How Free Is Speech?

 Posted by on 21 November 2008 at 12:12 am  Free Speech
Nov 212008

William E. Perry recently sent me (and some other friends) the following thoughtful commentary on the state of free speech in America. I am posting it here with his permission:

Paul Hsieh’s NoodleFood post Leaving the Country? Pay the Price! about the exit tax contained in the HEART bill has given me serious concerns. It is another measure removing freedoms that was attached to a complex bill with a deceptive name. It is reminiscent of the internet gaming restrictions attached to the safe ports act.

Ayn Rand said that we should continue to fight and attempt to influence events as long as free speech remains. Lately I’ve been questioning whether we really have free speech in this country.

When the CEO of a major bank is afraid to speak out publicly even though he was forced to sign over part of his company to the government for a bailout that they didn’t need, I question whether we really have free speech. That was the case recently with the CEO of Wells Fargo. After the meeting detailed in the linked article, Wells Fargo has made statements about the use of the bailout money, but no statement about why they accepted it, or the pressure that was put on them.

We have speech codes in colleges, although FIRE fights very hard to limit the worst effects of them.

We have limitations on advertisements during elections due to McCain-Feingold. We have state level restrictions on political speech as well. Unrestricted political speech is necessary for a free country.

There is a strong movement toward reinstating the “fairness” doctrine, which is a further limitation on speech.

On the other hand we do have free speech in some contexts. Yaron Brook and the other ARI intellectuals are not stopped from making their statements in media venues. The people on the OActivists list are not stopped from writing Letters to the Editor and op-eds — and many of them are published.

Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine (FIRM) and the Coalition for Secular Government (CSG) have had major successes thanks to the hard and smart work of Lin Zinser, Paul Hsieh, Diana Hsieh, Ari Armstrong, Gina Liggett and others.

So I think that we have free speech to some extent, but it is not a fully robust freedom of speech. At what point do we decide that we don’t have freedom of speech to the extent that it is safe to speak?

I’m not advocating leaving the country (to go where?); I’m not advocating setting up some kind of Galt’s Gulch. I’ve even been considering starting a group to deal with a looming issue that is very important to me, and doing advocacy about it with FIRM and the Coalition for Secular Government as models.

Rand famously said, “It’s earlier than you think,” when asked about some types of advocacy. That has become an overused cliche in some circles. But now I wonder whether it is later than we think.

Here’s my reply to him, somewhat edited:

I think that your concerns about free speech are very real — particularly having dealt with some of Colorado’s campaign finance laws these past few months. The federal and state governments won’t outright ban speech anytime soon, as is happening in Europe and Canada. However, they are increasingly regulating it with campaign finance laws and the like. These laws are so burdensome that most people would rather shut up than attempt to comply with them — and risk legal action if they do so wrongly.

More generally, my thought from the first serious talk of the financial bailout has been that perhaps we have less than the 20 years that Yaron Brook speculated at OCON to turn around the culture. That’s a very scary thought. Unless more Objectivists ramp up their advocacy efforts, we might go down in flames just as we’re gaining a real foothold.

Personally, my plan is to (1) finish my dissertation and then (2) speak in every forum open to me, full-time. I do plan to actively fight for free speech, because like you, I think it’s in very serious danger.

I will have more to say about the burdens of campaign finance laws — including my own experiences with them — in future posts.

Basically though, I would say that:

  1. It’s earlier than some might think — meaning that it’s too early for direct political action like running decent political candidates.

  2. It’s later than some might think — meaning that we have very little time to enact the necessary philosophical revolution.

Time-wise, we’re stuck between a political rock and a philosophical hard place. However bad that might be, there’s only one way out — namely fighting for our ideas in public forums of all kinds.

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