Is political office the last bastion of free speech? Are Americans too naive to recognize the truth behind tacky, cheaply produced campaign ads and the inflammatory free speech they see on social media? Republicans and Democrats are equally guilty of the misuse of free speech on a level most citizens could never hope to accomplish, but only one side wants to elevate this fundamental right to a privilege.
Is free speech more of a right for some?
We call free speech a right, but how do we explain worry over the damaging effects of conservative discourse with no concern over a president who makes inflammatory remarks to convince Americans that everything bad that happens in this country is caused by one group of people? Should the president be held to a higher free speech standard than ordinary citizens and if so, is repeatedly holding a social class up to scorn a misuse of that free speech?
The Citizens’ United decision panicked Democrats. Corporations had already been damned because of Obama’s Great Recession. The logical response was the DISCLOSE Act, a Democratic bill to reveal the sources of campaign funding that focused on corporations (see: Our President Fails to Disclose). The anti-conservative legislation was reintroduced this year and also in 2013 with a sweeping claim:
The American people deserve a political system that is fair, transparent, and accountable, and this legislation will do that. It is a first step to clean up the secret money in politics.1
That’s a pretty big promise from House Democrat Chris Van Hollen. Most of us would laugh at the thought that one, or even one hundred pieces of legislation could restore accountability to our political system. Are Americans easy prey for corporate-backed campaign ads, or is this an elected official using free speech to make promises he can’t keep to help Democrats target conservative campaign donors?
Free speech for impact: “millionaire” is now a liberal obscenity
Since conservative groups are routinely blamed for representing monied special interests, it makes sense that a federal agency with the power to lock people up should get involved in the crackdown on free speech. So much time, effort, and propaganda has been expended on convincing Americans that millionaires evade their share of taxes that the IRS decision to go after groups that represent the interests of wealthy Americans must have just made sense. Does it also make sense to use the White House bully pulpit to indulge in free speech that arouses anger and hate against Americans?
There’s a new addition to this year’s Federal Taxpayer Receipt. For the first time, Americans can not only see how their tax dollars are being spent, they can see just how many people making over a million dollars a year effectively paid $0 in taxes. That’s right. There are millionaires who didn’t pay a dime in taxes. That doesn’t that makes any sense. Not when so many middle class families are struggling to pay the bills or simply put food on the table.2
Free speech under Obama: is truth Truthy-style the goal?
The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s investigation of the use of $1 million of our money3 to investigate the misuse of free speech on Twitter put the issue of what we say about politicians back in the headlines at the most ironic time imaginable. Throughout the year candidates for public office have been indulging with abandon the kind of free speech Truthy claims it targets.
Most of us would assume that it’s wrong to use tax dollars to fund a social media spy that threatens a fundamental right with a false promise:
The project stands to benefit both the research community and the public significantly.4
The question is why the public needs to be protected from the “false and misleading ideas” and “subversive propaganda”5 that federal funding seeks to ferret out. Anyone familiar with the uproar over Truthy has figured out by now that the government isn’t trying to protect us. Elected officials are trying to protect themselves while they use free speech to wring maximum impact from our flawed election process.
Don’t look to social media for serious discourse
Worrying about misusing free speech on Twitter is like vexing over drinking in a bar. How removed from reality do you have to be to view social media as a platform for ideas and weighty discourse? If you believe that social media fosters open debate and valuable discussion, try this. Post a serious political article and a nasty, mudslinging cartoon and see which one gets shared. People don’t go to social media for ideas. They go to social media to be entertained, to connect, for inflammatory content, and in the case of Twitter, for instant gratification in 140 characters or less.
The misuse of free speech to worry about
One of the costs of our free and open society is that you can say what you want. In the political spectrum this means that libel and slander don’t really exist. Knowing that this is the territory they have chosen, why are lawmakers so worried that the kind of subversive, hateful free speech they indulge in might be used in the same way by us? Like the perks they vote themselves, misusing free speech is a privilege they would rather reserve to further their own partisan viewpoints. Remember: if you are a Democrat only conservative interests misuse free speech. If you are a Republican, the opposite will always be true. One more truism: all money is good money as long as you are the one spending it.
For more on Washington’s flawed take on free speech, see Angry Americans Can Create Real Change.