"Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech."
Hope I got that right.
It's a great idea. It would be even better if it was enforced somehow. (How exactly can the government enforce the requirement that it not do something? How about if we just exercise free speech and the government does not interfere to start with?)
Anyway, it is still a great idea.
But somehow it seems to have become perverted, and I choose that word carefully.
I think what we mean by freedom of speech is, that when you get up on a tree stump in the village green, and start spouting off about all those weird political ideas you have, I will stand by and wait my turn rather than try to remove you by force.
Does this sound close to what we think we mean?
How about, that when you or I say the strangest things, and other people overhear us, we shall not be jailed or otherwise punished for the content of our speech?
I still think I am close to what we think of when we hail our precious "freedom of speech".
Now I will try to explain what I mean by the perversion I mentioned earlier.
A corporation is an entity created on paper for the purpose, ostensibly, of carrying out the actions of a group of persons with a common interest. Typically these are financial entities, although they can exist for other reasons. A corporation cannot be jailed, or feel pain. It cannot bleed. It cannot bear a child and watch it starve. It cannot celebrate a successful completion of a long held dream. Hell, it cannot dream!
The only punishment possible for a corporation is a monetary fine, and even that can be seen as just an expense, one of many costs in the debit column of a ledger sheet. Removal of its charter? You know, I bet that is possible, but I've never heard of it.
Why am I going on about these issues? To point out that corporations are not people. That may have seemed obvious at the outset, had I just said it, but I want to be sure we realize just how different corporations and people actually are before I proceed, because some of what I am about to criticize seems quite reasonable on the face of it.
A corporation can't have a religion - how could a piece of paper "believe" in something? It cannot even think or know, I am sure that belief is completely beyond its abilities.
So how can a corporation have freedom of speech?
This is a very important question in the modern world, since more and more of our environment consists of artifice created by corporations, often under protection of our freedom of speech statutes (which never did persons trying to improve their lives much good!) The noises we hear, the sights we see, the smells, the rules, even the people we come in contact with, are more and more the intentional products and by-products of corporations formed solely to earn money for their stockholders.
When any of this activity is called into question, the first amendment to the constitution is usually the first defense used, and last defense needed. Why?
Because we feel that attacking a corporation's "right to free speech" will limit our own? How could that matter when we don't fight for individual free speech anyway - is it because the corporation is usually producing enticing, enjoyable, soothing material and the particular individual speech tends to irritate us and demand from us?
Of course, not all "corporations" are created for the production of material wealth, for the profit of the owners. Some are indeed people working together to pursue a common goal that essentially implies communicating to others, and as such certain types of incorporations should have a greater freedom in this area.
By the way, the gradual aggregation on the part of commercial enterprises of more protection under the "Bill of Rights" than mere humans enjoy is the result of a series of US Supreme Court decisions over the last century or so. So we're stuck with it unless we pass a new amendment or two, or enjoy a few generations of peculiarly activist, humanist Courts. (please excuse the American bias here)
I have been thinking this evening... and I realized that the law as written is a trick. "Congress shall pass no law..." does not ensure that the government and its power will stand behind the right it is not supposed to abridge - it just forbids one branch of government from directly attacking the freedom. Any other encroachment is probably still legal. It must be, since it happens all the time.
© Huw Powell