Here’s a thought experiment for you. Imagine yourself in an alternate United States where the First Amendment is not as a matter of settled law considered to bar Federal and State governments from almost all interference in free speech. This is less unlikely than it might sound; the modern, rather absolutist interpretation of free-speech liberties did not take form until the early 20th century.
In this alternate America, there are many and bitter arguments about the extent of free-speech rights. The ground of dispute is to what extent the instruments of political and cultural speech (printing presses, radios, telephones, copying machines, computers) should be regulated by government so that use of these instruments does not promote violence, assist criminal enterprises, and disrupt public order.
The weight of history and culture is largely on the pro-free-speech side – the Constitution does say “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. And until the late 1960s there is little actual attempt to control speech instruments.
Then, in 1968, after a series of horrific crimes and assassinations inspired by inflammatory anti-establishment political propaganda, some politicians, prominent celebrities, and public intellectuals launch a “speech control” movement. They wave away all comparisons to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, insisting that their goal is not totalitarian control but only the prevention of the most egregious abuses in the public square.
So strong is public revulsion against the violence of 1968 that the first prohibition on speech instruments passes rapidly. The dissidents used slow, inexpensive hand-cranked mimeograph machines and hand presses to spread their poison; these “Saturday Night Specials” are banned. Slightly more capable printers still inexpensive enough to be owned by individual citizens are made subject to mandatory registration.
A few civil libertarians call out warnings but are dismissed as extremists and generally ignored. Legitimate media and publishing corporations, assured by speech-control activists that their presses will not be affected by any measures the speech-control movement has in mind, raise little protest themselves.
Strangely, the ban on Saturday Night Specials fails to reduce the ills it was intended to address. Violent dissidents and criminals, it seems, find little difficulty in stealing typewriters, copiers, and more expensive printing equipment – none of it subject to registration.
The speech-control movement insists that stricter laws regulating speech instruments are the answer. By about 1970 convicted felons are prohibited from owning typewriters. A few years later all dealers in printing supplies, telephones, radios, and other communication equipment are required to have federal licenses as a condition of business, and are subject to government audits at any time. The announced intention of these laws is to prevent dangerous speech instruments from falling into the hands of criminals and madmen.
In 1976 the National Writers’ Association, previously a rather somnolent social club best known for sponsoring speed-typing contests, is taken over in a palace coup by an insurgent gang of pro-free-speech radicals. They display an unexpected flair for grass-roots organization, and within five years have developed a significant lobbying arm in Washington D.C. They begin pushing back against speech-instrument restrictions.
But the speech-control movement seems to be winning most of the battles. In 1986 ownership of automatic so-called “class 3” press equipment is banned except for federally-licensed individuals and corporations. The media is flooded with academic studies purporting to show that illicit speech instruments cause crime and violence, though for some reason the researchers making these claims often refuse to publish their primary data sets.
In unguarded moments and friendly company the speech-control movement’s leadership describes its goal expansively as confiscation and bans on all speech instruments not under direct government control or licensing. For public consumption, however, they speak only of “common-sense regulation” – conveniently never quite achieved, and always requiring more restrictions designed to increase the costs and legal risks for individuals owning speech instruments.
Free-speech advocates begin referring to the speech-control movement’s tactics as “salami-slicing” – carving away rights one “reasonable” slice at a time until there is nothing left. Document leaks from major speech-control lobbying organizations confirm that this is their strategy (they call it “incrementalism”), and that they intend to continue lying about their objectives in public until the goal is so nearly achieved that admitting the truth will no longer prevent final victory.
But much of the general public, the American moderate middle, takes the speech-control movement’s public rhetoric at face value. Who can be against “reasonable restrictions” and “common-sense regulation”? Especially when pundits assure them that free speech was never intended by the framers of the Constitution to be interpreted as an individual right, but as a collective right of the people to be exercised only as members of government-controlled or sponsored corporate bodies.
But by 1990 many individual private owners of telephones and computers, though themselves still almost untouched by the new laws, are nevertheless becoming suspicious of the speech-control movement and increasingly frustrated with the NWA’s sluggish and inadequate counters to it. Awareness of the pattern of salami-slicing and strategic deception by the other side is spreading well beyond hard-core free-speech activists.
In 2001, an eminent historian named Prettyisland publishes a book entitled “Printing America”. In it, he argues that pre-Civil war Americans never placed the high value on free speech and freedom of expression asserted in popular history, and that ownership of speech instruments was actually rare in the Revolutionary period. He is awarded a Bancroft Prize; his book receives glowing reviews in academia and all media outlets and is taken up as a major propaganda cudgel by the speech-control movement.
Within 18 months dedicated free-speech activists led by an amateur scholar show that “Printing America” was a wholesale fraud. The probate records Prettyisland claims to have examined never existed. He has systematically misquoted and distorted his sources. Shamefaced academics recant their support; his Bancroft Prize is revoked.
The speech-control movement takes a major loss in its credibility, and free speech activists a corresponding gain. Free-speech advocacy organizations more willing to confront their enemies than the NWA arise, and find increasing grassroots support – Printer Owners of America, Advocates for the First Amendment, Jews for the Preservation of Computer Ownership.
The members of these organizations know that many people advocating “reasonable restrictions” and advocating “common-sense regulation” are not actually seeking total bans and confiscation. They’re honest dupes, believing ridiculous collective-rights theories because that’s what all the eminent people who gave Prettyisland’s book glowing reviews told them was true. They honestly believe that anyone who doesn’t support “common-sense regulation” is a dangerous, out-of-touch radical.
Free-speech advocates also know that some people speaking the same moderate-sounding language – including most of the leadership of the speech-control movement – are lying, and are using the people in the first group as cat’s paws for an agenda that can only honestly be described as the totalitarian suppression of free speech.
Increasingly, the difference between these groups becomes irrelevant. What has happened is that four decades of strategic deception by the leadership of the speech-control movement has destroyed the credibility of the honest middle. Free-speech activists, unable to read minds, have to assume defensively that everyone using the moderate-middle language of “common-sense regulation” is lying to hide a creeping totalitarian agenda.
The moderate middle, unaware of how it has been used, doesn’t get any of this. All they hear is the yelling. They don’t understand why the free-speech activists react to their reasonable language with hatred and loathing.
The preceding was a work of fiction. But I’d only have to change a dozen or so nouns and names and phrases to make it all true (some of the dates might be off a little). I bet you can break the code, and if you are “moderate” you may find it explains a few things. Have fun!