The first amendment of the constitution declares: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. This is one of the great freedoms that we cherish in our democracy. But is it absolute? Can we say anything, anywhere, at any time? The answer is clearly ‘no’. There are well established exceptions. These include obscenity, defamation (libel/slander), perjury, blackmail, copyright infringement, and Incitement to imminent lawless action. We cannot yell ‘fire!’ In a crowded theater, for example. In general we cannot cause significant harm to other individuals or society in general.
I would suggest that we all, as citizens, have the expectation, and the right, to enjoy the benefits of a well functioning democracy, as envisioned by the founding fathers. This means true representation by our elected representatives. This means a fair, equitable and efficient political process at the national level that works to protect and preserve the values and needs of the majority – government of, for and by the people. This means a government that works to sustain and improve the welfare of of all citizens and not preferentially the financial elite, the political elite and the intellectual elite.
Today we see many examples of ‘speech’ that is arguably harmful to our democracy. These include so called fake news, information ‘spun’ to intentionally mislead, negative political advertising and social media posts, foreign influences, biased news media, etc. The fact is that our political process has become dominated by big money. Money from corporations and the financial elite pays for political campaigns and the PAC sponsored messaging associated with campaigns. Much of this is anonymous. Much of this is spin, negative or fake.
My feeling is clear: the rampant political messaging that is false and/or misleading is a clear and present danger to our democracy. I also believe that censorship is a slippery slope and is not the answer. So what to do?
As individuals in society we quite naturally develop opinions about people. Who do we accept as friends? In part we listen to what people say. Over time we develop a sense of a persons character and their values. We can do this because we can attribute what we hear to a specific individual. In contrast when it comes to politics and political campaigns this is not always possible. With social media people can post anonymously. Political advertising can be attributed to a group or PAC but we do not have access to the names of the responsible individuals.
My suggestion is quite simple: Eliminate all anonymous messaging, at least during a political campaign and at least if the message includes the name of a bonafide political candidate. This includes print media, social media and broadcast/cable media. The post or message would have to have an attribution to a real person or persons. If it was a group or PAC sponsored message then the group or PAC must make the membership/contributor names available to the public. In this way you and I can develop an opinion about the individuals who message us. Over time we can have a sense of who and what to believe of what we are exposed to. We can preserve the freedom of speech, but if you abuse it will falsehoods, your personal reputation will suffer accordingly.
Photo by DonkeyHotey