The Tattered Web
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
There's a grim headline on the front page of the August 1999
newsletter from The Freedom Forum: "Survey Shows Public More
Receptive to Speech Limits." The accompanying story deals with a
recent survey of American opinion conducted for the Freedom Forum's
First Amendment Center by the University of Connecticut's Center for
Survey Research and Analysis.
The findings are indeed dismaying. Of those responding to the survey,
53 percent said the press has too much freedom, 32 percent said
newspapers should get government approval before printing certain
stories, and 36 percent said newspapers should not be allowed to
endorse or criticize political candidates.
Those are sobering figures, even if -- as I suspect -- they have more
to do with American mistrust of the news media than with public
understanding of free speech.
For the Freedom Forum, a private foundation supporting First
Amendment rights, the news is downright alarming. The newsletter
article goes on to quote various free-press advocates, including an
ACLU representative and a media attorney, who stress the need for
greater public education about First Amendment rights, and who decry
efforts that would infringe on any of those freedoms. Elsewhere in
the newsletter, the head of the First Amendment Center offers a
column about the vital need for the First Amendment, even venturing
into explaining its original intent.
For those of us who value civil freedoms, there's certainly nothing
funny about suggestions that we further reduce our already
diminishing rights to free speech and a free press. But it is
humorous to see the Freedom Forum -- the successor to the Gannett
Foundation (as in the Gannett newspaper chain) -- wringing its
institutional hands about the idea of limiting First Amendment
rights. Because when it comes to limiting other Constitutional
freedoms, the Gannett chain and many other mainstream American
newspapers are some of the loudest cheerleaders.
Think about the gyrations of the news media as they struggled to help
our national nannies blame somebody besides Eric Harris and Dylan
Klebold for the killings at Columbine High School. Was it the fault
of guns? Certainly, many newspapers told us. Gun owners? Yep. The
NRA? Sure. Of course, when the frenzied finger-pointing moved in
other directions -- toward violent video games, movies, and music --
most newspapers' enthusiasm waned. No surprises there: the companies
that make these products spend lots of advertising dollars, and since
practically nobody still believes there's a genuine difference
between the news and entertainment industries, it was easy for
newspapers to see where ill-conceived ideas about limiting freedom of
expression might lead. So, yeah, let's blame Glock or Smith & Wesson,
but not Quake or Marilyn Manson -- even though none of them had
anything to do with it.
It's strange, but somehow newspapers (and many of those who would
preserve their rights) haven't yet grasped the idea that all our
Constitutional freedoms are intricately linked, and that they form a
delicate web of civil rights in which disruptions at one point can
cause ripples elsewhere. News media attacks on the freedoms provided
by the Second Amendment, which are visibly moving off the editorial
pages and into so-called news coverage, give aid and comfort to many
of those who would curtail First Amendment -- and other -- rights.
It's no coincidence that many of the arguments put forth by advocates
of restricting the First Amendment -- we must protect our children,
the Founding Fathers didn't envision the changes that technology
would bring, we need to reduce this freedom to fight hate groups, we
only want to reduce this right a little bit for the betterment of all
of us -- are exact mirror images of editorial-page arguments for
redefining the Second Amendment.
This type of tunnel vision on civil freedoms isn't confined to First
Amendment advocates. I know Second Amendment supporters who are
frustrated by intentionally misleading and sometimes outright false
news reports about guns, gun ownership, and gun-control legislation,
and who sincerely believe that less freedom for the news media could
result in less biased reporting on these issues. I doubt it, and I'm
certain that more First Amendment restrictions would be detrimental
to our other Constitutional rights. Sometimes it's easy to
rationalize giving up a right that doesn't seem vital to you
personally, but any time we give up some of our freedom, we encourage
those who want to take a little more. I have yet to hear a lawmaker
say "That's it; we won't pass any more laws on this subject -- it's
No, the all-too-common result of less freedom is even further reduced
freedom, and the goal of everyone who values any part of the Bill of
Rights should be to ensure that all those rights are equally
protected. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, our civil freedoms must all
hang together, or they surely will hang separately. That's a point
that the Freedom Forum and others who profess to value the First
Amendment would do well to consider.
David Roberson is a writer living in Lincoln County, North Carolina.