Free Speech Is Free Speech

I thank the editors of the Granite State News for taking the time to respond to my letter (Other Voices, June 25th). I take them at their word that they are not challenging the basic right of free speech. Readers can go back to the May 21st editorial and see if they come to the same conclusion that I did upon first reading it, that the editors were proposing curbing the first amendment. They wrote then, “Every one of the rights listed [in the first amendment] … have been subject to limitations in our history.” Then they concluded with, “We simply cannot allow free speech to degenerate into hostile speech or let unrestrained self-expression drive us apart.”

What do they mean by “cannot allow free speech to degenerate” and “or let unrestrained self-expression drive us apart”? How do they propose that we control free speech? Who will do the controlling and the restraining? I believe reasonable readers, in whose company I fancy myself, can come to the conclusion that the editors were proposing limiting the right of free speech. But they write that they were not.

Again I must thank the editors for printing my correspondence. They are under no obligation to do so. If the editors were to decline to publish my letter, my rights would not be violated. I could write to a different newspaper, I could start a blog, I could start my own newspaper. The first amendment prohibits the government from limiting my speech.

My fellow Tuftonboro resident, John Ratcliffe, writes on June 18th that he “hated what [George W.] Bush did to [the U.S.],” but “wouldn’t have dreamed of posting a sign at the end of [his] driveway with crude insults on it as regards to the president of the United States.” This is perhaps admirable but by no means typical of American history. (Mr. Ratcliffe also does not know the difference between yearly deficits and cumulative debts, but that’s for another letter.)

Much of the American left—and I’m not sure if Mr. Ratcliffe or the editors would be included in this category, though it seems likely—are under the delusion that Barack Obama has received more abuse than other presidents. This is simply not true. To take just the most recent example, George W. Bush was the target of countless “crude insults,” even if Mr. Ratcliffe would not have dreamed of putting a sign at the end of his driveway. Bush was often hanged in effigy during anti-war protests, he was depicted in political cartoons as a monkey, and even booed by Democrats during his State of the Union speech in 2005. (And he was by no means the first to receive such treatment from the opposing party during a speech.) There was even a movie made about assassinating him! “After the last eight years, it’s great to have a president who knows what a library is,” said Paul McCartney in 2010, evidently not knowing that George W. Bush was a voracious reader who consumed over a hundred books a year. Natalie Maine of the Dixie Chicks famously called Bush a “dumb F—.”

The editors worry that today “the opportunity of free speech is often taken as a license to be rude and disrespectful and shout down those you assume do not agree with you.” (June 25th) They are also under the misimpression that we are living in a new era of “hostile speech.” They wrote on May 21, “Instead of free speech as it was protected in our 18th century Constitution we have hostile speech that is intended to attack and provoke rather than inform and lead to debate.” Put aside their formulation of free speech as an “opportunity” rather than a basic right, it is simply not accurate that our times are any different, or that free speech has ever been conditioned on whether it intends to inform and lead to debate.

The election of 1800 was by many accounts one of the nastiest in our history, with slander flying in both directions. These “attack ads” from 1800, produced by Reason.com, quote directly from the campaign:

Thomas Jefferson paid a newspaper editor to call sitting president John Adams, among other things, a “blind, bald, crippled, toothless man.”  Adams’s allies in turn warned that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, adultery, rape, incest, and robbery will be openly taught and practiced.” And Jefferson and Adams had been friends for over 25 years at that point! There’s not enough space to list all the insults that other presidents have endured. From Washington to Obama, every single one of our presidents has been vilified at some point. Newspapers accused Washington of wanting to be a king, Lincoln was called an ape, etc., etc.

It is truly part of what makes America great that we can insult our presidents with impunity. Do you disagree? Ask yourself what happens to Russians who criticize Putin; to Cubans who criticize the Castros; to North Koreans who criticize the Kims.

This post appeared as a letter to the editor of the Granite State News.