The power and politics of free speech in our society
There are a number of rights that Americans hold dear. They include the right to assemble, the right to practice the religion of ones choice and the right to bear arms. Another, and my favorite is the right to free speech.
Now that shouldn't be surprising since I am a journalist. I, of course, am concerned when I see anyones right to free speech stifled. It doesn't matter whether it is someone I agree with or not.
The Rush Limbaugh incident on ESPN this past couple of weeks has had to make everyone think. The fact he was fired (resigned?) because of his comments about Donovan McNabb is just part of the territory for someone in his line of business. I am no big fan of his, considering my political leanings are somewhat left of his beliefs, and I hate racism in any form. Nonetheless it appears to me that ESPN hired him to do what he was actually fired for. However, in the scheme of things, this case of free speech being stiffled is a minor one, largely because within the world of journalism, broadcast news, and entertainment, he who holds the format that a message is being broadcast on is the one who can determine what that meaning will be. Those that control the purse strings in this business have that right because they are the ones taking the chances and laying out the money to put a message out there.
Personally, I get little flak from anyone here at the paper or in our company about how to run the opinion page. We have some rules and they just make sense. No personal attacks and no family quarrels. No liable, certainly. This paper does not have deep enough pockets or the money to keep a lawyer on retainer to fight all comers who may not like what we print. So I am careful, for the papers sake.
What I am more concerned about in the world of free speech, is when an individual is stopped from commenting about an issue because of where they work or what they do.
Years ago when I worked as an adminstrator for Granite School District there was a teachers strike and the classified personnel in the district went out in support of the educators for a couple of days. During the two days picket lines were set up in front of the district office, very few administrators went to work. I, along with a handful of others in management snuck through a back door of the office so we could get some work done during the time the schools were closed. The office was set up so that any incoming calls would be routed into my office, because that is just where calls came when the main switchboard was closed.
As I did my work that first day, the phone rang and it was a reporter from the Salt Lake Tribune wanting to know if I could comment on the walkout. He had first asked for six other people who worked there, none of whom were present, before he asked me the question. I knew better. Comments on something such as labor strife in the district had to come from the districts communications officer. I had my opinions, but I kept them to myself. It was not my job to comment on something I didn't know very much about.
Was my free speech taken away? I didn't see it that way because first of all I wasn't qualified to answer knowledgeably and second I was a paid employee sitting in the district office at the time.
I recently ran into the spouse of a local government employee who had some pretty strong opinions about what goes on in that agency. The person voiced those opinions to me and asked me to see if I could write something about it. I told that person to send a letter to the editor.
"I wouldn't dare," they said. "My spouse works there and would face retribution."
Regardless of whether the fears this person had are realistic or imaginary, their free speech was stifled. They couldn't express an opinion in a public forum about how a government operation runs or it's problems, because of the pressure they felt for their family.
This feeling of not speaking out about problems in government because of fear of retribution is found at every level, from the federal offices down to the tiniest of municipalities. Sometimes the pressure is obvious, other times it is subtle.
There are few positions within government agencies that are not susceptible to such pressures. Supreme Court and federal judges come to mind, as well as tenured professors at colleges. But remember it is only the tenured ones; others in a system can be gone in a minute if they say something about someone or something that could affect the institution in some way.
Usually when someone says something that strikes a nerve, it has affected either politics, power or money. Actually, I don't know why I am separating them, they are all one and the same most of the time.
Often those threats, direct or indirect, come from the seemingly most innocuous sources, the ones that smile all the time and offer a glad hand to everyone. They are the ones that stand up and say they are for the people and the little guy. They are the ones that say they are open to comments because debate over issues only makes their organization stronger. They say these things, but they don't mean them. They have hidden agendas.
I am pragmatic enough to realize we will never eliminate this problem, yet when I hear of pressures being applied to people who are passionate about an issue and because they made a comment about it, I get infuriated just the same.
When it happens I want to look into it, because somewhere, someone has something to hide. And when we take away one persons right to express themselves for anothers gain, regardless of the subject, we diminish everyones right to free speech.