A popular meme, currently making the rounds by email and on Facebook, depicts a battle scene from the American Revolutionary war. The caption says, “Washington didn’t use his right to free speech to defeat the British. He shot them.”
The meme is meant to support the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is under constant barrage of late, and the message is difficult to refute. English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s claim that the pen is mightier than the sword notwithstanding, America would still be subject to British rule if our forefathers had depended on the Declaration of Independence, instead of guns, to win our freedom from King George of England.
As Al Capone is supposed to have said, “You can get much further with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.”
Still, words are important to us all, and not just those that become law. A case in point is the episode Paula Dean recently endured over something she said two decades ago. In an age when almost everything in the public sector is instantly accessible to virtually everyone on the planet, words may be more effective today than ever before.
Americans, of course, have a right to say anything they desire, as long as no one is hurt (such as shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater). And if the subject is a public figure, the only requirement is that the statement be true, to avoid libel charges (for written accusations) or slander (for spoken defamation). If the charges are true, the accused has little legal recourse, no matter how painful or costly the statement.
The reason we have this right, the right to damage a public figure with the truth without fear of prosecution, is the First Amendment, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
It has often been claimed by Second Amendment supporters (such as myself) that 2A protects all the other rights we have, because it guarantees the citizens a means of requiring our elected representatives to obey the rule of law. While this is true, it is also true that 1A helps to protect 2A, because it allows us to inform our fellows of any breach, or attempted breach, by those same representatives. The old saw that ‘you can’t fix it if you don’t know it’s broke’ comes to mind.
This freedom, the right to speak the truth about our leaders, is not restricted to the press, although communications media obviously have a far greater voice than some. It applies to every citizen of the United States, in every city, county, and state in the nation. Freedom of speech is as much yours as it is mine.
And now, in the Internet Age, when anyone can start a blog or website, the right to free speech is enjoyed by more people than ever before. Which has brought up another question – should everyone with a blog or website be recognized by law as a ‘journalist?’
The issue is immaterial until someone is hauled into court over something they’ve written, and asked to reveal where they got the information. Forty states have ‘media shield laws,’ which allow journalists to refuse to reveal their sources, but such laws don’t apply in federal courtrooms. Congress is now making its third attempt to pass national media shield legislation.
The problem is that some, and here I’m referring to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), want to amend the proposed law so that only paid journalists have such protection. Sen. Feinstein was quoted in a recent Watchdog.org article as saying, “I’ve had it up to here” with citizen journalists and bloggers. She believes shield laws should only protect ‘real journalists.’ By ‘real journalists’ Feinstein means those who are paid to write and report.
My first inclination is to disagree with Sen. Feinstein, no matter what she says, but that isn’t fair. I do, however, disagree with her on shield laws, but not because of 1A. While I realize the First Amendment protects the right to free speech, I assume it does not protect the right to confidentiality of sources, even for the press, or else there would be no need for shield laws.
The basis of my belief that shield laws should protect everyone, instead of just paid journalists, is that whoever controls the diseminator controls the disemination. Politicians have no more right to truth, and no more authority to say who is allowed to speak truth, than anyone else, no matter where that truth comes from.
The bottom line is that Sen. Feinstein and her ilk are opposed to shield laws protecting our free speech for the same reason they’re opposed to firearms freedom – they want to control us. It’s not about speech, and it’s not about guns. It’s about control.
Voltaire said, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist who never shouts ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org