1st, 2nd Amendments Closer Than I Thought
I think I know how the beleaguered guns nuts feel right about now, even though I have never owned a gun or felt the need to own one. (I did once fire my ex-brother-in-law’s .44 Magnum revolver in his Virginia woods years ago. My ears are still ringing.)
For years, on this page and earlier in Broadcasting & Cable, I have defended the free speech rights of broadcasters and of media in general and I have attacked those who would chip away at those rights through law or regulation. And like the gun nuts do about guns, I probably have a much more expansive view of what speech should be protected by the Constitution than your average citizen.
In the wake of the Newtown killings last Dec. 14, the NRA and others have rallied to oppose the Obama administration’s campaign to impose tougher restrictions on gun ownership. In so doing, they have made the same fundamental arguments that they have many times before — that the answer to too much gun violence is more guns and that guns are necessary to guard against tyranny.
A week after the killings, NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre took the more-guns argument a step further, proposing that the government post armed guards in every school.
And Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), the only pro-gun lawmaker brave enough or nutty enough to go on TV the Sunday after, made the “tyranny” argument, saying government will stay in line only if it knows “the biggest army is the American people.”
LaPierre and Gohmert were roundly ridiculed and criticized for their comments.
But what strikes me about their arguments is how similar they are to the ones that I and other free speech advocates regularly make. The answer to false, hateful and pernicious speech is not censorship, we say. It’s more speech. If everybody is given an opportunity to have their say and access to it is not restricted, the people in their collective wisdom will eventually winnow out the truth and all will be well.
And when we really get warmed up, we will talk about how free speech is crucial to democracy and a bulwark against tyranny.
And just like the gun nuts, we can cite respected Americans in making our case. “[If] the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led like sheep to the slaughter,” said George Washington.
And there is no publisher in the country who hasn’t used this line from Thomas Jefferson on the occasion of some journalism award: “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.”
Like the gun nuts, we are ever vigilant. No affront to free speech is too small to raise our ire for each one puts us on that slippery slope. You’re telling me we can’t say “fuck” or show somebody’s backside in primetime, well, we’ll see you in court.
The TV industry is fortunate that it is not currently the target of the government’s determination to do something — anything! — to stop the gun violence. But like the gun nuts, First Amendment advocates have had to rebut circumstantial evidence that media are a root cause of rampage killings. You never know when the government may shift its sights. (See there: guns are so pervasive in our culture that I’ve used two gun metaphors in this paragraph without even trying.)
I think it is reasonable to ban assault rifles. In the hands of the wrong person, they can quickly do a lot of damage. An urban/suburban dweller all my life, my idea of home protection is a dog, a baseball bat and a telephone. I have no interest in killing anything for sport.
But then I know that there are many Americans who believe it is reasonable to censor reports that may jeopardize national security, to make news media more accountable for false reports, to force reporters to turn over notes and divulge sources to prosecutors, to deny reporters access to government documents, to prohibit flag burning and to regulate indecent and violent TV programming.
Yet, I would protest against all of those things.
So, as I said, I can empathize with the gun nuts. Like them, free speech advocates tend to draw the line of what’s permitted and what’s not way farther out than where most would draw it.
Maybe you can’t cherry pick the Bill of Rights. If it turns out that you can gut one of those amendments, you may be able to gut them all.
Maybe the gun nuts aren’t such nuts after all. Either that or I’m a nut too.