This isn’t Free Speech. It’s just cheap.

August 28, 2009

The First Amendment does not give an absolute right to say what you want.  You may not exercise your freedom of speech to the detriment of other people’s freedoms by, for example, inciting racial hatred or encouraging others to commit crimes.  Freedom of speech has its limits.  The question is where those limits should be.

By now most people have probably seen this video of Barney Frank comparing a woman to a dining room table, but he made a far more telling point when he remarks that it is a testament to the First Amendment that his questioner has the right to compare Obama’s health care reforms to the Holocaust.  Odious?  Yes.  (And Frank is Jewish.)  But thank heavens we live in a society where odious views may be expressed with impunity.  Here’s the clip:

So, First Amendment, yea, hooray for you.  But how far should these freedoms be taken?  Allow to me to get hyper-parochial on you.

I, and many others, have a problem with the comments section on the Columbia Daily Tribune’s website.  People may leave comments on the news stories of the day, and boy, do they.  Even the most innocuous stories seem to attract a deluge of vapid, mean-spirited, opinionated, poorly-punctuated vitriol which leaves one reeling and utterly dispirited.  I have read posts about people that I personally know full of sly insinuations and occasional downright falsehoods, libelous in the extreme.  There is bickering and abuse between commenters which wouldn’t dignify a middle school playground.

Now, some would say this exchange represents exactly what the First Amendment is all about… and in fact I wouldn’t disagree, but for one thing: people are allowed to post comments anonymously.  I have a real problem with this.  By all means exercise these freedoms we have been given, but at least have the guts to stand behind your views.  People should be forced to declare themselves for who they are if they want to use this forum to display their bigotry and ignorance to the world.

Here’s just one choice example from yesterday’s paper.  Scroll down – it really gets cookin’ further down the page.  Mandatory birth control for welfare recipients?  Now why wouldn’t someone want to put their real name behind that idea?  (This one is another doozy, especially towards the end, where the ad hominem attacks really get out of hand.)

There’s a disclaimer at the top of each page that says, “Readers are solely responsible for the content of their comments,” but the Tribune can’t wash its hands of the bile and lies that appear on its website with one blithe sentence, if they’re going to allow people to hide their true identities.  I’m not suggesting for a moment that this sort of rubbish shouldn’t be printed; these people have as much right to express their points of view as everyone else.  But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.  If people had to give their real names there would still be crackpots writing in, and there would doubtless still be bickering and name-calling.  Fair enough.  But the First Amendment’s freedoms come with responsibility.  If you’re not ashamed of your views, say who you are.

OK, rant over.  Tomorrow, an entertaining story about a farting duck.

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