Fear of freedom puts First Amendment at risk

Monday, August 16, 1999

Two ‘appeals’

In addition to “An Appeal to Hollywood,” another appeal was issued
last week. It is called “An Appeal to Reason” and in many ways contradicts
some of the suppositions and motives of the original appeal.

The sponsors of both appeals seek the support of other groups and

See which appeals to you:

  • “An Appeal to Hollywood.”
  • “An Appeal to Reason.”

  • There are among us self-appointed and self-anointed guardians of culture and morality who believe that the rest of us have too much freedom. In their insistent opinion, our culture is too coarse, our speech too uncivil, our tastes too crude.

    Their solution: Put religious, political or entertainment speech deemed too extreme outside the protection of the First Amendment so our lives can be more safe and serene.

    They seize on criminal anomalies and dispatches from the trenches of the cultural war to justify these insults to long-established rights and values.

    Thus we are bombarded with op-ed manifestoes and talk-show tirades that exploit public panic and rationalize restrictions on fundamental liberties. A few examples:

    U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch publishes a Judiciary Committee report, “Children, Violence, and the Media,” that uncritically adopts the viewpoint of the senator’s ideological opposites who either carefully or carelessly imply a definite causal link between crime in the media and crime on the streets.

    An ad hoc group of political, social, academic and other luminaries issues “An Appeal to Hollywood.” Unlike the Senate report, the authors concede, “Clearly, there is no simple causation at work here.” But fast on the heels of that concession comes a call for the entertainment industry to “establish certain minimum standards for violent, sexual, and degrading material for each medium, below which producers can be expected not to go.” [See sidebar.]

    The American Academy of Pediatricians, admitting that there is no scientific basis for assertions of certain harm, nevertheless warns the nation’s parents to keep their young children away from television sets.

    These calls for taming protected entertainment speech are echoed by those who want to curb other forms of protected speech.

    In separate op-ed page articles, for example, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Ruth Wedgwood, a former federal prosecutor now teaching law at Yale, rightly decry the recent shooting at the Jewish community center in Los Angeles and an earlier racist rampage by Benjamin Smith, but wrongly cite these tragedies as reasons for lifting the restraints placed on the Hoover-era FBI for its abuses of civil rights, anti-war and other groups.

    “Our open society is prey to misuse by extremist groups,” Professor Wedgwood wrote in The Washington Post this weekend. Her proposals:

    • Expand the FBI’s the license to investigate groups it deems radical or extreme because of the religious or political views they express.
    • Subject even speech protected by the First Amendment to FBI scrutiny if it is “racist” in nature.
    • Loosen civil commitment procedures so that what a person is thinking could make him a candidate for being locked away, “whether or not he has committed a new crime.”

    Wedgwood finally suggests it may even “be possible to apply the principle of conspiracy laws against a lone plotter.” In other words, the line between a citizen exercising his First Amendment rights and a “plotter” inviting an FBI file becomes quite blurry.

    Wedgwood is neither alone nor far afield from others in making such proposals. In fact, they mesh nicely with most of these attempts to soothe society, to make it quieter, more controlled, more predictable, less — well — free.

    And as worrisome as some of these proposals of ad hoc groups, academics and self-appointed cultural guardians may be, they still represent merely a nation in conversation with itself. It is the politicos who put fundamental freedoms in jeopardy when they enlist their lawmaking and law-threatening power in the service of philosophical forces they don’t seem to understand or care much about.

    Political officials go beyond opinion and speculation and appeals. They hold hearings, demand investigations, hint darkly of regulation, coerce compromise and accommodation, and on occasion pass laws.

    How this translates into an impact on First Amendment freedoms can be seen in a couple of developments from last week.

    The movie, recording and other entertainment industries began engaging legions of lawyers to comply with demands from the Federal Trade Commission for reams of documents as part of the investigation ordered by the White House into whether the industries are violating their own “voluntary” rating systems.

    A number of retailers announced they would no longer offer certain video games to any of their customers as a result of pressure from the president and calls from members of Congress to make them criminally liable for selling so-called “mature” games to young people.

    Such concessions and compromises will continue, of course, unless journalists and commentators start asking tougher questions, unless scholars protest the misuse and distortion of their studies, and unless ordinary Americans step forward to dispute the notion that they are too weak of will and intelligence to make their own choices.

    Unless those things happen, our First Amendment right to choose the entertainment we prefer and hold the views we wish will be at risk from those who invoke public fears as rationales for restrictions on our liberties.

    From those, that is, who would make us better by making us less.

    Paul McMasters may be reached at pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.