Free speech isn’t very popular. It might be enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but that doesn’t mean most people like allowing it. That also doesn’t mean that the courts haven’t found ways to limit speech when they want to.
I heard a snippet of an interview on a TV news show Saturday while I was in a restaurant. The interviewer and a guest were talking about something untrue that one side had said of the other in a political battle between Democrats and Republicans. The interviewer seemed aghast at the blatant dishonesty.
“Shouldn’t it be illegal for them to say this since it’s not true?” he asked.
If you did a poll, I suspect a majority would agree with the interviewer, but that’s because they haven’t thought through the alternative to allowing unfettered free speech. If political dishonesty were declared illegal, who’s to judge what’s true? When two sides see the world in a different way, is one of them lying? And what about unpopular positions? Are those who warn that the mainstream is enslaving them guilty of telling lies?
And this brings us to anonymous speech. It’s come to be accepted today that a person who wants to engage in political speech is required to put his name on the piece. Ironically, using this standard, the collection of articles that successfully advocated for the adoption of the U.S. Constitution — the Federalist Papers — would be illegal today. It was accepted as an obvious right of free speech to hide your identity at the time, but those of the progressive left decided that’s not a good idea. So those who want to express their opinions are required to do it in a way that the money is essentially traceable in some way.
Ironically, it’s easy for big companies and labor unions and wealthy people to get around these requirements and hide their identities if they want to. The state and federal rules for creating campaign committees and reporting spending and contributions are massive. They’re not for the amateur or the faint-hearted. Professional politicians can pay lawyers and specialists to do it. But what about the individual or the neighbors who want to oppose a new tax in their city? They don’t know the laws and regulations. All they know is that they want to exercise their right to speak out against the tax. As it is, they can be fined for daring to engage in First Amendment speech without filing the proper paperwork and putting correct disclaimers onto handouts.
If I have the right to speak, I have a right to speak as I please. To regulate the how and when of free speech makes as little sense as dictating when and how churches can have worship services. Anonymity is an important protection for those who choose to speak out in public, especially those who choose to speak about unpopular ideas.
If laws are to regulate what can be said in political speech, we’ll have to keep records of what people say. And then when someone doesn’t like something that’s said, someone will have to have the power to decide what the truth is — and have the power to punish speech he doesn’t like. Democrats, do you want Republicans to control such power? Republicans, do you want Democrats to control such power? Everybody else — especially those of us in the minority — do you want anyone to have that power over us? I don’t.
I hate political lies. I’ve been a victim of them in the past. (A powerful black political organization in Alabama once attacked me as a “high-powered Republican consulting firm” — while I was working out of my bedroom in my underwear most days.) But the alternative to lies is much worse.
If we get rid of anonymous speech and if you make political dishonesty illegal, we won’t have free speech. We will have a sanitized environment where many people are afraid to say the truth, for fear of someone objecting. Truth is already a rare enough thing in politics. Eliminating the right to lie and the right to be anonymous would actually make real truth even more rare than it is today.
There’s only one solution if you want to get rid of liars in politics. Don’t vote for them.
Note: If you ever believe that today’s politics is nastier than ever before, consider that our history is filled with political nastiness from the beginning. Reason did a great parody a couple of years ago of what TV ads would have been like for the 1800 presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. All the charges in the ads were actual charges made against the men by the other campaigns. Watch it and see if you still think today’s ads are that bad.