“I might not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I have no idea who first spoke these words, but I used to embrace them.
In today’s political climate of 24/7 say anything, I’m having second thoughts.
A couple of days ago I read a blog discussion about Sarah Palin’s new book, “Going Rogue: An American Life” - for days now the No. 1 “bestseller” on Amaxon.com . The post noted that some persons mentioned in Palin’s book are denying the veracity of the woman’s words.
Immediately, a Palin supporter pointed out that she has the “right to free speech.”
There is an ethical side to the claim of free speech. Of course, the Supreme Court has said free speech does not include yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater. And, there are libel and slander laws in place to protect persons from written or spoken defamation. The Court has ruled that “public figures” voluntarily put themselves in the spotlight and must prove “actual malice.” In any such lawsuit, truth is the best defense.
But, what about lies in the political arena, such as those in South Carolina which derailed John McCain’s bid for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination or the “swift-boating” which hurt John Kerry’s 2004 race?
Morally, is it a matter of free speech when persons lie in order to destroy an individual’s political ambitions? Are there moral connotations when persons spread outright lies to bring down anyone whose ideas they oppose? Did George W. Bush promote free speech when he allowed only supporters into his speeches and rallies, relegating those who opposed him to “free-speech zones” far from the venue in which he appeared?
In 2003, a federal court in Florida unanimously ruled that it is OK for Fox News to lie to its viewers. The defense argued there are no laws in the United States prohibiting media lies. A perfect defense.
I suspect when the Bill of Rights was adopted, guaranteeing basic freedoms, those who wrote the words had no idea how immoral politics and purveyors of opinion could become.
It is, after all, a question of right and wrong, isn’t it?
As long as lies are protected by the First Amendment, we must rely on the standard set forth in John Milton’s great plea for a free press, Aeropagitica:
“Let truth and falsehood grapple. Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”
An old Chinese proverb says, “A lie goes around the world while truth is still putting on its shoes.” That was never more true than today. I wonder what Milton would argue in a day of 24/7 cable news, the World Wide Web and No. 1 bestsellers?
I’m betting he would still believe in the power of truth.