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“Wide Latitude To Jackassery”: Imagine If The Government Started Policing Rush Limbaugh’s Facts

Today, Philip Bump at Grist passed along this interesting story about a shock jock in Australia who, after spewing some false nonsense about climate change on the air, “has been ordered to undergo ‘factual accuracy’ training, and to use fact-checkers.” Obviously, the government has no such powers here in America, but it’s a good reminder that America’s particular version of free speech wasn’t handed down from above, or even by the Founders. The words in the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”) are very general; the contours and details of that freedom have been given shape over the decades by a succession of Supreme Court cases. James Madison didn’t have an opinion about whether it was OK for Rush Limbaugh to go on the air and call Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” so we had to figure out later how to handle that, and we chose, for some good reasons, to let it slide (legally speaking).

In other countries where people are just as committed to freedom as we are, they’ve come to slightly different conclusions about where the limits of those freedoms are. It’s not that they don’t value free expression, it’s just that competing values like truth and civility sometimes get weighed more heavily. We believe there are limits to freedom of speech no less than the Australians do; we just put those limits farther out. There are plenty of speech acts you can be sued or even prosecuted for, from intentionally libeling someone to inciting violence to revealing state secrets to conspiring to commit a crime.

I wouldn’t be comfortable with our government making decisions like the one the Australian government did, but we shouldn’t forget that our expansive interpretation of free speech comes with a cost. Because we don’t want the government policing the truth, we have to put up with a lot of lies; because we don’t think you have a right not to be offended, we have to put up with lots of offensive speech. There are countries where the consensus belief is that personal dignity is a value that outweighs freedom of speech, so you can be punished for offending someone. This is at the heart of why many people in the Muslim world can’t quite understand why our society would tolerate something like that anti-Muslim film, and why we can’t quite understand why they got so worked up over it, since it was just some jackass making a stupid video. Here in America, we offer wide latitude to jackassery.

There are lots of Americans who only value free speech so long as their own feelings aren’t being hurt and they don’t have to hear any speech they don’t like. But democracy is often painful and unpleasant. For instance, 18 days from now, half the country is going to be very, very disappointed with the results of the election. I have a feeling that when it happens, particularly if Barack Obama wins, we’re going to see how thin the commitment to democracy is on the part of some people.

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, October 19, 2012

October 22, 2012 - Posted by | Democracy | , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Greetings,
    I came over from BBC who reblogged this piece.

    Freedom is a difficult concept.
    Everyone wants it until they realize that everyone else gets it as well.
    Then suddenly; people begin to desire to limit freedom in some way.
    The question of limits; no limits; placement of the limits etc can be taken to some very extreme places.
    We find ourselves discussing questions whose answers are taken for granted and seem silly and irresponsible such as whether; in a free society; it is right to outlaw murder or rape.
    This comes about when one person states that they are in favor of a totaly free society and someone who disagrees says, “So, I guess murder is ok too”.
    I mention this because the concept of a free society is not one of allowing violence and crime.
    It is a concept that requires us to revisit how we define crime.
    The basic rule we go by is that: “Nothing is a crime unless it interferes with another persons freedom to excercise their right to freedom”.
    So of course murder is wrong and violence is wrong and stealing another persons property is wrong because all of these things deny another person of their right to own and control their property and the right to live without interference from others. You might also argue that these types of actions inhibit the victims right to pursue happiness etc.
    However; the list of things that become legal is truly frightening to some and so: limits.
    The discussion becomes more and more complex and detailed when we try to define just when a persons rights are being denyed them by another person.
    For example; Does your neigbor’s right to walk around naked in his yard somehow limit your rights or must you choose not to look at him or build a fence etc.?
    This is a difficult conversation; especially on a national level but it is a conversation that this country needs to have; desperately.

    I love the article. Differences in culture make all the difference when we discuss such matters and you would think people would be more understanding of that by now. Bigotry and hatred will ever raise their ugly heads to stir up the muck though and this is the reason that we need to be sure we are correct; even iof it makes us uncomfortable; in how we define our freedom and be sure to extend those rights and freedoms to all people who deal with us. Integrity. We need some badly and freedom is the pathway to Integrity if handled correctly.

    From her the subject gets murkey and complicated and is probably best left for a different venue.

    Sorry if i seem to be pontificating. Your article brought the issue to mind and; well you know.


    Comment by angrymanspeaks | October 22, 2012 | Reply

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