Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Freedom of Amplified Speech

Part 38 of Prisoners of the Real

The main function of news media is the communication of information and ideas. Since their public nature is also widely accepted, it is reasonable to conclude that most individual speech via these media isn't inherently intrusive. Furthermore, both print and electronic news media describe their work as disseminating information and viewpoints that are necessary for self-government. Approaches may vary, from reprinting press statements to investigating corruption. Still, all news media enterprises capitalize on the image that they reflect the mood, sentiments, and activities of the public. And most of the time they depend on members of the public as their primary sources. In fact, without the public, what would there be to report?

In short, with the exception of C-Span and noncommercial radio, US news media are mainly private enterprises with an essentially public function. The issue is whether and how they can be made more available to a wide variety of speakers. As long as the presence of more participants doesn't prevent them from performing their basic functions it is certainly a valid question to ask.

Broadening access to quasi-public forums is clearly consistent with the spirit of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The real issue is whether it's possible. As every student is told, Congress is prohibited from abridging freedom of speech and of the press. It is not prevented, however, from taking affirmative steps to enhance the ability of individuals to gain access to public forums. This need not mean that the rights of "listeners" conflict with the rights of the press as "speakers." Instead, we can simply guarantee that individual speech isn’t snuffed out because powerful media owners arbitrarily decide that only they, their employees or their friends deserve access.

The idea that government can take action to insure relative equality in the ideas marketplace was explored in the 1972 Supreme Court case, Police Department of the City of Chicago v. Mosely. In that case, a man who had been picketing peacefully near a school to protest discrimination sought to overrule a city ordinance that prohibited picketing within 150 feet during classes – unless the pickets were involved in a labor dispute.

The case posed this question: What is the relationship between equality and the First Amendment? Noting that the ordinance was a form of censorship based on subject matter, Justice Marshall wrote, "Above all else the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content." He went on to say that the principle involved was "equality of status in the field of ideas."

Chicago v. Mosely set out two complementary aspects of access to public forums. It prohibited government from judging the content of speech, and provided ground rules for channeling expression based on "time, place and manner restrictions." In other words, any decision to exclude speakers should be the minimum necessary. For example, if a community wanted to protect its children by restricting TV advertising on Saturday mornings, theoretically it could do so if the action was proven to be the "least means" of reducing the exposure of young people to socially destructive messages. Although the Court has found it difficult to set clear boundaries for access, the concepts of "least means" and "content neutrality" do provide a basis for setting limits on corporate and personal speech.

The issue is not whether the message makes a significant contribution to self-government. Rather, this approach assumes that all messages are valid expressions of individual autonomy, contributing to the speaker's sense of self-worth. Media managers can set time, place and manner restrictions – rules dealing with length, distribution throughout the day or the publication, and repetition. Communication can even be barred at certain times, as long as the decision doesn’t discriminate based on content.

Such access to dominant public forums could be called freedom of "amplified speech." In practical terms, it would mean expanded citizen access to newspapers, compensating for the virtually unlimited access afforded to corporations and other large institutions. The rights of reporters and editors – society's "informed speakers" – would be brought into balance with the rights of non-journalists, possibly even enhancing the role of the press in checking abuses of power.

Electronic media would have the right to impose restrictions, but these would have to apply equally to wealthy and poor speakers, to those with views that agree with the owners and those with ideas they oppose. For the cable industry, freedom of amplified speech obviously involves access to a channel and equipment for anyone who wanted it. The articulate and technically knowledgeable will have an advantage at first, but experience tends to reduce such disparities over time.

In each case, the right applies only to individuals, since freedom of expression is fundamentally a personal right and freedom of the press really means the right of citizens to use various means of communication without prior restraint. Under this approach, institutions wouldn't be prohibited from issuing messages and opinions, but their speech should receive no special protection or treatment.

This ultimately leads to the big question: who decides? Hopefully, the speakers themselves or their communities would make most of the choices. Every person has the basic right to choose when to speak, whether, and about what. Participation should never be compulsory. On the other hand, the gates of a public forum shouldn't be locked when someone wants to use it. Relying again on the "least means" test, most disputes can be resolved at the local level.

Such solutions will usually be less expensive and time consuming. When local action is impractical, however, the next level of government will have to intervene. The goal is to find the way to leave future options open, in the community, across the nation, and around the world.

If individuals and communities are to assert such rights, a new form of literacy must be cultivated. The right to self-expression will have little value unless the message can be effectively conveyed. This is a complex social issue, growing out of the technological revolution of the late 20th century, and must be addressed by all our institutions, particularly schools. Working as enablers (another word we may want to reclaim from its negative definition), along with local government and educational organizations, media institutions can be instrumental in developing a citizenry with the capacity for full self-expression.

If young people are to become effective and self-regulated speakers, if they are going to develop a sense of self-worth and make meaningful contributions to a self-governing society, media literacy must be an intrinsic part of their education. This area of study should go beyond how to use computers and handheld devices, including a critical awareness of the role mass communication plays in society, as well as effective techniques of speaking, writing, programming, and visual presentation, and an understanding of how media affect opinion formation and the democratic process. If access to the "ideas" marketplace is to be meaningful, skill development and critical understanding must start at an early age.

Interpreting political rights from the standpoint of autonomy also requires a balance of negative and affirmative aspects. Speech is usually considered a negative right; that is, a restriction on government's ability to restrain communication by the people or the press. Any fair analysis of contemporary problems, however, will reveal that the threat today is not mainly government but instead the manipulation of media and mass perceptions by giant institutions with enormous economic and information power at their disposal. Protecting free speech therefore requires affirmative action to re-open the marketplace of ideas. Failure to fulfill this responsibility leaves the power to inform and, ultimately, to censor and control in the hand of a few private interests.

Although news media claim special rights due to their important public function, they normally deny that they have a responsibility to keep their doors open. In the face of such hypocrisy, intervention is sorely needed if the right of self-expression is to have any real meaning in the years ahead.

The survival of a free society depends ultimately on the actions of self-governing people. But people can’t manage their society, or their own lives, if they lack the sense of dignity that comes from exercising the right of self-expression. No government can guarantee democracy. No business can manufacture it. And the media can’t sell it. The best any of them can do is to keep the door open. If they just do that, the vast potential of humanity will take care of the rest, and the promise of a self-governing society may yet be kept.

Cynics complain that no government can be trusted, or that humanity simply isn't capable of self-rule. Sectarian ideologues say that all reforms are futile and the only way to transform society is through a disruptive (and inevitably violent) break with the past. Both approaches carry the burden of despair, a loss of faith in the possibility of moving, day by day, toward a better world. What such extreme views lack is hope, that richness of spirit essential for any lasting change.

Next: The Dionysian Approach

To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

AZ Immigration Fight Sparks Reactions

UPDATE: Attorney General Eric Holder said on Tuesday that the federal government may challenge Arizona’s new immigration law. Both the Justice Department and the Homeland Security Department are reviewing it. Meanwhile in Flagstaff, Mayor Sara Presler announced that the city's council would open discussion on the law to the public on Tuesday during a special meeting. In Phoenix, Mayor Phil Gordon has asked members of his council to consider a lawsuit to prevent SB 1070 from going into effect. Presler says the law would strain the Flagstaff Police Department's resource.

In California, lawmakers in San Francisco are set to vote on a citywide boycott of the state. On May 25, about 70 drivers from California and Arizona agreed to stop moving loads into or out of Arizona in protest of the new law. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also weighed in on the issue. The law "could have a chilling effect on international business travel, investment, and tourism in that state, as many people from around the world may think twice before visiting Arizona and subjecting themselves to potential run-ins with the police," he said.

The Mexican government has issued a travel warning, urging Mexican citizens to be careful in Arizona. In an alert posted in Spanish and English, the Mexican Foreign Relations Ministry said, “there is a negative political environment for migrant communities and for all Mexican visitors.” Although enforcement details remain unclear, "it must be assumed that every Mexican citizen may be harassed and questioned without further cause at any time," the ministry's statement said.

For more on Arizona's immigration showdown, go to Immigration Fight at the AZ Corral

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Autonomy & Self-Rule

Part 37 of Prisoners of the Real

In the quest to reclaim equality and freedom in the marketplace of ideas, and along with them, the personal right of self-expression, we inevitably must grapple with the concept of autonomy. Liberty of expression, widely valued for its contribution to the search for truth and the functioning of a self-governing society, also involves a conscious choice by each person exercising this freedom. Without this basic form of self-management, democracy can't exist.

In truth, there is actually no such thing as total autonomy. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our existence is influenced by our bodily needs and impulses, cultural norms and values. Without air we perish, and without love we become the brutes that Hobbes claimed we were. Yet autonomy is a real and powerful aspiration, pulling us toward self-sufficiency, moral courage and the full development of our unique inner selves. It is the quest for identity, the search for self-actualization that has been studied and debated by psychologists, theologians and social theorists.

Kant saw autonomy as the spontaneous action of a mind molding experience and choosing goals. In political terms, it is self-government, the sovereignty of the group, community, or people. Autonomy doesn't ignore or defy the needs of an organized society; rather, it is tied to the belief that social stability depends on diversity. But diversity must be channeled when necessary to prevent destructive fragmentation. In essence, autonomy incorporates the concepts of self-regulation and equilibrium. Any society that values equality and freedom must encourage the autonomous participation of its citizens.

The original Greek idea of autonomy was self-rule. In more recent times, it has been stripped of its ethical content and defined simply as a form of independence, usually economic in nature, or as an institutional attribute. This is especially deceptive, since selfhood is very much linked both with individual competence and with a person's claim to power within society. Libertarian Philosopher Murray Bookchin relates this idea to the civic concept of self-management. "Self-rule applies to society as a whole," he writes. "Self-management is the management of villages, neighborhoods, towns, and cities. The technical sphere of life is conspicuously secondary to the social. In the two revolutions that open the modern era of secular politics – the American and French – self-management emerges in the libertarian town meetings that swept from Boston to Charleston and the popular sections that assembled in Parisian quatiers."

When people lack a sense of self-worth and dignity, however, pious talk about the value of self-government takes on a hollow ring. Citizens who don't, or believe they don't, have the right to self-expression and meaningful choice will not indefinitely remain active in democratic processes. In this context, we must ask whether it is mere coincidence that the era of growing media influence in the political process has also been a time of declining political participation. It is chic to conclude that people are simply "fed up" with politics. In Why Americans Hate Politics, E.J. Dionne, a journalist himself, defined the situation as a revolt against public debate that avoids real solutions to problems. From his privileged vantage point, Dionne apparently couldn’t see the possibility that what really turns off voters is being excluded from the debate.

Courted by politicians, advertisers and pollsters solely as objects of persuasion, most people are left with the distinct impression that nothing they say could have much value or impact. The problem is that a sense of self-worth grows from successful social interactions. When self-expression fades as a personal right, so too does the belief in democratic self-government as a functioning reality. Thus, the failure to respect and support the autonomy value that underpins freedom of speech has become a major source of eroding faith in democratic government.

In place of personal autonomy, a new value has been promoted over the last several decades – institutional autonomy. The progressive mechanization and centralization of social and political affairs has combined with the notion that institutions, whether corporations, unions, or special interest groups, can claim rights once reserved for individuals. Economic entities demand protection of their speech rights either as representatives of the public or because laws grant them the status of "persons." In the case of the institutional media, the argument rests on their role as private guardians of the public interest.

Most of these institutions claim a dedication to the preservation of diversity. And yet, without a wide variety of self-expressive speakers who bring a stream of new ideas into the marketplace, diversity becomes an illusion. Institutional autonomy instead creates a closed market in which ideas, like prices, are fixed.

Almost without noticing it, we have permitted the foundations of self-government to be undermined.

Next: Reclaiming Free Speech

To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Eclipse of Free Expression

Part 36 of Prisoners of the Real

A precise blueprint for change would be inconsistent with the need for spontaneity, diversity, and intuitive leadership in sparking a Dionysian revival. A recitation of social goals and transitional objectives would be just one more laundry list, as well as an invitation to later disillusionment. Cultural regeneration can only occur as a result of actions by millions of autonomous individuals and purposeful groups. Nevertheless, Dionysian insights can be applied to the understanding and solution of many problems. Consider, for example, the crisis of freedom as it relates to mass communication and self-expression.

All too often, when confronted with a crisis, citizens in many nations favor expansion of government power over protection of individual liberty. In the realm of free expression, this implies at least a tacit agreement that speech is a privilege conferred by authority. In the United States, self-proclaimed conservatives have long waved the banners of liberty and individualism, defining them primarily as entrepreneurial spirit and free enterprise. Yet their version is a dangerous stew, including large portions of provincialism, hypocritical moralizing, and an obsession with national exceptionalism and power. The result has been aggression, combined with restrictions on free speech and infringements on basic rights when either speech or behavior runs at odds with fundamentalist beliefs or the "national interest." Congressional studies reveal that the response has been as expansive as the systematic impulse of government bureaucracies to expand their jurisdictions and perpetuate their functions. If current trends continue, the combined effect of successive national administrations preoccupied with security and corporate “free enterprise” and a bureaucratic establishment ever ready to assume new powers may well be disastrous for the robust discussion of ideas, the search for truth, and the personal fulfillment of individual human beings.

The nature of communication changed dramatically during the 20th century. Technological innovations made electronic media the dominant conveyers of basic information. Seeing and hearing truly became believing. Yet despite the dangers posed by these powerful tools, ranging from the potential for manipulation of mass opinion and actions to the drowning out of individual voices, the main response of governments has been the imposition of rules that are either discriminatory or ineffective. What government action has absolutely failed to do is slow the consolidation of economic control.

Since the emergence of radio the media environment of the US and, following its example, much of the world has been transformed. Television has turned political debate into a war of packaged sound bites. Blatant commercialism and violent cartoons have altered the perceptions and values of millions of children. Multinational companies and ad agencies mold consciousness, hammering in certain messages and suppressing others. Global management of information now poses as great a threat to self-government as pollution does to the environment.

Even the prospect of a participatory renaissance ushered in by the Internet may be overrated. As media historian Robert McChesney sees it, the ultimate beneficiaries of the so-called Internet Age may be the investors, advertisers, and a handful of media, computer, and telecommunications corporations. Despite the use of computers to mobilize political action and help laudable campaigns, the "information age" is shaping up like a new era of information imperialism.

Looking specifically at freedom of speech and the press in the US, many of the problems can be traced to an obsolete notion about the source of the danger. Although government intrusions are far from irrelevant, they no longer constitute the primary threat; that honor must go to corporate entities, including the institutional media themselves, which have exploited basic rights and snuffed out the personal right to speak in the process. In their effort to guard against government abridgments of speech, Congress and the courts have left most citizens at the mercy of impersonal economic forces whose institutional autonomy and ability to widely disseminate their views have undermined diversity in the marketplace of ideas.

Any voice that isn't "amplified" through broadcast or print is unlikely to be audible. Or, to paraphrase a proverb, if you can't be heard, have you actually spoken?

The evolution of varying standards of speech protection for different modes of communication has given the government some leverage in negotiations with each. Overall, however, the promise of First Amendment protection has led to an assumption that economic entities are entitled to the same rights as human beings. It has even been argued that they are involved in speech that is more vital to democracy than the speech of any individual. The rationale has cut both ways, occasionally justifying refusal of access to the media and, less often, requiring media to air a message.

As a result of this fragmentation of speech rights, most people have had their freedom redefined and largely curtailed on the basis of the medium they wish to use. Those who operate outside the institutional media, though some may consider themselves “netizans” as a result of their access to blogs and social networks, are mainly consigned to the status of "listeners," "consumers," "audience," or occasionally "sources." The progressive mechanization of mass media, combined with economic centralization, has led to a system of mass communication that is impersonal and normally unresponsive. Freedom of speech has become an institutional right, and individual speakers have been turned into interchangeable objects.

Next: Autonomy & Self-Rule

To read other chapters, go to
Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey