Free Speech: Use It or Lose It

"We're from the government and we'll have to revoke your blogging license if you keep spreading too much 'misinformation.'"

A few years ago, such a warning would have seemed far-fetched. But recent developments threaten to turn this from bad science fiction into grim reality. If bloggers and independent journalists wish to avoid this nightmare, we must speak out now to defend freedom of speech -- and we must defend it for the right reasons.

Recently, independent journalism and blogging have come under attack on multiple fronts. Congress is considering a new DISCLOSE Act that could force bloggers to file reports with the government stating whether their political speech was coordinated with efforts by corporations or labor unions -- whereas traditional news media such as newspapers, magazines, and TV/radio would be exempt.

Special-interest groups have recently petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to launch a probe against "misinformation" and "hate speech." The Michigan state legislature is considering licensing journalists to ensure that they are "credible" and of "good moral character." The Federal Trade Commission is considering new subsidies and tax breaks for certain categories of traditional journalism, while penalizing new media by imposing additional taxes on iPads and internet service providers -- a move that Mark Tapscott warns would "put government in position to define who gets to report what and how."

Some of these attacks are in response to the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, protecting corporate free speech. But as attorney Steve Simpson (who helped file an amicus brief in the Citizens United lawsuit) has written in a detailed article on the history of campaign finance laws, these are just the latest skirmishes in a long-running intellectual battle over two vastly differing conceptions of freedom of speech. The laissez-faire or "classical liberal" approach regards freedom of speech as a fundamental individual right that government must protect, whereas the "progressive" approach views speech as worthy of protection only insofar as it helps promote the "public interest."

On freedom of speech, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is very clear: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

For classical liberals, this means the right to express one's ideas without government censorship. The government could not suppress speech, regulate its dissemination, require licensing before one could state opinions, or promote one form of speech over another.

This is just an application of the broader principle that the only proper function of government is to protect individual rights. Unless we violate others' rights through force, fraud, or threat thereof, we should be left free to live according to our best rational judgment -- including the freedom to express our ideas without government interference. (Speech that violates others' rights, such as fraud or death threats should not and would not be protected.)

Equally important, the right to free speech does not mean the right to the means of speech, such as an alleged "right" to newspaper space or broadcast time. A private publisher has no obligation to allow you to express your views on his pages. There is no such thing as a "right" to an audience. Private parties who choose not to publish your ideas are not engaging in censorship; only the government can commit censorship.