Strange times for freedom of speech

The U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether a venomously anti-gay pastor can be made to pay $5 million for leading a rally denouncing homosexuality outside the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq. CNN anchor Rick Sanchez is summarily fired after offering some bitter and mildly bizarre observations about anti-Latin bigotry, Daily Show host Jon Stewart, and Jews in the media. Two Rutgers undergraduates are likely to be prosecuted for recording and posting online a video of a freshman roommate’s gay tryst, which apparently prompted him to commit suicide, and more than 11,000 people have joined a Facebook group insisting the two be charged with manslaughter.

Pretty contemptible stuff, to be sure, the sort of things that give free speech a bad name, these are definitely not the most auspicious tests of how tolerant contemporary U.S. society is of expressive freedom. Still, there’s something impressive about the zeal with which these particular sinners are damned and retribution is demanded.

You might almost think that holding people accountable for what they say, and for the consequences of their words, is something this society believes is important. But if you thought that, you’d be dead wrong.

Actually, what’s remarkable about these instances is how archaic they are, how out of step they are with today’s realities. They’re reassuring throwbacks to a quaint time when accountability mattered. Reassuring, not because punishing people who say things we don’t like is a good idea and we should be glad about the anger, the torches and pitchforks, but because the general idea is a good one, that people should stand with what they say and face the consequences their words might have.

And whatever you think about the wrongness of what the speakers said or the righteousness of the outrage they provoked, we can hold them accountable only because we know who they are.

But today’s discourse isn’t shaped by those angry voices who are courting publicity. On the contrary. What has metastasized into a civic blight is just the opposite of standing up and being heard. Instead, we have the rampant spread of a free-fire zone of wild, unattributed, unclaimed expression for which accountability isn’t expected and, indeed, cannot even be sought.

You see that online in the promiscuous use of anonymity among people commenting on blogs and discussion groups. I visit a lot of them, and I’ve come to be surprised and gladdened by the rare instances when I know who’s doing the talking. Defenders of anonymity say some people are emboldened to speak only because they know they won’t be identified. Maybe so. But I think far more people are deterred from venturing their comments because they’ll be slammed with unsigned vilification—and would rather not feel the pain.

Even more important, though, is the explosion of anonymous expression of another kind, the torrential, secret contributions to the current electoral campaigns. Remember, our courts have long held that giving money to candidates is a form of speech. And thanks to a series of court decisions, that kind of political speech is made with fewer restrictions and less disclosure than ever before.

Right now, The Washington Post reports, campaign spending by interest groups is five times greater than it was in the last mid-term elections—some $80 milllion, against $16 million at this point in 2006. Some of this is a result of the Supreme Court’s January Citizens United decision, which overturned decades of precedent and opened the way for corporations to make unlimited campaign contributions.

Worse, in the last election cycle 90 percent of donors were identified, The Post says, while now the proportion is less than half. The Post estimates that conservative giving outweighs liberal donations, seven to one. But beyond that vague characterization, it’s possible to figure out which grandly named organizations are paying the bills only 40 percent of the time. And even when the names of those funders are known, it’s routinely impossible to figure out who’s actually bankrolling them.

Strange days indeed. For those of us who value both freedom and accountability, it’s a dark moment. The world of expression is undergoing a cleavage. Half-wits who stand by the stupid things they say get nailed, and the public takes comfort in the notion that there’s some justice, some accountability. Meanwhile, the mainstream of political discourse is hijacked by shadowy interests who care nothing for justice or accountability, only results.

Edward Wasserman is the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. This column was originally distributed through the McClatchy-Tribune News Service and published on Oct. 11, 2010 on “Ed Wasserman’s Blog.”

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