The Right to Remain Loud

The government doesn’t grant you the right to free speech. It only protects it.

If you think the First Amendment of the Constitution explicitly grants you the right to free speech, you are completely wrong.

The First Amendment does not grant you that right. You have the right to free speech, as well as all of the other rights that come from being a free person, such as the right to self-defense and freedom of worship, not because some governmental entity grants them to you, but because you are human. What the First Amendment does is explicitly clarify that the government is restricted only to certain enumerated powers, that it shall not, in particular, step on your inherent freedom of speech.

This is not a subtle point. The American constitution is remarkable in acknowledging the legitimacy and sovereignty of every individual. Every free human being intrinsically has rights, and the purpose of government is to protect those rights.

Contrast this with the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document states that certain rights are granted to certain individuals in certain circumstances by the government. The Constitution enumerates the few things that the government can do; everything else is prohibited. The U.N. document enumerates the few rights that people are granted; everything else is prohibited.

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A few weeks ago, President Barack Obama authorized the U.S. to become a co-signatory of a U.N. draft resolution regarding freedom of opinion and expression. Had he taken the founders’ view of freedom, the resolution would have said something like, “No government can abridge the natural and preexisting right of an individual.” In other words, it would have limited government.

Instead, this resolution implies free speech is important not because we are free people, but because it is “one of the essential foundations of a democratic society” and because it is “essential to full and effective participation in a free and democratic society.” In other words, free speech is good because it helps the government.

If free speech were a natural right not to be abridged by government, as our founders clearly intended, this would be the end of it: Simply forbid the government from zipping our lips and government’s role is fulfilled. But if free speech is a privilege granted to support government, it must be supported by more laws. It is now the government’s responsibility to ensure freedom of speech.

So how does the draft resolution Obama wants to sign ensure the government’s grant of free speech?

Obviously, we must be educated. The resolution “reaffirms that full and equal access to education for girls and boys, women and men, is crucial for the full enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

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And of course, the government can’t explicitly grant you the right to say bad things. That would reflect poorly on the government. Your freedom of speech can’t extend to racially discriminating speech or any speech that might cause someone else to discriminate – literally, to choose. The resolution “condemns, in this context, any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination.” (Note there is no such problem if we consider our rights truly ours and the government’s job merely to protect them – then the government is not responsible for us, we are.)

There’s more. No matter what you say (so long as it is pre-approved by the government), you cannot be discriminated against by anybody else. If I want to rent my apartment only to libertarians, I will be thrown in jail, because I am discriminating against those who exercise their freedom of opinion that large government is great.

There’s still more. “[U]ndue concentration of ownership in the media in the private sector” must be broken up. If I have a successful media company, one that people voluntarily pay to read or watch or hear, my success may prevent other people’s opinions from being heard as loudly as mine are, and from the government point of view, that is bad.

How interesting that the government will decide what concentration is due or undue, regardless of the people voluntarily paying for my service. How interesting that even undue concentration in the public sector – government-run media – is okay.

If the founding fathers had thought people had a right to health care, they would have written an amendment, something like, “The government may not infringe on the people’s right to provide health care for themselves or their loved ones.” Period.

Today’s politicians would write the law the exact opposite way: Government grants people the right to health care because healthier people are better voters. Now the government is on the hook to make sure it provides what it promises. Should we have a public option? Should we regulate insurance? Should we grant them anti-trust exemptions? Should we offer regulated and subsidized medical care to the elderly? All these questions are atrocious to a founding father, but follow inevitably once we are fooled into thinking the government grants us our rights.

This article originally appeared in the Fairfield Weekly.

November 5, 2009