various media types should be cautious, however: it’s no defense for the media outlet that published the libelous statement to claim that it didn’t originate the statement.
Unfortunately, this entire argument is likely to be lost on the people who care more about what’s on Oprah or Judge Judy than actually studying the issues and voting in an election. At points in our nation’s past, people actually cared about things like the freedoms our founders framed in the Constitution. Our legislators and executive branch members in Washington have used our fear to erode many of these rights over the past decade. As Benjamin Franklin said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
There is a significant historical precedent for what’s happening in our country today. In the late first or early second century, the Roman poet Juvenal wrote, “Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions, everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.” Juvenal bemoaned a civilization that stopped caring about the important things, a nation that would trade freedom for entertainment.
Perhaps it’s time that we as a city, county, state, and nation wake up and start caring about the important things again. Let’s remind ourselves that the freedoms we enjoy weren’t free. Let’s think about the consequences of our words and understand the difference between freedom of speech and free speech. Let’s get involved, work together on the things that matter, stop hating each other with sound bites and anonymous blogs, and make our world a better place.