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Why Media Should Not Be Regulated by the Government

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The world is full of all kinds of opinions, images, and ideas that, on the surface, one would naturally want to censor. While the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights provides we Americans with the right to free speech, there are exceptions that are not covered. However, if outside those exceptions, certain groups or individuals have their rights stripped away due to an unpopular opinion, then how long will it be until nearly every other group also loses these rights? Leaving America looking more like a foreign land, with dissenters silenced and locked away. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has said, “The First Amendment is often inconvenient, but that is besides the point. Inconvenience does not absolve the government of its obligation to tolerate speech” (Susan300). Before getting into the issues regarding freedom of speech, we should first begin by going into detail about what is not considered constitutionally protected speech. “Obscenity,” a word that changes with time and society, has not been given protection by the Supreme Court. In order for an art work; say, a controversial painting, to not be considered obscene, it must have some kind of serious value, and not just be puerile for the sake of being puerile.

In regards to pornography, which rarely has any “artistic” value, at least from what I’ve seen anyway, there is a “variable tolerance” for such sexually explicit material, and the Supreme Court let individual communities set the standard for what they would accept, except when it came to children, whom had no right to view such material. (nap.edu)2. There have been many court decisions over the years that have shaped the definitions of what is protected and what is not. “Our reputations are forged when people make judgments based upon the mosaic of information available about us.”(Solove) Another area that is not legally protected speech is that of slander and libel. Slander is words spoken against someone that are both untrue, and harmful to their reputation. Libel is basically the same thing except in written form. Both are recognized as defamations of character.

The first defamation case to be heard by the Supreme Court was in 1964, with The New York Times vs. Sullivan. In that case a public figure attempted to sue for defamation, but had to prove that there was “actual malice” involved, meaning that the words of the New York Times were indeed intended to be defamatory, and not accidentally so. (Defamation, Libel, and Slander) While we Americans can say what we like, we cannot defame someone, and the laws regarding this are very complicated, and, like obscenity, have been shaped by years of court rulings. There are also a few other gray areas when it comes to free speech, but these are just a few of the instances where someone can get into trouble for speaking their mind. That’s alright though, because there is a fine line between freedom and anarchy, and if we were free to say anything we cared to say anytime we cared to say it, Anarchy is exactly what we would have.

No one should be able to view and share child pornography, or write a front page article in the local paper about how incompetent a local doctor or politician is, and that is why there has to be a line drawn in the sand, in order to avoid the consequences of what would happen if that line wasn’t there. Both sides of the free speech debate have vigorous defenders of the ideologies that they represent. Some are civilized, and rely on judicial means to accomplish their goals. While others employ more radical and sometimes illegal means to accomplish theirs. The only ones of interest to me are the groups who actually get things accomplished in the courts. Anyone can sit in a coffee shop or outside a restaurant and spew vitriol all day, but when it comes down to it, the people involved will walk away and forget about everything they just talk about or heard as soon as American Idol comes on that night. When it comes to freedoms, it is action that gets results, legal; action anyway. That is why there are organizations like the ACLU, the Americans Civil Liberties Union.

For nearly one hundred years this New York-based non-for-profit organization has been on the fore-front of many court cases that have helped to shape and define censorship and free speech throughout many different areas. The first case that pretty much created the ACLU was the Palmer Raids case of 1920, where then Attorney General Palmer sought to have any “alien” who had radical beliefs, deported out of America. The ACLU, led by founder Roger Baldwin, won the case and the victory gave Unionists the right to hold meetings and also freed hundreds of activists who had been imprisoned for anti-war activities. (History of the ACLU) The ACLU is also part of a much larger organization called the National Coalition against Censorship. The N.C.A.C is comprised of fifty non-for-profit organizations that all fight to protect the First Amendment. In the year 2000, the N.C.A.C began the “Free Expression Policy Project,” and since everything must have an acronym apparently, they called it F.E.P.P (The Free Expression Policy Project).

Basically this project was created to give free speech advocates an expansive collection of materials and resources that is readily accessible to anyone wanting to learn more about the issues related to attempted restriction of free speech in any conceivable area, or for anyone on the other side of the issue to read and whine about. These are just some of the hundreds of organizations who have taken it upon themselves to protect the right of all Americans to legally express themselves. Although the ACLU and some of these other groups do share some controversial views and have some very unpopular opinions in regard to certain subjects, their contributions to America in regard to our First Amendment rights are undeniable, and it really is one of those situations where you have to look past the bad to get to the core good of what they are trying to accomplish. There is never going to be any one organization that will do everything right for everyone, it is just not possible, and that’s what some of the harsher critics need to realize, that if these organizations hadn’t stood up for our rights in the first place when questions and challenges came around, they might not have had the freedom to be able to criticize them.

On the other side of the free speech issue there are some organizations that want to limit what certain groups can say, and they also have vast resources at their disposal in order to try and accomplish their goals. Surprisingly, one of the main groups that have sought to regulate speech has actually been our very own government. Just because our forefathers created a document designed to guide our country throughout history, doesn’t mean that every official that has ever taken office agrees wholeheartedly with them. One of the biggest cases to ever deal with the first amendment occurred in 1996, when then Attorney general Janet Reno sought provisions to protect minors from “obscene or indecent” materials from the internet, which at the time was just starting to get off of the ground and wasn’t nearly what it is now. (Statute on Internet decency draws high courts review.) The government thought that with previous victories in the Supreme Court over decency on the airwaves, that restricting what could be sent over the internet would fall right in line.

However, in a landmark decision, all nine justices saw otherwise, and struck down the Communications Decency Act, because it violated the First Amendment, and part of this victory is actually due to the efforts of the ACLU, who worked against the government in this case. The main point of contention was the availability of objectionable materials to those under the age of eighteen. Anyone who was found to have displayed said materials to a minor, whether knowingly or not would be found criminally liable. One of the biggest problems that helped sway the case was the bills broad definitions of what was obscene or indecent. Words like “patently offensive” had no prior legal meaning, which would make it difficult for someone posting a video or blog let’s say, to know what crossed the line, because technically there was no discernable line there.

The internet was still in its infancy, but people from both sides could see the potential for what could be. If someone’s humorous rant contained profanity or lewd comments, it could technically be available to, and viewed by, minors, and therefore, the poster could potentially be held criminally liable. Another area that worried free speech advocates was medical information. A picture of a reproductive organ, used in a non-sexual medical setting, might violate so called “community standards” of decency. Even though the content may have originated on a different coast than where it was found offensive, because the internet has no boundaries, so things would have gotten unimaginably complicated. But there was another silver lining that came out of all this, I mean besides the whole preservation of freedoms thing, there was an entirely new area of business that was created: internet filters. Millions of dollars every year are spent by families around the country trying to keep their children from viewing obscene material, and billions of hours are spent by children every year trying to hack their way around them, but that’s neither here nor there.

The Supreme Court made the right decision in this case, in my opinion anyways. Had the bill passed it is really hard to say just how different the internet would be. All the blogs and posts would, most likely, have to have been censored, thus leaving the authors free of the passion that drove them to write in the first place, but to elaborate on what could have been would take days to properly do, so I’ll leave it as is. One of the other recent areas of interest regarding the First Amendment came shortly after the events of September 11th. In the weeks following the tragedy, the Bush administration and congress came up with the act in order to “fight terrorism.” However, mere days after it was announced, several organizations filed suit to try to stop it, mainly due to its supposed savaging of the First Amendment. I say supposed because it is really not clear for me to see how much damage it did as I sit in my recliner in Indiana, and most people posting about it on the net are rabid lunatics whether they be for or against it, so sources are kind of limited.

However, I do know that most of what people didn’t like was the fact that the government could secretly seize business records, conduct unbeknownst wiretaps on citizen’s conversations, and bar any group from giving any kind of advice to anyone the government thought was a “terrorist.” Whenever the government starts doing things “secretly,” people start to wonder about two things; the extent of which they will go, and accountability. I mean, who’s going to police the government? Especially in a time when we’ve just suffered a massive tragedy? At the time if you questioned the Patriot Act and you were by yourself you were driven out of town by a pitchfork and torch wielding mob that sang “Proud to be an American” as they chased you into the hills. Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it was popular to support whatever the government did at that time, so unless you were the ACLU or any of the other groups involved in opposing the Patriot Act, it was a good idea to just keep your opinions to yourself.

In any event, the Patriot Act passed, and caused some controversy, and despite his liberal leanings, President Obama is going to renew it, and that’s all there is to it. All in all, I feel privileged to live in this country, and I am grateful to those who have the guts to stand up for our rights, even though sometimes the same group may disgust me with their take on other issues, you take a helping hand when you can get it, and you thank them for it, but just that, not the other stuff you hate about them. I imagine if I had to write this paper in a country like China, I’m sure it would have been phrased “Should Freedom of Speech ever be enacted?” And If I would have put “yes” some smiling men in suits would have come and ushered me away to a lifetime of back-breaking labor in a sulfur mine, or worse. So yea, even though writing papers is terrible, I’m glad I get to do it in a country where I can say whatever I like, technically, and I hope it stays that way.

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