Sylvia Smith, Washington editor for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette and current president of the National Press Club opines on the Larry Sinclair controversy and comes to a rather peculiar conclusion:
After a week of relentless e-mails and phone calls from people who were outraged at the prospect of a guy scheduling a press conference to make allegations about Barack Obama, I'm not sure extreme CPR could resuscitate the idea of free speech in some Americans' minds.
The underlying message I got from the callers and e-mailers was that the First Amendment and free speech are an impediment to the way they think things ought to be. Or that while some people are free to speak, others should not be.
That way of thinking is a lot scarier than allegations from Larry Sinclair.
For starters, let me express some sympathy with Smith's larger point: namely, that people who made a lot of noise about Larry Sinclair being able to hold a press conference at the National Press Club were being slightly hysterical. Indeed, the most likely outcome of the Press Conference -- Sinclair further embarrassing himself and doing little to bring additional credibility to his accusations -- was precisely what transpired. Sinclair was arrested for an outstanding warrant. It was a debacle and a spectacle.
That said, the idea that those criticisms display an impoverished or incomplete understanding of the First Amendment is ridiculous.
The First Amendment protects speech from state regulation and intervention. The National Press Club is a private social club, not a government actor. It isn't obligated to offer a venue to anyone. It could prevent Sinclair from speaking. It's own internal policies may require them to rent space based irrespective of content, but that has nothing to do with the First Amendment -- nor would a decision to deny someone speaking space on the basis of content violate the First Amendment.
Would such a decision violate the principle of freedom of expression? It depends on what one means by that principle. If it means, as a general proposition, anyone should be able to say anything they like anywhere they like it anytime they like it, then, certainly it would violate such a principle. But few people, myself included, adhere to that ridiculous notion. Indeed, the better statement of the principle is that people should be able to say whatever they like free from government interference and that, similarly, private actors are free to reject, condemn, circulate, praise, or repeat those statements as they see fit. In other words, the principle of freedom of expression doesn't require private passivity in the face of objectionable speech. Indeed, if speech is objectionable, private actors may mobilize to do whatever they please, within their own legal rights, to counteract that expression. This is precisely why offensive protests are frequently met with counter-protests, even when the counter-protests clearly make it more difficult for the protesters in question to circulate their ideas.
On that point, an obvious example: the Westboro Baptist Church frequently protests at funerals -- historically, the funerals of LGBT activists and supporters but recently at the funerals of Iraq War casualties. Their protests are intentionally inflammatory and deeply offensive -- arguably some of the most repugnant speech currently in the political arena. Their speech is clearly protected by the First Amendment. Nevertheless, counter-protesters frequently exercise their own speech rights to effectively impair WBC protests (This was memorably captured in the Laramie Project when a group of counter-protesters dressed as Angels encircled WBC protesters and began to sing). Is it Smith's contention that, in making it more difficult for the WBC to circulate their vitriol, counter-protesters are somehow failing to live up to the principles of freedom of expression? Perhaps more directly, if the WBC attempted to rent space from the Metropolitan Church of Christ, would the MCC -- if it wished to embrace the promise of the First Amendment -- be obligated to comply?
What's most galling about Smith's statement, then, is the way in which she tries to make herself a martyr for free speech (Angry e-mails! Oh lord no! The unspeakable horrors!), in the process badly debasing the actual meaning of the First Amendment and assuming a self-righteous and obnoxious posture. Indeed, Smith badly misstates her critics' specific grievance. Their argument is not that Larry Sinclair should be prevented from speaking, or that the government should stop Larry Sinclair from speaking. Their argument is that the NPC should not have allowed Larry Sinclair to speak at their private social club.
The reality is that the NPC is not "free to anyone," but is only free to those who can pay for it. So be it. The NPC is trying to make a buck. I get that. But lose the self-righteous air. If you're planning to make money by renting space to shady operators who intend to inject smear and slime into the political process, being criticized for doing so is the cost you must bear. You open yourself to the obvious and fair criticism that you should not have rented that room -- that it was a bad decision and the money is ill-gotten gain. Claiming you'll rent a room to anyone doesn't excuse you from renting the room... it simply suggests you should be more selective about who you let rent your rooms. And wrapping yourself in the constitution to deflect those criticisms and to obscure your naked profit motive is, frankly, obscene. The First Amendment, contrary to Smith's understanding, does not exempt the NPC from criticism. In fact, criticism is precisely what the First Amendment encourages: when individual private actors make bad decisions about what statements to make and what speech acts to promote they are met, robustly, peacefully, and forcibly, with criticism. Speech act is met with speech act. That is a true marketplace of ideas.
To insinuate that there is something vaguely authoritarian or insidious in the criticisms of people at DailyKos, Talkingpointsmemo, or FireDogLake is absurd. Smith's argument is either disingenuous or reflects a pathetic misunderstanding of the tenets of freedom of speech. Agree or disagree with their arguments, her critics are actively engaging in the marketplace of ideas through their criticisms. That's democracy in action, ladies and gentlemen. Smith should get a clue.
Crossposted at Blue Indiana and Tyrion's Point.