Friday, June 29, 2007

Fairness and Free Speech

Published in Newspapers 21 June

Not often do I stray from opining on military and national security matters, except to highlight a threat to one of the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution which I swore to support and defend.

Such a threat has grown more obvious over the course of the last month, and has certainly become worthy of further discussion.

Politicians floating the notion of trying to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine and the debate surrounding the Immigration Reform Bill (not the Bill itself) have converged to raise alarms about infringements on free speech.

The rising specter of the Fairness Doctrine’s rebirth, a federal mandate for media organizations to provide equal time to what are considered both sides of an argument is troubling. In trying to balance the information media outlets present, it ultimately served to subdue information not consistent with the preferences of media and political elites, or majorities of the time. Its discontinuance by Ronald Reagan allowed for the rise of conservative voices during a time when traditional media was becoming increasingly liberal. I suspect it would have rightfully done the same had it been more liberal voices which had been previously subdued.

Doing away with this false mandate for balanced debate actually allowed for, and resulted in a more balanced debate.

It proved that within a free market and a democratic society, the drivers of change and guarantors of balance were the populace, not the politicians and government regulations. More important than the proof of consumers being more effective drivers of a free market than the government, including the market of ideas, were the implications for free speech.

When left to its own devices and allowed to play out as our Founders intended, the unconstrained expression of our freedom of speech proved more effective at serving the needs of society than a contrived set of laws pretending to be built upon the foundation of the First Amendment.

Thus, it should always be considered questionable, and more likely dangerous, when government inserts itself into the discussion of ideas by dictating the terms under which the debate will and will not occur.

It is the right, and therefore the responsibility, of the people to establish the grounds for the debate, and to do so through an avenue other than legislation. It is imperative that debate take place under the people’s terms, not the governments.

If liberal view points dominate major print and broadcast media, it is the responsibility of the people, via the free market, who possess opposing views or a desire for a more balanced view, to develop or pursue alternatives. It is not the government’s role to dictate that alternatives must exist.

If conservative voices dominate talk radio, it is likewise incumbent upon free people in a free market to develop alternatives, not the government’s role to dictate equal time for opposing viewpoints.

In all cases where a type of media or a specific outlet usually only presents a certain point of view, it is the consumers of a free market who will determine whether they agree or disagree with what is being offered as news and analysis. Media will flourish or fail depending upon the choices of the people.

It is not the role of government to dictate to any organization the content of their media presentation or perspective of their analysis. The First Amendment guarantees that right. In doing so, it also creates an obstacle to the next obvious step in what can be a dangerous process of government over-reach: dictating to the citizenry the position they should assume on a given topic.

In the context of the Immigration Reform Bill, or any other contentious piece of future legislation, the Fairness Doctrine becomes a danger to the freedom of speech, particularly when a lawmaker or group of lawmakers have taken sides on an issue opposite that of their constituents.

Senator Trent Lott recently commented that talk radio needed to be “dealt with” because of a predominant, and effective, view among its audience opposing his position on the immigration reform bill. In a possible application of the Fairness Doctrine, were it available, those comments would be very dangerous, especially in the hands of politicians whose arrogance have detached their views from those from whom they derive their power.

What exactly does the Senator mean by “dealt with?” Given Mr. Lott’s background, one would expect something rather benign, if any action at all. In the hands of a more ambitious Senator of the majority party (not just at present, but at any time in the future) such a doctrine would raise even more alarms.

In the hands of a determined group of lawmakers or a single authoritative President with socialist leanings and the complicity of a like-minded or cowed Congress, the doctrine becomes the road by which the First Amendment is gravely threatened.

If such a doctrine were available during this immigration debate, or another like it, an elitist politician or group, with the assistance of this additional power, could find it all too easy to dilute or even crush dissenting opinions. It has the potential to transfer power from the people to the politicians far beyond that which is afforded them in a representative republic, by being able to prevent opposing views from being aired.

Ask the people of Venezuela what that’s like.

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