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Joseph Sabino Mistick: Your vote levels playing field

November 12, 2018

At a recent conference on the First Amendment, co-sponsored by Duquesne University and the Pittsburgh Foundation, national figures from politics, the media and academia engaged in civil discussions about the incivility of our political culture.

As we have seen, if your speech offends, the First Amendment will not keep you from getting banned from a social media platform or fired by a private employer. In many everyday situations, speech is not so free, or without consequences, and the First Amendment does little to protect us from each other.

But, the First Amendment does prevent government from enacting laws that restrict speech. That is why some jarring activities, like flag burning, hate speech and neo-Nazi marches, are protected speech. Even silence is its own form of expression, which means that government cannot compel anyone to speak or pray.

Sooner or later, nearly everyone is sufficiently offended by the speech of others that they demand that government enact a law to protect them from it. But, they often bristle at any suggestion that their own speech should be curbed, under any circumstance.

Commentator and law professor Alan Dershowitz told the conference that this is “free speech for me but not for thee.” And he supports a “shoe on the other foot” test to address this hypocrisy. Ask yourself this: If you demand First Amendment protection for your views, would you defend the same right for those who disagree with you?

Dershowitz said that this is not a new development. The defense of “free speech for the hard-left and the hard-right has always been a tactic rather than a principle,” he said. And, Dershowitz says that the reasonable middle of the political spectrum, where civil discourse is more likely to occur, is narrowing.

Further, in discussing the relationship between the First Amendment and the internet, Richard Gingras, vice president of news for Google, declared that the “impact of unfettered expression on our democratic republic” is not yet known. And the path back to objective truth, and away from alternate realities, is not yet clear.

Gingras illustrated the difficulty in finding “balance between our freedoms and our societal norms” by quoting Deb Roy from the MIT Media Lab. Roy asks, “Is the internet to the First Amendment what the AK-47 is to the Second Amendment?”

Finally, the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United only made the tough work of citizenship a heavier lift. The court ruled 5-4 that political spending is speech that is entitled to First Amendment protection. This means that the more money you have, the more political speech you have.

But, there is still one political refuge for the average citizen. Beyond the hysterics of intolerant political extremists, beyond the flood of purposefully misleading and indecipherable political information on the internet, beyond the unlimited political spending of the one-percent, we still have our vote.

And that can level the playing field. We must be vigilant, since evil-doers are hard at work to suppress the vote and take away the universal franchise. But now, the only way to remedy all this is for us to vote in massive numbers while we still can.

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