Absolutely Free Speech, by John Ostrander
In addition to my appearances here, I also have a chat site that can be found at World Famous Comics Community. Yes, you’re all invited to come over for a chat if you like. I check in usually several times a day if I’m not drowning in deadlines.
On occasion, we get someone who is abusive and they get told (more or less politely at first; it depends on my mood) to knock it off. Almost invariably, I get informed by the poster that this is a free country and they have the right to “free speech” which generally mans saying whatever they want in whatever manner they want to say it.
At that point, I usually explain that whether or not this really is a “free country” may be debatable but the Comics Community Board (like the Boards here) are for members and that, when you sign up, you agree to behave a certain way. Other sites may not demand that but we did there. Further, it was my discussion board – it has my name on it – and I had my own rules as well. If they didn’t like it, they could go elsewhere. Unlimited, absolute free speech was not guaranteed anywhere in any case.
A lot of people when they claim the right to free speech really don’t know what they’re talking about. So let’s be specific, just for fun.
To start off with, it’s not universal. Lots of places in the world don’t have it and the governments don’t want their people to have it. We have it because it’s in the Constitution; it’s enshrined in the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights which reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
That Amendment always staggers me – just the sheer amount of territory it covers in that one paragraph. In addition to guaranteeing free speech it’s also the root for freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. It covers freedom of the press and the right to free assembly as well as the topic at hand – freedom of speech.
It would seem to be pretty absolute – “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…” In times of war, the government regularly censors what can be said, especially if it gives aid and comfort to the enemy. (In absence of an actual declaration of war by Congress, you don’t have a war, IMO. You have a military action – which is what we have in Iraq – and that is not covered in the same way since nolegal declaration of hostilities has been made.)
You’re also not allowed to say whatever pops into your head about another person. That’s why there are laws on slander and libel. Again, in an effort to be specific (just for fun), I found a definition of both atnolo.com that reads as follows: “slander – A type of defamation. Slander is an untruthful oral (spoken) statement about a person that harms the person’s reputation or standing in the community. Because slander is a tort (a civil wrong), the injured person can bring a lawsuit against the person who made the false statement. If the statement is made via broadcast media – for example, over the radio or on TV – it is considered libel, rather than slander, because the statement has the potential to reach a very wide audience.”
All of which finally brings us to JuicyCampus.Com. If you haven’t heard about it, it’s a site on the Internet that’s dedicated to all kinds of college campus gossip. They like it juicy. Truthful is not a factor. Anonymity is guaranteed and one of the big selling points. You don’t register. You go on, read what you want, and say what you want. Their motto on their home page is “Always anonymous. Always juicy.”
So someone can come on, name you by name and say you’re making it with a) your roommate’s bf/gf b) making it with your professor; c) making it with the whole football team; d) with the team mascot; e) whatever and they don’t have to sign their name. As you might guess, this is causing something of a stir.
There are campuses talking about shutting the site down or blocking it. There are defenders (I’ll admit, most of the ones I read were male) who don’t think it’s a problem – no one takes it seriously and, hey, it’s all about free speech, you know? There are those who have been libeled (frequently female) and are left without legal recourse because the site doesn’t/won’t keep track of who comes on or says what. There are politicians, in various states and I think in Congress that are discussing laws to require JuicyCampus to clean up its act.
Is JuicyCampus protected by the First Amendment? Should it be?
I visited the site and, being the old fart that I am, found it pretty puerile. And it does hit one of my hot buttons. I sign my name on what I write and I stand by it. One of my problems with the Internet is that people don’t stand by their words. Words are actions. We should take responsibility for what we do and what we say – good, bad, indifferent. There are consequences whether we choose to admit to them or not
I also don’t think that “free speech” is an absolute. I don’t think you should have the right to slander or libel someone. However, I also understand that it’s a slippery slope. If it isn’t an absolute, where is the line drawn and by whom?
I lived in Chicago when the American Nazi Party decided it was going to march through the suburb of Skokie. They picked Skokie because of the high number of Jews living there – including survivors of the German concentration camps of World War 2. There was a great debate about whether or not such a march should be allowed. What was decided was that the principle of free speech was more important than what was being said. The march was allowed.
In 1968, the city of Chicago sought to squelch the peace demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention. The police, in an effort to break up demonstrations and stifle free speech, erupted into violence in what later would be ruled a “police riot.”
In both cases, I side with “free speech.” You don’t have to like or condone what is being said to agree that it should be allowed to be said. Many have said that the real test of free speech is do you believe it should apply to speech you hate to hear. Does the person in that case still have the right to say it?
In the case of JuicyCampus, I don’t have to approve of it but I wouldn’t want to see it banned, either. However, I don’t have a problem with it being required to know who is doing the talking and, if that person libels someone, to provide that name if the person libeled should they want to take legal action. They have rights as well and free speech doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It coexists with all the other rights. It is notless important than our other freedoms nor is it more important. It exists within the context of all our freedoms where one freedom has to often be balanced against another. That’s part of the reason we have courts.
Places can say they can’t be held accountable for what others say on the site. You can say anything you want. President Bush can issue signing statements when a bill is signed into law saying that he isn’t bound by what he just signed. Both statements are full of crap. Saying something doesn’t make it so.
Might accountability kill the JuicyCampus? Maybe – but I wouldn’t weep over that. It’s a zit on the ass of democracy. However, being young means saying all kinds of stupid things sometimes. I did – back in the Stone Age when I was young. (It was the Sixties so maybe that was the Stoned Age.) I just think you should also stand by what you say.
Even on the Internet.
Famed GrimJack / Munden’s Bar / Star Wars / Suicide Squad writer John Ostrander is under the delusion sometimes he not actually drowning in deadlines.