Getting Free Speech Wrong
Proving the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows, and that misunderstanding the Constitution is something that both the right and the left are guilty of, the President of NARAL and the President of the Christian Coalition have a joint column in today’s Washington Post about the refusal by Verizon Wireless to allow broadcast text messages on “controversial” topics:
Last month, Verizon Wireless refused to approve NARAL Pro-Choice America’s application for a text-messaging “short code,” a program that enables people to voluntarily sign up to receive updates by texting a five-digit code. When NARAL Pro-Choice America protested, the nation’s second-largest wireless carrier initially claimed the right to block any content “that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory.”
After news of Verizon’s censorship hit the front page of the New York Times, and sparked a public outcry, the company quickly backpedaled. Verizon issued an apology and blamed the blocking on a “dusty internal policy,” while still reserving the right to block text messages in the future at its discretion.
When it comes to censoring free speech, sorry just isn’t good enough. Whatever your political views — conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, pro-choice or pro-life — it shouldn’t be up to Verizon to determine whether you receive the information you requested. Why should any company decide what you choose to say or do over your phone, your computer or your BlackBerry? Technologies are converging in our communications system, but the principles of free expression and the rights of all Americans to speak without intervention should remain paramount.
The authors are guilty of making a mistake that many Americans make; they take the provisions of the First Amendment and attempt to apply them in contexts in which they are simply inapplicable.
Here, for those who seem to either forget or refuse to remember is what the First Amendment actually says:
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.
The emphasis is mine, of course, but it’s meant to emphasize the simple fact that the First Amendment is only directed to government action. When we talk about Freedom of Speech, we’re talking about your right to speak without fear of state reprisal or prior restraint. We are not talking about your right to use someone’s private property to promote your agenda.
And that is exactly what the authors are talking about in this case. Verizon decided that it didn’t want to become a conduit for their political agenda. In a free society, they should have the right to do this if they want to. And if you don’t like it, then go find another cell phone provider.
But that isn’t what the authors want to hear. They want Congress to force Verizon and other telecom providers to provide them with a space on their network to promote their agenda.
We’re asking Congress to convene hearings on whether existing law is sufficient to guarantee the free flow of information and to protect against corporate censorship. The public deserves an open and fair conversation about this important issue.
No, the public needs to realize that we’ll never come close to having a free society if we don’t respect property rights, including Verizon’s.