Sunday, October 18, 2009
It's a Free Country, Isn't It?
How many times have you heard something unpopular or disagreeable defended with the slogan, "It's a free country, isn't it?" But how free is our free speech?
In light of our Constitution analysis last week, consider these questions: Should all types of speech protected equally? Where should the line(s) be drawn? What regulations, if any, should be placed on political speech?
Last month the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in a case that tests the limits of political speech. Specifically the case concerns a scathing documentary about then-candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton called Hillary: The Movie. The Federal Election Commission ruled the film was (in fact) a 90-minute campaign ad "susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her." Lower courts agreed.
The corporation that funded the movie, Citzens United, was allowed to screen the movie in theaters and could have sold DVDs of the film, but it could not show the movie on television because the film, as political speech, was subject to the restrictions of the McCain-Feingold Act that allows the government to limit political speech on broadcast media. According to the New York Times, the Supreme Court must now decide if the government can limit the public's access to movies -- even political hatchet jobs -- shown on television. In considering a re-argument of this case, the Supreme Court is also considering throwing out its own 1990 precedent that allowed for limited access.
Surprisingly, there are conservatives (like McCain) who advocate for limits and liberals (like some members of the ACLU) that are fighting such limits. The Court's ruling should be made within the next few months. Should the government be able to regulate political speech broadcast over the radio and television? What of books and magazines? When does political speech become propaganda? Should propaganda enjoy the same Constitutional protections of free speech?