Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Free Speech, Hump Day Hmm

Today's Hump Day Topic states: "we're going to tackle the notion of free speech in writing, particularly blogging, considering that court cases are considering it fair to limit free speech on blogs and are definitely willing to use your words against you. "

I have tried writing an entry several times, but I keep coming back to the feeling that it will not be well received. And each time I think that, I consider the irony of it, given what I keep wanting to write. If free speech doctrine truly protects my writing, then I am safe to write what I feel without fear of rebuke or reprisal. But the rebuke and reprisal can absolutely follow comments of dissent. Fortunately, though, in the United States, I do feel safe from government rebuke or reprisal for what I write. In so many countries around the world, the same cannot be said. News media that disagrees with the government in most Middle Eastern countries will be shut down, and those guilty of attacking the government might disappear, never to be seen or heard from again. Even in Europe it has only recently been safe to write against the "king and crown" without fear. So I am thankful to be an American, as I write about free speech without fear.

Can what we write be used against us in court? It absolutely can, in the court of public opinion. Whenever I write something on a blog that disagrees with typical crowd who frequents that blog, I can expect (and have often received) a backlash. It feels somewhat like being the "ignorant redneck" (or whatever derisive term would follow) who walks into an art show and wonders if the artist just spilled a can of paint. "He must not be refined enough to appreciate such vision, what a half wit."

How easily we turn against those who disagree with the group. I find that people of like minds congregate to avoid feeling like a lone reed in the wind, so dissent is met with ridicule. Is that healthy? Should we revile those who speak against us? Perhaps, but I think not. Rarely do we learn from sycophants and yes-men who parrot the groupthink we agree with. Watch what happens, though, when a student disagrees with a teacher - either in writing or in speech. Even if the teacher lets the comments slide, the other students often mock the student as a fool. In rare cases, the class supports the student when they agree but were too afraid to say anything, but most of the time the student who stands out is beaten down.

So, in the end, what is true of free speech? Are we truly free to write what we believe? We are, in most cases, free from the expectation of going to jail for what we say and write. We are not, however, free to write without expectation that it can be used against us.


thailandchani said...

Telling the truth is always hard, especially when dealing with the social consequences you allude to here. Still, it needs to be done because that is how change is created.

Maybe the most important thing is to challenge our own conditioning. Do we rebuke others for saying what they believe or do we accept it as a view different than our own - without judgment?

Robert said...

I have certainly been guilty of rebuking those who disagree with me, but I have worked hard on recent years to move towards understanding and dialogue in lieu of attack. I have learned a lot through debates on issues with friends, relatives, and peers, and I would rather learn than remain ignorant because I want to be "right" all the time. Unfortunately, dissenting viewpoints are rarely met with such willingness.

Julie Pippert said...

When I disagree with an opinion, I have a personal rule: don't go with the first or third reaction.

This only works for me because of who I am, but it does work. By work I mean: keep an open mind and consider, then respond from thought and logic, not reaction.

I don't think many people will disagree with you that "right to free speech" (such as it is) doesn't provide amnesty from the court of public opinion. It also doesn't grant the right to say whatever you want, period. Hate speech, for example, is not okay, nor is defamation.

Traditional news media is awfully protected under law, that same right. I find it intriguing that courts aren't automatically extending that same protection to new media such as Web 2.0 forms of communication.

I wish I had some legal expertise in this, because I'm trying to figure the technical difference between that, and also between personal blogs and talking.

Robert said...

I learned a long time ago to disagree peaceably. I just don't always exercise my knowledge, but I would say I do more often than not. I am too pragmatic, if anything, and willing to go along instead of rock the boat.

As for the rules, I think one reason the media is more protected by the courts is they are also more governed by them. The FCC can fine them for various infractions, but no such fine could logically be extended to a blogger. For now, with blogs moving largely under that radar, it is probably much more free than the alternative would be. I think, though, people who are suffering in court from what they've said in a blog need to appreciate that blogs are public and attacking an employer or a spouse on one is not much different from walking into an office and saying or having a fight in front of friends and family. In other words, it is admissable because it is in the public, and it logically should be. People should not expect blogs to be out of the court perview in that regard any more than they should expect to get away with issuing a bomb threat over the phone. I'm mixing issues, but I hope my point is still clear. What is said in the public is fair game for anyone to use against the author.

le35 said...

The thing is that, if freedom is defined as no backlash, there is no freedom at all. The thing is that freedom is really the right to choose. The problem is that people want to be able to choose without any consequences. Freedom is the right to choose. However, the consequences just automatically come.

Gwen said...

Isn't freedom just another word for nothing left to lose?

Oh, wait, someone else said that first, didn't she?

At some point, if you are being polite enough or true enough to yourself, you have to give up the fear that you will offend. Because there are people who can be offended by anything. It's like this new spectator sport or something, taking offense. Which isn't really completely on topic, but I felt like saying it anyway.

Robert said...

I have made a sport out of offending people who need offending in the past, but I try to be better these days. I have used offense to get someone engaged in a debate, and then found a wonderful discussion in the process (which was my goal). Does that make me manipulative? Perhaps. Smart? You decide. Whatever the case, I agree, that the culture of offense has gone way past ridiculous. Political Correctness is a farce because it is designed to avoid offense by calling attention to differences... which lends itself to noticing difference more than noticing similarity.

Gwen said...

My brother in law tries that whole "offense" thing in discussions, and mostly it makes me think he could be smarter, lol.

I just don't think you can pretend that difference doesn't exist by focusing exclusively on similarities. It's all well and good if you're in the majority position. But if you're the person who happens to be different, it's off putting to hear that your uniqueness shouldn't matter. Because it just does. We are different and there's not a darn thing anyone can do about that. We are also the same, but insisting on that alone, as a basis for understanding, misses some of the point of difference. I hear people say, for example, "I don't think of Hillary Clinton as a woman; I think of her as a person." But HC IS a woman, and being a woman is part of her identity and has shaped, is shaping, who she is. Ignoring that kind of difference, I believe, for what my opinion is worth, flattens people out, takes away from their rich, complex identities. Difference exists, and it means something, even if it doesn't mean everything.

Robert said...

I celebrate uniqueness and difference as a member of one of the most discriminated against minorities in the history of humanity. I just don't walk around expecting people to call me by the name of my difference to demonstrate how "politically correct" they are. I'd rather just be thought of as a person. I enjoy a broad range of friends from all over the world, and I definitely think their differences have as much to do with what makes them special as their similarities (if not more). I am thankful, though, that none of them get snippy with me because I don't refer to them by their nationality, religion, or culture, but instead as simply friend. My main point about the political correctness is that expecting differences to be ignored by pointing them out is oxymoronic, or maybe just plain moronic. It just doesn't make sense.

And no, I don't tend to pick fights for the sake of picking them anymore. I just know that I can. :)