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55


L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 55, September 15, 1999
Fire Still Burning

The Tattered Web

David Roberson
davidr6@ix.netcom.com

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 regulated enough."
           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.


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