Blog: Free speech on display — and off-limits

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

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The power of free speech and of the First Amendment could not be more on display this week — in very different ways — from Capitol Hill to Tiananmen Square, from the sidewalk to the World Wide Web.

Outside and inside the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C., over the weekend and earlier, voices were raised freely, fiercely — and sometimes rudely and insultingly — as advocates and detractors jousted over President Obama’s proposed health-care reform measure.

Those in favor of Obama’s plan ultimately had the votes for passage. But opponents had no problem speaking out loudly via signs and posters, e-mail blasts and blogs, television sound bites and Sunday-morning talk shows.

For much of the past year, we have seen and heard a wide range of opinions, evaluations and polls — dissecting plans and proposals, tracking votes, measuring public sentiment and offering a seemingly endless parade of expert and individual views nationwide, from Pennsylvania Avenue to Main Street. Administration officials have been free to speak, spin and attempt to persuade — but not to control or silence the debate, even when just days ago some demonstrators resorted to shouting racial and anti-gay epithets that were hurtful but not illegal.

At very nearly the same time, and a world away — in many ways — Google executives announced they would stop censoring Internet searches in China as required by Chinese government rules, following up on a Jan. 12 threat to pull out of the country unless the government’s controls were eased.

Google reportedly moved “” to a Chinese-language service based in Hong Kong, a part of China that is somewhat beyond the reach of censors — for now. But Web users inside China likely could not reach the new site because of government filters that block such links for most citizens.

Topics reportedly inaccessible from inside China include the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, in which hundreds were killed in anti-government protests. Also unreachable: information and news accounts about ethnic, regional and religious dissident movements and violence. The government deems these and other subjects harmful to “national interests.”

The First Amendment applies only in the United States. Because of it, leading officials of the most-powerful nation on the planet could not shut down even the most-vocal critics of a proposal widely considered to be the defining moment of the Obama presidency.

Without the protection of a First Amendment, leading officials of the most-populous nation on the planet are able to effectively pull the plug on a global technological giant while maintaining that this action was “according to the law.”

There are just 45 words in the First Amendment. But this week is another reminder of how much those words mean, and how loudly they can speak to the powerful.

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