Freedom of Speech, Now and Forever

by Kate

In August 2010, Jane Mayer, a writer for the New Yorker, published a story about the influence the Koch brothers and their “dark money” had on the Tea Party movement [1]. One would imagine that this would not make her very popular with the Kochs. One would not imagine, however, that the brothers would get revenge by hiring private investigators, digging into Mayer’s background and private life, and trying to discredit her by falsely accusing her of plagiarism.

1401x788-koch
The Koch brothers allegedly hired a private investigator to discredit Jane Mayer after she published unfavorable articles and dug into their “dark money.” [2]
Mayer’s words were protected under the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, but what about Mayer herself? The Koch brothers could not force websites or magazines to remove Mayer’s article — that would be a clear violation of the ideas of freedom of speech and press. Nor could they, or the parts of the government that are loyal to and dependent on the Koch empire, directly force Mayer to stay silent. So they took a circuitous route, attempting to defame and discredit Mayer so that either she would quiet down, or so those magazines and websites would choose not to publish her words. But the not-so-secret truth is that they wouldn’t really have had a choice, had the Kochs succeeded in their attack.

Fortunately, support from other writers and publishers helped Mayer thwart the attack by the Koch brothers — but she is certainly not the only journalist or private citizen who has faced pressure to withdraw statements that could hurt a political career, invite police investigation, or incite a public upwelling of support for a position deemed unsuitable by those in power. Mayer’s case is the exception, not the rule, and it is only publicized because the Kochs failed to silence her.

When I read about Mayer, I thought back to all the class discussions we had this semester. They were often evidence-based — someone would read an article, or listen to a podcast, and that would start a train of conversation that would often involve criticism of governmental actions and political figures. Without freedom of speech and of press, we could not have had half of these talks. I often forget how privileged I am to live in a society where it is not illegal to disagree with, joke about, or protest against the government. I think this is a common problem among Americans, probably because the phrase “freedom of speech” has been used to disguise hate and cruelty under a veil of patriotic acceptance. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone claim freedom of speech when their rude joke or offensive comment lands badly, I’d be as rich as Donald Trump.

But our right to freedom of speech also allows citizens to speak out when they witness corruption or injustice and protects new ideas about how things should be from being crushed before they can gain enough traction and become a movement. And underneath the negative connotations of the phrase “free speech” lies what I believe to be one of the greatest assets a citizen can have — the right to seek out truthful information about the actions of their government, and then the right to discuss and share that information with others. This keeps the government honest and accountable to those it is created to represent.

citizens-united
Of the 1 billion dollar spent on federal elections in the last 5 years, nearly 60% came from 195 individuals and their spouses. Most of these people were the heads of large corporations. [4]
So what happens when the government is not accountable to all the citizens it should represent? In theory, the above definition of free speech is what we have in the United States today. However, after the 2010 decision in Citizens United v FEC, not all American speech is created equal [3]. Since “money is speech” in this nation, corporations — and individuals too — can donate millions or billions of dollars to whatever candidates they want. They don’t have to disclose how much “dark money” they pay out, or even sometimes where it goes. And since there’s “no such thing as a free lunch,” these candidates have to pay back their donors somehow. So, what happens if a major campaign donor and a regular constituent both write to a senator, both urging them to take opposite positions on a hot-button issue? I think most of them would follow the will of the donor, thereby making their speech more valuable than the speech of an ordinary citizen. This is what Mayer was trying to uncover when she wrote about the Kochs, and this is the greatest threat to our institution of free speech. When those in power begin to believe that the speech of some individuals is worth more simply because those citizens have more money to donate, can we really claim to have freedom of speech? Where is freedom of press when journalists are harassed and slandered for writing articles unfavorable to a wealthy corporation or person, or freedom of assembly when protesters are tear-gassed in the streets?l_auth_120625_600x400

So how do we fight this corruption of our right to speak out? I think the only way we can is by continuing to exercise this right, and by staying informed about and active in our government (this is part of why I am so happy to have taken this class). Maybe the speech of one billionaire is more valuable than that of one ordinary citizen, but is it more valuable than the speech of a hundred citizens? A thousand? A million? Most social movements start when one person speaks up, and their words are carried to others who will stand with them. Though I believe America is currently practicing a somewhat corrupted version of free speech, I am hopeful for the future; precedent — the civil rights movement, for one — says that the voices of the many will eventually defeat the money of a few.

Works Referenced

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/27/nyregion/what-happened-to-jane-mayer-when-she-wrote-about-the-koch-brothers.html

[2] http://assets.rollingstone.com/assets/2014/article/koch-industries-responds-to-rolling-stone-and-we-answer-back-20140929/170090/large_rect/1412018830/1401×788-koch.jpg

[3] http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/01/21/5-years-later-citizens-united-has-remade-us-politics

[4] http://www.dupagedemocrats.com/cms2/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/citizens-united.png

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/02/free-speech-isnt-free/283672/

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3 comments

  1. Interesting thoughts — I certainly hadn’t heard of the Koch story, but for some reason I don’t find it as disturbing as it warrants. Do you maybe think that internalization of the current system by newer generations is being deliberately egged on by the rich in order to secure a position?.

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  2. Great article. I think you really nail all aspects of free speech; a constitutional right that serves to protect all varieties of speech, whether they be constructive or not.

    I think you articulate that point really well here: “And underneath the negative connotations of the phrase “free speech” lies what I believe to be one of the greatest assets a citizen can have — the right to seek out truthful information about the actions of their government, and then the right to discuss and share that information with others.”

    If there was one thing I would push against, it would be a point that you make in the final paragraph of your piece. You write, “Maybe the speech of one billionaire is more valuable than that of one ordinary citizen, but is it more valuable than the speech of a hundred citizens? A thousand? A million?”

    I think this is true, to the extent that a million politically motivated people will all agree on an issue and speak out about it. I agree with you that the state of money in politics in America is a sad and scary one, and I think that it forces people to lose heart in social movements that they may have otherwise participated in; they begin to feel like trying for change is futile. This is why I would push against your last point; I think changing the system is more about reforming the way money enters politics, instead of asking millions of citizens to band together to try to overthrow the system by just raising their voices. The current reality is that people will be shouted down by corporations every time.

    Overall, however, great work! I really enjoyed reading.

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  3. This article is a very well worded, exposing, and evocative piece of writing that makes the reader question their own nation because of the hard facts of the story in this article. I enjoyed reading this and I strongly suggest that anyone read if they care what is going on behind the scenes in their government.

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