Right Question

Asking the right question is usually more productive than trying to prove the right answer.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Robert Byrd's remarks -- the Free Speech angle

The blogosphere erupted last week over remarks by Senator Byrd (D-WV) comparing procedural changes in judicial appointments to the Nazi takeover of Germany.

The lunacy of this comparison, and it's rank hypocracy, as well as Byrd's most famous use of the filibuster have all been noted at length.

But it seems like one of the most dangerous parts of his speech has been ignored. Go back and read the speech again -- or check out how his own official web site characterizes the controversy:
Senator Byrd delivered the remarks below warning the Senate and the American people about a procedural effort being considered by some Senators to shut off debate and shut down minority voices and opinions.   Byrd believes that such an effort strikes at the very heart of the Senate -- the freedom of speech and debate.

Did you get that? The right of 41 senators to block any action of Congress is a Freedom of Speech issue -- not one of constitutional powers.

Now on just this one reference, you might think I'm making this up -- that he was just talking about the freedom of debate on the floor of the Senate... so a few more quotes directly from his speech:
The uniquely American concept of the independent individual, asserting his or her own views, proclaiming personal dignity through the courage of free speech will, forever, have been blighted.
Generations of men and women have lived, fought and died for the right to map their own destiny, think their own thoughts, and speak their minds.   If we start, here, in this Senate, to chip away at that essential mark of freedom...

In the eloquent, homespun words of that illustrious, obstructionist, Senator Smith, “ Liberty is too precious to get buried in books.   Men ought to hold it up in front of them every day of their lives, and say, ‘I am free – – to think – – to speak.   My ancestors couldn’t.   I can.   My children will."

He couldn't be clearer.

The relentless march of Orwellian redefinitions of the First Amendment's protection of free speech continues. We're routinely being told that free speech doesn't apply to things that are offensive (from the right if it's obscene or the left if it's bigoted), or to speech that costs money to produce (does a 7 cent photocopy count?) or most recently to political speech in general. Others stand logic on its head and claim that public criticism of their views is a violation of their right to free speech. But Senator Byrd's comments are the first I've heard of a new redefinition of what free speech is about.

We've all heard that the Second Amendment doesn't really mean individuals have a right to keep and bear arms -- it's about the government's right to maintain an armed national guard. Are we about to start hearing that the First Amendment doesn't really mean that individuals have a right to speak without government interference -- it's about the right of government officials to debate the issues? Can we imagine a day when a politician argues that the First Amendment protects his right to discuss the issues with other elected officials without having private citizens chiming in with their own opinions?

Okay, no, I don't really think Senator Byrd's comments were a conscious attempt to lay the groundwork for a claim that free speech was really intended to protect debate by elected officials, not discussion of issues and candidates by private citizens. But then I still have trouble believing that the Supreme Court actually ruled that first amendment protections for political speech are less stringent than those on non-political speech. I'm not advocating more stringent pornography laws -- but I always thought our society tolerated truly offensive speech because of the risk of a slippery slope toward restricting our national political debate. What ever happened to that notion?

UPDATE: via Power Line -- Apparently this wasn't just Robert Byrd. The Power Line crew has received an urgent action message from Howard Dean. Money quote:
Today Harry Reid and the Democratic Senators asked us, the American people, to help them preserve the right of our elected representatives to speak their mind on the floor of the U.S. Senate. We have to act. Sign this petition, which we will deliver to every U.S. Senator, asking them to protect the right to free speech in the Senate.
Good grief. I couldn't make this stuff up.


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