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?


Q said...

I think people should be able to hear and watch the things they want on TV so I don't think there should be limits regulating political speech broadcast over the radio and television (and books and magazines). I feel like this is similar in some ways to the debate we had about the speech Obama gave to students and how some schools refused to show it to their students. Although some would consider it propaganda (probably why they refused to show it) I think that most political speech is propaganda. So how did they draw the line and decide that this was unacceptable for students to watch?

Lizzy said...

I also believe that the government should not usually limit what political advertisements we can see, but that sometimes it is necessary. Propaganda is defined simply as information that is spread for the purpose of promoting some cause, so every political commercial is a form or propaganda.
I suppose that if one political party got too deep in propaganda, the others would respond by fighting fire with fire and create a huge amount of their own propaganda. Soon, they would equalize, but then the budgets for advertisements would dry up, and the issue will be moot.
Is this bad? No. This is people regulating their own lives without any hand from the government. We are a civilization that has immense capacity to stay well-informed if we so choose. Let's take some responsibility to do so.

Ruchi said...

In my opinion, the line between appropriate and inappropriate propaganda is one that cannot easily be distinguished. I don't believe that propaganda should be censored, but at the same time there are cases when it has proven to escalate to the unnecessary. Of course in an ideal world, every American citizen would be able to intelligently sift through the propaganda they are exposed to in order to discover the facts about their candidates, but we all know that this is not the case for the vast majority of the population. I'm not really sure where the line could be drawn, but I'll agree that one is necessary. When opposing political parties begin to attack the race or religion of their competitors, the spirit of true competition is lost and political campaigning turns into a dirty name-calling game. I personally feel that American politics has almost escalated to this level, but hopefully something will change before it does.

Drew said...

I think that people should be free to say what they want. I have no problem with anyone making a video of their opinions, whether it involves your favorite sports team or your least favorite political candidate, who in your opinion would ruin the world.

I think that this is OK because people have the ability to watch what they want, whether it be choosing what channel they watch, or flipping past ads in the magazine that they don't want to read. As a result, they arent exposed to things they dont want to see, while still being able to see the things they do agree with.

Claire m said...

In my opinion, the line between inappropriate and appropriate speech is crossed when one party attacks all aspects of another's identity. When someone criticizes each way another person defines themself through media use, regulations should be made against that media. So, I would say that the government should regulate the political speech of a politician if it bashes every single ideal of another.

I respectfully disagree with what Lizzy said about allowing propaganda problems to work themselves out. When propaganda usage reaches a point where it gets out of hand, like the situation Lizzy described, I believe regulations should be made against the propaganda.

Nathan said...

For me the boundary between what should be aloud and what should not is the intention of the consumer. If they are pursuing information that may or may not be biased, they should have the right to have that information. I only feel that things that are adressed to the general public such as the news on television, or the newspaper should be limited. If someone is innocently reading about current events, they do not deserve to be lied to.

Sam H said...

First a question to either Doc OC or anyone that may know: how was this film considered different that Obama's nightlong campaign ad (when he bought up time on all the major networks and had an infomercial style advertisement).

I also would have to say that free speech does protect the rights of this movie-maker. Hopefully, most viewer would be insightful enough to look beyond the slander and see the movie as it is. In the words of Adrian Monk, "it's a gift and a curse."

It also seems about right that republicans would fight for the rights of the people (that is the principle of the Republican Party, is it not) while the liberals would fight for some regulation as their principles are that some rights given up for the greater good will eventually benefit our country. It seems that the democrats have actually moved towards libertarian while the Republicans (and they would most certainly object to this) have moved towards totalitarians.

Kevin S. said...

I think that the Supreme Court made the right decision to ban Hillary: The Movie. The reason that Congress passed the McCain-Feingold Act was that special interest and partisan nonprofit groups had such influence in the days before an election.

In class, we discussed how you have to be rich to realistically be elected to a high office. I believe that it is undemocratic to only let the wealthy have political power (even if it is de facto). The problem of campaign finance is exacerbated when special interests can give one candidate the ability to run 90 minute ads. Without the McCain-Feingold Act, maybe we would go from only rich elected officials, to only special interest supported officials.

Our democracy depends on people having power, not Citizens United (Orwellian name!!!), and that is what the Supreme Court is trying to protect.

Maeli G. said...

Quite honestly, I believe that as soon as the government starts trying to decipher between political speech and propaganda, it's digging itself into a hole. At times, it can be nearly impossible to know where to draw the line between the two! How on earth can they expect to maintain the rights of free speech once they begin to differentiate between mediums of expression? I think regulation of propaganda, be it in the form of speech, books, or magazines, leads us down a fuzzy path. There's just so much room for misinterpretation.

Anna.S said...

Claire-- how would you define a criticism? Because if you had every negative commentator expelled from the media (for instance, the illustrious Jon Stewart) what would we have left? Would we be any better than Orwellian distopias, where the government "outlaws" people from viewing something? Isn't it a fundamental right for people to choose what to watch?

And to Sam's comment-- I agree with your second point, about how insightful the viewer is. I think that a lot of the problems that arise from having media like we do (constant streams of advertising and subliminal messages) comes from not having an informed audience. I seriously wonder how many people who watch shows on channels like, for instance, Fox, know just how biased that source is. But it's not just Fox, there are many liberal news sources that are also biased.
The root of the matter, in my opinion, is audience. Who would want to watch a Hillary Clinton campaign movie, and why? What does that say about the audience? And if they knew anything about the film, don't you think their mind would be already made up?

Madelaine said...

All speech, even propaganda, should be equally free. If the government starts regulating speech that they deem to be propaganda, sooner or later they will begin to regulate anything that they don't agree with. Also, I don't think the government should decide what is 'appropriate' or 'inappropriate' speech, that's up to each individual listener. Everyone should be able to voice their opinion through whichever media they want. It is the listener's job to decide whether or not to agree with something they hear, not the governments.

Ellie said...

I think that if the government is allowed to regulate political speeches in books, radio shows, TV, movies, and ads, the government will slowly gain control over the entire day to day media. This reminds me of a film made in the late 1950s called "The Blob". It is a cold war era film about a blob-like alien that slowly expands, and starts to engulf the entire world. The film mirrors the fear of the spread of communism. If the government starts to take control over the media, soon it will devoir us like the blob.

Anonymous said...

"I think that people should be free to say what they want." A number of the above comments share this sentiment. Others believe it is a bit more complicated. I, too, believe this is a very messy challenge. I'd love to hear more. For now, how might these examples play into your thoughts?

A science adviser in UK was fired for making a statement that the British government didn't like. (Story here.

A teacher was suspended for bringing in an article about the "Gay Animal Kingdom" as a source for classroom debate on Darwin's theories. (Story here.

Would these people have been immune here in the US? What examples say yes? What examples say no?

Katie O. said...

I agree with what most other people are saying. If the government starts limiting the things we say on the radio or on TV, sooner or later, things published in newspapers will be limited, and textbooks will begin to have a more obvious bias. I think it’s a bad path to go down when we start allowing the government to limit our speech in the media. I think that the people of the United States should be the ones responsible for being educated enough to weed out what we should listen to and what we shouldn't pay attention to in the media. I think as a media consumer, we should be aware of the bias' around us and not need the government to sift through what is ok and what isn't ok for us to see or read.