The John Roberts Supreme Court is to the First Amendment what the TEC-9 assault weapon is to the Second Amendment. They both make thoughtful people occasionally wonder whether the Bill of Rights was really such a good idea.
In their defense, of course, the authors of the Constitution, who won their freedom with both speech and arms, did not anticipate an age of rapid-firing, armor-piercing Tommy guns finding their way into the hands of our apparently increasing number of anti-social, troubled and just plain crazy neighbors.
And they did not anticipate an age of an all-encompassing, brainwashing mass media that, thanks to the judicial system that they also invented, now has the constitutional right to deliver tsunami-like waves of propaganda and outright lies in order to decide who will be elected to Congress and to the presidency.
To them, the freedom of speech and of the press meant — specifically to New York Post founder and Thomas Jefferson-smearer Alexander Hamilton — flocks of vulgar broadsheets that unabashedly spread partisan vitriol in all directions.
To the creators of the Bill of Rights, in 1789, the right to bear arms and the freedom of speech were equalizers. Everyone could have a gun that was about as powerful as the other guy’s gun. Every political faction could print nasty stuff about the other political faction. No equality of outcomes, to use a more modern political expression, but equality of opportunity.
Not anymore. The right to bear arms is too firmly embedded in the American culture to ever be removed. But it has become a seriously unequal environment.
On one side, the civilized majority of folk who feel no need or desire for firearms and, on the other, a vocal and, just occasionally, demented minority that seems to believe that it is not safe unless it actively makes other people unsafe.
A group that is, in turn, actually defenseless against so much as one rogue CIA detachment with a Predator drone.
Freedom of speech and of the press is not overtly being challenged because everyone wants to claim that what they want to do is supported by the First Amendment. But it is, like the domestic arms race, losing its charm as a means to equality.
Last week’s Supreme Court ruling in the McCutcheon case, like its 2010 Citizens United decision, is based on the idea that free speech and free press mean the government cannot tell people not to give or spend money to promote ideas and candidates that they like. If some of those people are very, very rich — in part because some of those people aren’t really people at all, but corporations — well, sometimes freedom is messy.
The counterweight to a situation that the founders never anticipated — a huge inequality of wealth combined with ubiquitous mass media — is another development that the politicians of the 18th century also never dreamed of — an independent and professional news media that seeks the truth, not partisan or personal advantage.
With such an institution in place, we could stick to the idea that anyone can say anything, even with the new factor that some people can afford to say a million times more than others, and the bloodhounds and fact-checkers of the media will help the citizenry sort it all out, no matter how much money the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adleson spend trying to get their bought-and-paid-for stooges into office.
Except, that institution is on shaky ground. A new study from the Pew Research Center calculates that revenues supporting American journalism fell by one third since 2006, and that all professional journalism operations are having to rely more and more on income from readers — or angel investors — and less and less from the advertisers who used to bear most of the freight.
Free speech works the way the Supreme Court thinks it does by being self-policing, not government supervised. Without a strong independent press, it won’t be self-regulating any more.
And that will deliver political power to the oligarchs much faster, and much more permanently, than any Supreme Court ruling.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, only writes this stuff because he isn’t rich enough to buy his own politicians.
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