Free Speech Week


October 24, 2019 4:48PM

Happy Free Speech week! Especially at a time when so many people seem displeased with the speech of others, we should take a step back to recognize and celebrate how blessed we are to have the freedom to express ourselves. The freedoms Americans enjoy, particularly those protected by the First Amendment, are beyond what many individuals in other parts of the world could imagine.

In America, unlike in China, government does not control and limit internet access and the topics discussed on social media. In America, unlike in Russia, journalists are not targeted, threatened, imprisoned or killed for their reporting. In America, unlike even in England with whom we share a legal history and have the closest ties, the common man does not face criminal repercussions for daring to criticize or speak out against the rich and powerful.

These may seem like obvious, nearly laughable differences, but they should serve as important reminders about what we stand to lose when we take our free speech protections for granted. Especially when we start clamoring for more restrictions that appear to be in our immediate best interests. Sadly, that clamoring has become far too loud across the ideological spectrum.

It’s tempting to demand a set of rules that would work for you and those who share your beliefs right now, but that’s an incredibly short-sighted approach that can result in all sorts of unintended consequences. To pick one popular issue on either side of the aisle: hate speech – or speech that some would find “hateful” – is (and should be and will remain) constitutionally protected. And, no one is entitled to a platform from which to express themselves, no matter how popular or seemingly ubiquitous that platform might be (think Twitter, Facebook).

Whatever happened to the classically liberal and time-honored idea that “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”? That idea has been lost in a push to severely restrict “hate speech” by those who forget that as soon as offensive speech is prohibited rather than protected, their speech is also subject to being outlawed as “hateful.”

Meanwhile, traditional conservatives would never have dreamed of forcing private companies to cater to beliefs with which they disagreed, and yet there is near constant talk about forcing Twitter or Facebook to cater to everyone, or – worse yet – giving government the power to decide and regulate the “neutrality” of social media giants.

Tennesseans should take a moment during free speech week to appreciate our new anti-SLAPP statute. Anti-SLAPP statutes (SLAPP = Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) are meant to the protect the rights of average citizens who choose to express themselves and may not have the funds to survive expensive and protracted litigation if a thin-skinned and well-funded party decides to sue for defamation. Regular people find themselves hauled into court to defend against accusations of libel (defamation in written form) or slander (defamation in spoken form) for simple things like posting an unfavorable review on Yelp or speaking negatively about a prominent person in public.

Because most citizens can’t afford the time or resources to fight such accusations in court, even the threat of litigation can silence them. Incentivizing self-censorship is a loss for the person who would otherwise choose to express themselves, and for any member of the public who might be interested in hearing what they had to say.

The Tennessee Public Participation Act changes that. The Act can both shorten litigation and award attorney’s fees to defendants. When the speech being sued over is constitutionally protected, defendant Average Joe doesn’t have to pay out of pocket to fight in court. And the disgruntled and hypersensitive will (hopefully) be disincentivized from wasting money trying to sue folks into silence.

Along with appreciating the TPPA as a step in the right direction, we should cherish the free speech protections we still have and refrain from searching for self-gratifying ways of restricting some of those freedoms, lest we risk losing all of them.