The First Amendment This Week
March 15, 2017 By Ronald Collins
In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, the ACLU’s David Cole reviewed:
- Laura Weinrib, The Taming of Free Speech: America’s Civil Liberties Compromise (Harvard University Press, 2016, 461 pp.), and
- Sam Lebovic, Free Speech and Unfree News: The Paradox of Press Freedom in America (Harvard University Press, 2016, 334 pp.).
“‘Civil liberties once were radical.’ So begins Laura Weinrib’s important revisionist history of the origins of American civil liberties, ” writes Cole. “By 1938,” he adds, “Roger Baldwin, the ACLU’s executive director, proclaimed that the ACLU had ‘no ‘isms’ to defend except the Bill of Rights.’ The ACLU had shifted its focus from labor’s struggle for economic justice to a defense of the ‘neutral’ rights of speech and association, rights that could be invoked not just by individual workers and unions but by Henry Ford and big business. As Baldwin put it one year later, ‘We are neither anti-labor nor pro-labor. With us it is just a question of going wherever the Bill of Rights leads us.’”
“Sam Lebovic tells a related story in [his book]. In his account,” Cole notes, “American constitutional law has favored a classical liberal ‘freedom of the press,’ which stresses the importance of staving off state censorship, over ‘freedom of the news,’ a concept formulated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which envisions the state working proactively to ensure access to information against concentrated media ownership. Lebovic argues that the liberal conception of free speech and a free press, founded on the ‘free marketplace of ideas,’ is and always has been inadequate to address the threats to ‘freedom of the news,’ including not just the power of media moguls, but also the consequences of the Internet and the state’s over-reliance on secrecy.”
In a world where claims of “fake news” fill the airwaves, Cole asserts that “following Donald Trump’s election, on a campaign that relied on outright lies and stubborn denials of the truth, does anyone believe that the ‘free marketplace of ideas’ is functioning?” Then again, he stresses that “the inauguration of Donald Trump has dramatically reinforced the continuing importance of traditional core First Amendment rights.”
We are neither anti-labor nor pro-labor. With us it is just a question of going wherever the Bill of Rights leads us. — Roger Baldwin (1940)
A new focus — look beyond the courts
We were weened in an era when courts were often seen as the great defenders of equality. Even so, Cole invites his readers to reassess that reliance: “if we are to attain a more egalitarian exchange of ideas, it will be more likely through the political rather than the judicial branches.”
And as more and more liberals urge government intervention in the free speech arena, Cole counsels caution: “empowering the state to correct perceived deficiencies in the marketplace of ideas is a cure that is worse than the disease. ”
So what is the baseline for Cole’s conception of free speech? “The best argument for protecting speech,” he stresses, “is not that the free marketplace of ideas will lead us to truth, but that it is superior to all the alternatives. . . . [W]hile it is true that a right to universal free speech can be invoked by the powerful as well as the weak, by business as well as labor, the right is nonetheless more valuable for the weak.” [Read More…]
March 13, 2017 By Larry Burriss
It may still be a little chilly and cloudy outside, but this week has been designated Sunshine Week. Not about the weather, but promoting the idea of government in the sunshine…open records and open meetings.
Unfortunately, too many people think the idea of open records and open meetings are for the media, not for them personally. But in fact, the whole idea of government in the sunshine is for the people.
Look at it this way: How do you know which claims by public officials are true and which are not? I’m not talking about things like the federal budget or health care. I’m talking about local politics: How are various officials connected with major construction projects? Who owns that piece of land being proposed for a new school? Are some people who are arrested getting preferential treatment?
Those are all local questions that have a direct impact on local voters.
Regrettably, we have seen a steady erosion of your right to find answers to these, and many other questions? Why? Because too many government officials don’t want you to know.
Now, I have a theory about why these people are making it so hard for you to know what’s going on: It’s because they have something to hide. Period. They have something to hide because they are doing things they don’t want you to know about, and that are probably illegal, or at least unethical.
Now it’s true that reporters may have a better knowledge of how the system works, but Sunshine Laws give you, the individual citizen, the right to see those pieces of paper and attend those meetings where decisions are made.
Of course, reporters have more time to do the hunting for records and evaluating documents, so you don’t have to. So yes, reporters probably use the Sunshine Laws more than you do, but that doesn’t preclude you from doing your own investigating.
After all, how many times have you heard, “If you want something done right, do it yourself”?
Dr. Larry Burriss, professor of journalism at Middle Tennessee State University, teaches introductory and media law courses. At the graduate level he teaches quantitative research methods and media law.
March 9, 2017 By Ronald Collins
If you thought Geoffrey Stone’s Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (W.W. Norton, 2005) was an incredible book, hold on: the University of Chicago law professor has outdone himself with his latest book — Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion, and Law from America’s Origins to the Twenty-First Century (Liveright, March 21, 2017).
I know of what I speak: I’ve read both books (the latest in advance galleys). With a discerning sense of the currents of history combined with a masterful grasp of the undercurrents of law, Stone provides his readers with a wide-lens view of how sex and the law have interacted in the span of time dating back to ancient Athens. At once fascinating and disturbing, this book reveals how law works — both as a suppressor and liberator. Witness, for example, the nightmarish world of Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) in which countless lives were sacrificed on the altar of Victorian values. Contrast that with the emergence of a new day brought about by Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which thanks to the lawyer Paul M. Smith and the jurist Anthony M. Kennedy helped to free us from the shackles of sexual bigotry. It’s all there, and more, is this superbly crafted book.
That “more” includes everything from the rigid righteousness of St. Augustine (who was a lustful sinner before he became a revered saint), to those ever-so-pious Puritans who loved to lash the impure, to the Temperance Movement crowd and their campaign to ferret out lust in books (and in loins, too, by way of “anti-masterbation devices”), to those entrusted with enforcing Comstock morality and who felt it their God-given duty to persecute the likes of Margaret Sanger (the birth-control activist) and Ira Craddock (author of Right Marital Living), to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales who with zealous conviction launched the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, to the Moral Majority’s Grand Poobah, Jerry Falwell, and his insistence that the government not spend any money to combat AIDS because this “plague” was the “judgment of God,” to all those who so vigorously opposed gay mirage because it threatened the continued viability of traditional marriages. Oh, the price we have paid for those virtues bequeathed to us by St. Augustine!
As one turns the pages of this book, something of the marvelous freedom-affirming spirit of When we Rise leaps from the pages of Sex and the Constitution. Still, this is not a work that takes liberties with facts; rather, it is a needs-to-be told story presented with legal acumen and a sophisticated sense of history. The scholar in Stone presents his case with nuanced precision, while the humanitarian in him presents his narrative with a gripping sensitivity to those subjected to the whip of sexual morality. [Read More…]