Saturday, June 9, 2012

Free speech ≠ Coerced listening

A comment on Citizen's United.

A recent article about the Citizen's United case and associated machinations at the Supreme Court got me thinking about free speech. When the decision first came out, I was somewhat sympathetic because, gosh, who could be against free speech? Does the government really have a justification for censoring advertisements and other media around an election?

But I realized that this is really a false framing. The constitutional right we have is to speak freely. Just like I am doing now.. you are reading completely free speech, published freely (indeed for free!) and are reading it voluntarily (I hope).

Campaign advertising, indeed all advertising, is an entirely different proposition. When we sit down to watch TV, for instance, we are attracted by one experience, say a dramatic show with smart characters and exciting stories. That is what we are volunteering to watch. But through the magic of modern capitalism, at the same time we are force-fed quite another experience- the advertisement.

We neither want to watch this other content, nor are enthusiastic about its domineering psychological effects, which are carefully engineered to invade the most heavily fortified mental citadel. We may record our shows and fast-forward through the ads, but they still leave their imprint, political or otherwise.

This is what the PACs, campaigns, 527's, think tanks, etc. are buying into with their dollars- an ecosystem of involuntary forced listening & watching which has nothing to do with free speech, but rather with the power of forcing others to listen to one's free speech. The money buys the power, not the free speech. The equation of money with speech could indeed not be more pernicious, and to see our Supreme Court fail to make this distinction is a true mark of its right-wingery.

What would a better system look like? The US has since before its founding always had mass media, and Benjamin Franklin well knew the power of owning one's own printing press. Now everyone has a printing press, and no one has the time to read everything or judge what is worth listening to. We continue to need editors, gatekeepers, and curators of the media landscape to sift the wheat from the chaff. In the world of books, the user-curated Amazon model has been wonderful, and similar real-time mechanisms through social networking services are, well, works in progress.

What we don't need is to enshrine the practice of force-feeding innocent citizens with toxic propaganda as some kind of constitutional right, because it isn't, neither for the victim nor the perpetrator. We have the spectrum now on the internet on many platforms to give everyone their own bullhorn and printing press to express free speech freely. The Democratic party can have its message go out 24/7 to anyone who wants to listen. What they don't have any constitutional right to is to force their message down anyone's eyeballs via advertising.

So, one model is to ban advertising entirely, at least for political uses, and leave political discussions to other venues like books, magazines, editorial pages, and news media, of which there are plenty. Ron Paul is a good example of someone getting his message out and thriving on virtually no advertising. That means banning robocalls too, incidentally. Talk about unwanted, coerced communication! Such a policy would also spare our politicians a great deal of expense, and dampen their corrupting arms race for money.

But I think our political system needs something more- more political speech, not less. More venues for civic engagement and political communication, just not coerced listening. We as communities have a strong role in regulating these political platforms / megaphones in ways that open them to diverse and civically useful views.

I have proposed a voucher system for media and political financing, where citizens have a new form of currency specially set aside for those purposes, insuring that they get equal votes in their provision.

Without being quite so ambitious, great improvements could be made in the media environment by promoting the public interest more systematically. The fact that most newspapers in the US are local monopolies presents one opportunity. They are typically owned by some conglomerate that milks their markets as best they can, holds uniformly Republican-friendly views, and has no responsibility to the public for their editorial policies or lack thereof.

Such newspapers easily fulfill the same kind of scarcity condition that has been found to justify neutral content regulation of broadcasters with their constrained spectrum licenses (back when we cared!). Thus they can and should be regulated in terms of their news and editorial content along the lines of promoting diversity and promoting expression from the local community. This might require, for instance, creating a public editorial board that runs the editorial content and is a non-partisan, independently elected office.

Publishers (and politicians) could still be free to publish anything they like in other forms- leaflets, articles, books, and competing newspapers and weeklies. But if one newspaper becomes an effective local monopoly, it would be deemed a public utility for the purposes of editorial content, and be run as a public-interest entity, much like PBS.

Of course this is a very tricky issue, promoting the public interest while keeping the state's hands off any direct controls, while keeping a strong interpretation of freedom of speech and press. But the point should be obvious- promoting maximally useful and diverse speech on the public stage rather than translating financial power into a megaphone that drowns out all else.

"It is clear that the system is failing and that means we have a choice. The problem is that we first have to identify that we have that choice. ...
 While for a few decades the neo-liberals were able to persuade us that there deregulation of labour and financial markets was delivering massive wealth to us all, it is difficult to mount that case now. The evidence is compelling – the neo-liberal model is fatally flawed. So we have a choice. The problem is that the choices we have are clouded by the snowstorm of lies that the elites bombard us with every day. The Irish yes vote is an extraordinary example of that."

No comments:

Post a Comment