Who Decides How Free Our Speech Can Be?

We hear a lot about our right to free speech. It’s enshrined in the first amendment to the United States Constitution and the Canadian Bill of Rights, and I would argue that it is implied in Britain’s Magna Carta. But do we really have free speech?

The most famous response to this question came from a U.S. Supreme Court chief justice who said the right to free speech does not include the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

To me, that means we do not have free speech. Perhaps we cannot have free speech. But why pretend?

Today I learned that a radio host named Randi Rhodes was suspended indefinitely for making disparaging remarks about Hillary Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro. She was not speaking on air; she was making a speech to an anti-war group.

What she said was totally tasteless. She used the “w” word to describe both women, and I have to admit that was inexcusable. But where does it say in the Magna Carta or the U.S. Constitution that we have to exercise good taste to enjoy our right of free speech?

History abounds in examples of tasteless remarks, especially during election campaigns. The practice has become so prevalent that a special dispensation is provided in U.S. libel law for verbal attacks on public figures.

Was Ms. Rhodes’ remarks equivalent to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater? Of course not. They were offensive but not dangerous.

Similarly, was Pastor Wright’s tirade against America dangerous? I doubt it very much. I would even argue that there was an undercurrent of truth in what he said, although he went way too far. Yet look at the way in which Barack Obama has been pilloried merely for belonging to the pastor’s congregation.

Who determines how free our speech can be? The owners of the news media?

The radio station that Ms. Rhodes works (worked?) for is owned by Green Family Media, made up of New York real estate investor Stephen L. Green and his brother Mark J. Green. So they must have the final word in deciding what behavior is acceptable on the part of the station’s employees. That makes a couple of real estate guys the arbiters of Constitutional freedom in America.

Patrick Henry must be turning in his grave.