POV: Controlling Free Speech

WASHINGTON Our corporate executives and congressional lawmakers may not crack down on verbal dissent the way the government of Myanmar deals with the protests of Buddhist monks, but their tactics lately are equally threatening.

If we think our speech is truly free, we are deluding ourselves.

Nothing illustrates the chilling effect of media consolidation more than Verizon Wireless’ move last week to block the messages of the abortion rights group Naral. Verizon claimed it had the right to prohibit “controversial or unsavory” text from being carried across it network.

That Verizon reversed its decision the next day offers little comfort, since the company has not made its text-messaging policy available to the public and reserves the right to decide what messages can be transmitted in the future.

Verizon is among the carriers on the forefront of addressing this issue. How does the company draw the line between what’s permissible and what isn’t? Gun messages from the National Rifle Association might be fine, but abortion messages are out?

The TV and radio networks using the public’s airwaves reserve the right to prohibit anything that is distasteful when it comes to sex, offensive content and advocacy issues. But the nets argue that they do this because they operate on behalf of the public. Cellphones are a different story.

It’s even more disquieting to learn that Verizon probably has the law on its side. Laws that prohibit common carriers from determining what can be said in voice transmissions over telephone lines don’t apply to the Internet. So the battle that has been raging over “Net Neutrality”—determining whether Internet service providers should have a voice in the content of the messages they carry—takes on new meaning in the context of this Verizon episode.

Verizon will have to invest some serious time and money to recover from the damage it just did to its own corporate reputation. Look at what the blogosphere thinks is the real reason Verizon made this decision in the first place.

Ouch. As for executives who don’t think the blogosphere is important when it comes to corporate reputation, they fail to understand their customers.

Then there’s the sophomoric MoveOn.org print ad calling Gen. David Petraeus “General Betray Us.”

It hardly rivals the famous 1964 “Daisy” spot for creativity or impact in the realm of political advertising. Yet the message, which accused Petraeus of “cooking the books for the White House,” left some lawmakers in Congress scrambling to introduce a resolution condemning the ad. Arizona Republican Senator and presidential candidate John McCain called the ad a “McCarthyite attack on an American patriot…No matter where you stand on the war, we should all agree on the character and decency of this exceptional American.”

It’s hard to believe that this ad, which MoveOn paid about $142,000 to run in section A of The New York Times, compared to that intimidating and damaging chapter in American history orchestrated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. We have become so thin-skinned and intolerant of free speech that we are going out of our way to demonize the messages that we don’t want to read or hear.

Engaging in robust political debate is widely accepted as the core value of the First Amendment. Here’s an example of a recent Naral text message that caused such consternation within executive offices at Verizon: “End Bush’s global gag rule against birth control for world’s poorest women! Call Congress. (202) 224-3121. Thnx! Naral Text4Choice.” What part of this message is not political debate? The polite “thank you,” perhaps?

Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Everyone is entitled to voice it short of libel, slander or falsely shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater.

Free speech is the reason we still grant protest march permits to the Ku Klux Klan. We may hate the speech, but we respect the right to engage in peaceful demonstrations.

There is still some hope. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger got it right when he stood by his decision to permit controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to speak at the school.

Some citizens may have unpopular, even abhorrent, ideas. But forcing people to stifle those ideas is not the way a free country that values the rights of individuals should act. We should be fostering the dialectic.

The last time I checked, that word meant a system of reasoning that seeks to resolve contradictory ideas. We call it having an intellectual conversation.

But if such lofty principles fail to drive home the point, look at it this way: Denying free speech makes companies and lawmakers look like tyrants. And that hurts the bottom line.

Wendy Melillo is an Adweek contributing writer and assistant professor at the School of Communication at American University.