I wonder if the right to freedom of speech is becoming functionally obsolete. If you break it into its parts and examine it, there isn't much to it anymore.

For example, as I have blogged before, if you criticize your government in any public way, it's bad for your business because all of the people who hold opposing viewpoints will prefer to take their money and job offers elsewhere. In most cases the threat of economic loss controls individuals from piping up too often. Every now and then you get a Joe the Plumber who can make some money off of speaking up, but it's rare.

There are plenty of professional pundits who will happily take sides on TV, radio, blogs, in newspapers, and in books. But most consumers of such opinions are true believers of one side or the other. Freedom of speech is somewhat useless if all it does is reinforce your existing viewpoints. And if all the media serves to do is give you a steady stream of biased information, it's functionally useless.

Assuming my enlightened readers are intellectual mavericks who sample the opinions from all sides, the Internet is making freedom of speech obsolete for you. And by that I mean there is no point in having a right allowing something that can't be stopped. It would be like banning gravity. For the true seeker of knowledge, the Internet allows one to find all variety of opinions, ranging from wisdom to fabrication. The law couldn't stop it if it tried.

Some countries censor their media and try to censor their Internet. I have to assume censoring the Internet can't work in the long run. There will be too many workarounds and too many criminals to prosecute. Those countries will learn that it is easier to control the information at the source than to control the media. As long as there are pundits willing to get paid for spreading the government's agenda there will be enough public doubt to keep revolution from happening. America leads by example in that department. (I can say that without repercussion because it isn't party-specific.)

Freedom of speech goes beyond criticizing the government. It also includes censorship of art deemed obscene. But in time the Internet will make that a meaningless right. Everyone will have instant access to any art or images they want.

This leaves us with the right to burn a flag or the right for special interest groups to donate money for campaigns. In 500 years no one but historians will remember that those rights sprang from the by-then-obsolete notion of freedom of speech.
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Apr 22, 2009
I'm reminded of the scene from "Empire of the Son" where the doctor yells at the kid "Try not to think so much!"

The Constitution of the United States spells out the relationship that the government has with it's citizenry. By this I mean that we have the freedom to say what we want without being punished by the government. That does not mean we can go around saying what ever the heck we want without being punished by everyone else. I can express my opinion about anything. I won't go to jail, but I may lose some friends or even my job.

But we take Freedom of Speach in this Country for granted because we've had it a while. Ask Nelson Mandela how important the our 1st Ammendment is. And those of you who think the internet makes this law obsolete, you're fooling yourselves. Governments don't throw people in jail or kill them because they MIGHT break the law. They punish them AFTER they've broken it. The Chinese government can't keep a citizen from writting what ever they want on some blog somewhere. But they can definitely stop them from doing it more than once.
Apr 21, 2009
When my father was at MIT, the MIT Science Fiction Society voted to repeal the law of gravity.
Apr 20, 2009
some of those countries might not have a lot of isp's so they could easily force the DNS servers to redirect all requests to sites which aren't on the approved list. not that i am in any way for this action, i am just pointing out that they could probably do it. although, then you get into the whole satellite connection thing...
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Apr 20, 2009
On the right of government to limit a right ....

In a Democracy, 'we' are the government.

If 'we' (the majority of voters) don't like what our elected representatives and their bureaucrats are doing, under any heading, we can remove the elected representatives from their roles at the next available opportunity -- and replace them with someone who seems less out of sync with 'our' view of the world.

The same can be said for the Constitution, which is simply the codification of what "we" see as important "rights", but the view of what is important can change with the times, as evidenced by the opportunity to amend the Constitution.

Therefore, that 'we' (the government) make decisions on the parameters of free speech. It is not an unfettered right, nor should it be, so somebody has to fetter it. Who better than 'us'?


Apr 20, 2009
Mark Twain agrees with you! The New Yorker recently published a newly-unearthed essay of his called "The Privilege of the Grave" which makes exactly your point. The title refers to the fact that only the dead truly have the power of free speech:

"Its occupant has one privilege which is not exercised by any living person: free speech. The living man is not really without this privilege-strictly speaking-but as he possess it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it, it cannot be seriously regarded as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences. There is not one individual who is not the possessor of dear and cherished unpopular convictions which common wisdom forbids him to utter. When an entirely new and untried political project is sprung upon the people, they are startled, anxious, timid, and for a time they are mute, reserved, noncommittal. Free speech is the privilege of the dead, the monopoly of the dead. They can speak their honest minds without offending. We may disapprove of what they say, but we do not insult them, we do not revile them, as knowing they cannot now defend themselves. If they should speak, it would be found that in matters of opinion no departed person was exactly what he had passed for in life. They would realize, deep down, that they, and whole nations along with them, are not really what they seem to be-and never can be."

Read the rest at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/12/22/081222fa_fact_twain. It's great.
Apr 20, 2009
It's worth mentioning that what you say is true only of some places, Scott. Criticising the government is a way of life In the UK and Australia; it certainly won't lose you any business, and it may get you more business depending on how you do it. And in a country where voter turnout is practically 100%, YOU BET public opinion makes a difference.
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Apr 20, 2009
And what about those who wish to speak out against this "internet" you speak of? Where will their voices be heard?
Apr 19, 2009
It's no longer an issue of free speech. It is becoming is an issue of unrestricted access to the media, driven by the free market. Currently, there is a move afoot to place a de facto restriction on market-driven media access through methods such as the "fairness" doctrine, "community standards boards" and other types of restrictions.

It's not the elimination of free speech that is at issue; it's the elimination of the ability to say what you believe in a forum that has a wide listening audience, by choice. What the "fairness" doctrine, et. al. are trying to do is to allow government to decide what speech is allowable for mass distribution.

If government gets the power to restrict media access to those sources who are approved, then free speech is pointless. If you can't be heard, it doesn't matter if you have the right to say what you want. Those who look to increase government power over the individuals and restrict their liberties are those who wish to avoid having to debate the issues.

In this blog, I can say pretty much what I want, as long as I don't use the word "em-eye-el-ee-ess" or other words that set off this site's obscenity filters. However, only a couple of hundred people read this thing. Rush Limbaugh, on the other hand, has more than 300 stations carrying his show, and more than twelve million people listen to him every week. His show is paid for by advertisers, which makes economic sense because of his popularity. NPR, on the other hand, has more than 600 stations, yet they're paid for by the taxpayers.

NPR is decidedly liberal, while Limbaugh is conservative; however, if the "fairness" doctrine or its ilk comes back, NPR's point of view will be allowed (and paid for by us), while Limbaugh's will be outlawed. While liberals might jump for joy at the thought, a moment's calm reflection might tell them that politics is cyclical, and if a conservative government took over and used the same rules, NPR would be gone the next day.

Free speech, and now free access through the marketplace to the media, is at the core of our republic. It's no accident that the first amendment is about freedom of speech and the press. It's first because it's the most important.

If you agree that market-driven popular shows shouldn't be restricted so that only the government will determine what's allowable on the airwaves, then let me mention a web site that you might wish to visit: www.firstamendmentnow.com. As you're looking over the site, it might not hurt to remember Edmund Burke's admonition that "All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
Apr 19, 2009
ozjos wrote:
To Mark Naught - I think you have made a very interesting point equating freedom of speech with anonymimity. Does true freedom of action rely on being anonymous?

Sorry if I wasn't clear. Freedom of speech doesn't equate with anonymity. My point was that without an explicitly stated freedom of speech, that freedom could only be retained by speaking anonymously. With anonymous speech I can't be prosecuted because nobody knows who I am. However, we have no right to anonymity, so the loss of an explicit freedom of speech would be an actual loss of this right. The right is not granted implicitly by other rights.
Apr 19, 2009
I'm in a country where around 75% of the population is functionally illiterate, and only around 15% have access to the internet. However 95% have access to (only) the government controlled TV and radio stations.

We vote in 3 days. The people will vote based on what they have seen on TV. TV coverage is allocated based on parliamentary representation. Therefore the political party currently in power will always also have by far the greatest share of TV coverage and therefore will continue to have more access to voters eyes and ears. The major breakaway party that was formed since the last election can't get covered because it doesn't have any seats in parliament. And now because most of the population hasn't heard it exists, it's not going to get votes. It's a system carefully designed to maintain the status quo.

Despite the fact that over 30% of the population is unemployed, and over 90% of citizens were directly affected by a crime in the past year, people seem to believe the current regime when it says on TV that crime is down, and the economy is doing well. They think that their town or village or suburb is some strange anomaly. So in 3 days they will vote for the only party they have heard of by putting a cross next to the logo that they associate with Nelson Mandela.

Our papers have complete freedom, because the government knows that 90% of its core voters are illiterate and will rely on TV and their local party official to tell them the truth.
Apr 19, 2009
Scott - here's an unintended consequence that disproves your point. Here is Boston (where political corruption was born) the Boston Globe is fighting for it's life. As a result, it has been doing many, many more exposes of corruption in state government. Their motivation is clearly to sell papers but the side effect is that.... some government excesses are actually being cleaned up, and I'm sure politicians are being more "careful".

Sometime free speech can be used for good. Let's keep it for now.
Apr 19, 2009
In China you're not allowed to speak; in the US no-one listens.
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Apr 19, 2009
"the Internet allows one to find all variety of opinions, ranging from wisdom to fabrication. The law couldn't stop it if it tried." - WRONG

They censor the internet in China. Just try looking up Tiananmen Square from China. All you will get is tourism photos.

Perhaps you're suggesting that freedom of speech will be replaced with freedom of Internet access?
Apr 18, 2009
"For example, as I have blogged before, if you criticize your government in any public way, it's bad for your business because all of the people who hold opposing viewpoints will prefer to take their money and job offers elsewhere"

It does not mean freedom of speech does not really exist or is limited, it just means people also have the right to have an opinion about what you say.
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Apr 18, 2009
I think you're overestimating the ability of the internet to overcome serious government censorship. As much as we internet users love the idea of user-generated content, most of that content is distributed through centralized hubs run by real, live, prosecution-averse companies. You can't put your protest videos on YouTube if Google is worried about a federal raid. I can't watch it if accessing the site is a liability for Verizon, Comcast, etc. And despite the ubiquity of the internet, a lot of people still don't see even the biggest trends until they're tipped off by some MSMer employed by Viacom, Time Warner, GE or Disney.
Apr 18, 2009
My last post was all for naught, so let me make amends with this important correction to someone else's post. It is definitely OK to yell "SALMONELLA!" in a hospital.

Where you don't want yell "SALMONELLA!" is in a restaurant. Unless you have contracted salmonella in that restaurant just before yelling "SALMONELLA!!!". Then it's OK, and you can even add several exclamation marks if you like. This is not so much a free speech issue as a restaurant protocol issue.

Apr 18, 2009
Attitude ... A t t i t u d e
breast ... b r e a s t
vagina ... v a g i n a
rectitude ... r e c t i t u d e

Sorry. Just testing your curious speech control system.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 18, 2009
"To Mark Naught - I think you have made a very interesting point equating freedom of speech with anonymimity. Does true freedom of action rely on being anonymous?"

Naught necessarily. For instance, if Mark Naught is naught Mark Naught, we would still be able to hear him, would we naught?

Naught only that, would it naught ... oh never mind. ;-)


[Sorry, I'm still giddy over the Canucks win last night]
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 18, 2009
To Mark Naught - I think you have made a very interesting point equating freedom of speech with anonymimity. Does true freedom of action rely on being anonymous?
Apr 18, 2009
That's the Hippie Lesson. Learned that 40 years ago. If you just do what you want, and take the consequences of you actions, you are free. And Freedom ain't worth nothing, but it's free.

You want to take dope, marry another guy, dance naked in the streets? Just get a bunch of people that want to do the same, and go for it. See what happens. Usually, if you don't injure somebody else, nobody much cares.

Everybody has got their own things to do.

But if you start shooting people, you have to allow for the possibility that people might shoot back.

You want to smoke dope in public, people might want to smoke up all your stash.

You want to talk crazy stuff, you might wind up on Faux Nutwork.

Stuff happens.

My best advice? Try to be of good will. It makes social interactions so much easier.
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