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Op-Ed

You can buy free speech

April 11, 2022

It takes a lot of money to say whatever you want in places you're likely to be read or heard.

Milt Policzer

By Milt Policzer

Courthouse News columnist; racehorse owner and breeder; one of those guys who always got picked last.

Free speech isn’t free. You have to have an awful lot of money to make the rules about who can say what.

This has always been true — even in the era of anti-social media. In fact, it was more obvious then. You definitely couldn’t say whatever you wanted in a newspaper you didn’t own.

I was reminded of this last week reading (in an antiquated printed newspaper) that Elon Musk (the space guy with the electric cars who seems to have a problem with rules) had bought a big chunk of Twitter and was offered a seat on Twitter’s board of directors (which, at least as of this writing, he's apparently turned down).

I’m guessing that Twitter is going to be tad more lenient about letting Musk tweet whatever he wants now.

I have no idea whether this is a momentous event or not but there’s been a lot of public headshaking. Musk reportedly is big on free speech (or maybe speech that props up stock prices). This could mean more weird stuff on Twitter or maybe it doesn’t — I don’t know.

I used to be a strong believer in the First Amendment even if it meant really annoying people could say whatever they wanted. I believed freedom of speech doesn’t mean much if you don’t allow speech you hate.

I sort of thought that way about journalism too. After all, most of what’s called “objective” journalism is pretty subjective. You have to make decisions about what to report and what to say first — since a lot of readers don’t get past the first paragraph — and that’s completely subjective.

I also thought that, as long you’re upfront about your subjectivity, readers or listeners could factor that into their reactions.

Then Fox News came along.

Others followed.

Then the internet got flooded with all manner of weirdness.

Yikes!

Now I’m a bit less sure about this free speech and press thing. A tidal wave of wrongness capsizes all boats and now truth is controversial.

Truth, naturally, is stuff I believe or agree with. Unfortunately, that also means everything is a lie to someone.

Sigh.

What I do know, though, is that the concept of free speech has taken a strange, modern and commercial turn. The First Amendment, after all, only applies to the government. Twitter isn’t the government (I don’t think) and yet the free speech debate is all about controls by it and Facebook and Instagram and TikTok and probably some companies I’m too old to know about.

You can buy your way into free speech.

Maybe we should pool all our money.

Vagueness. See if you agree with me that the following sentence from a recent Colorado Supreme Court ruling is weird:

“Although Moreno did not specify which part of subsection (1)(e) was the subject of his challenge, the district court concluded that the phrase ‘intended to harass’ rendered the statute facially unconstitutional as vague and overbroad.”

A law was challenged as vague by a vague lawsuit. The vague lawsuit won. You don’t have to be specific to challenge vagueness.

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