Roger L. Simon: Speech Police On Parade

Sometimes I think the Internet - that place where everybody's cat has a blog - is the enemy of free speech.

Yes, I know that's an exaggeration and on the surface the reverse would seem to be true, but when I read the following report from AP television writer David Bauder, "First Amendment steam" started coming out of my ears:

"Liberal activists are stepping up their campaign against Fox News Channel by pressuring advertisers not to patronize the network., the Campaign for America's Future and liberal blogs like are asking thousands of supporters to monitor who is advertising on the network. Once a database is gathered, an organized phone-calling campaign will begin, said Jim Gilliam, vice president of media strategy for Brave New Films, a company that has made anti-Fox videos.

The groups have successfully pressured Democratic presidential candidates not to appear at any debate sponsored by Fox, and are also trying to get Home Depot Inc. to stop advertising there."

Whoa! Let's put it simply: attacking sponsorship is at base a sneaky way of suppressing free speech and essentially anti-democratic and reactionary. Brave New Films? Brave New World is more like it. Gilliam's company's name echoing Huxley's dystopia seems like some kind of unconscious admission of a creepy truth.

The last couple of weeks I came down on Bill O'Reilly for his attack on JetBlue and Kos, but frankly this is worse. MoveOn and Kos's tactics smack of thought control out of a very old playbook.

Of course, inherent in this approach is that they must be afraid their own views cannot compete in the marketplace of ideas. Otherwise, why try to suppress the other? Why not just present your argument instead of freezing out your opponent by threatening his advertisers, via a database, no less? I'm no psychic but I doubt this massive attack on the "other's" ability to express his views is remotely what the Founding Fathers meant by free speech.

I suppose the assumption behind this venal activity is that the "other" is all-powerful and therefore the ends justify the means, as the saying goes. But MoveOn has deep pockets of its own and is quite capable of putting forth its own side of any issue.

And it's not just MoveOn and Kos who are in the speech police game here, as Ken Wheaton notes in AdvertisingAge:

"Funnier still is that MoveOn, until now, has been unable to get much media coverage -- unless one counts The Huffington Post [bold mine] and DailyKos as the sort of media that's going to move the masses. Both of those, by the way, are part of this little coalition of speech police, so that's kind of like getting recognized by your parents for a job well done."

Unfortunately, it's more than that. Although both of these sites do specialize in preaching to the choir, they are large and influential on the Internet. But the Internet does not yet have the power and influence of mainstream media, especially television. The power of the Internet will only increase as its economic viability - advertising revenue - grows. What Kos and the HuffPo are doing is ultimately discouraging advertising on the Internet and elsewhere where strong opinions are voiced by picking on places they think unfit. The result of this "speech police" behavior will be that all political sites will suffer, as advertisers become gun shy.

Effectively, in the long run, Kos and the HuffPo are working against themselves. And for what? To put Fox News out of business? Fat chance! I am surprised particularly that Arianna Huffington would do something so unsophisticated. Although I disagree with many of her views, she is a shrewd businesswoman (and ubiquitous on the air besides). I hope she hasn't joined the "speech police" and it is just zealots posting on her site who are responsible. I would be curious to hear her take on this.

Although we all know there are limits to free speech - fire in a crowded theatre and all that - a vigorous debate is the price we have to pay for democracy. Often, we don't like what we hear or who is saying it. Speaking personally, sometimes it can give me a migraine or worse. But when it comes to signing up with the speech police on any side, as the wise Samuel Goldwyn once said, "Include me out!"