Some of my friends here on the blog occasionally ask whether I ever change my mind about anything. They mistake the certainty, and consistency, with which I express myself for rigidity. There are a number of reasons for this. One is a certain… forcefulness… that creeps into my writing when I’m not trying to hold it back. Another is that, if I express it here, it’s usually an idea that I’ve tested many times over the course of decades. And I’m not likely to shift suddenly on a matter such as that.
But here’s an example of something I’ve changed my mind on…
Back when I was a special-assignments writer at The Jackson Sun in Tennessee — we’re talking late 70s, early 1980 perhaps — I would occasionally fill in when one of the editorial writers was on vacation. On one occasion, I wrote an editorial headlined something like “Yes, even Hustler.”
It had something to do with one of Larry Flynt’s legal battles. Basically, I was asserting that however disgusting his exercise of it may be, the free-press right guaranteed under the First Amendment applied to his publication as well.
I would not write that today. My respect for the intent of the Framers has grown over the years, and I am far more reluctant to cheapen the Bill of Rights by inferring that they meant to assert a right to publish pornography. No, I’m not inclined to launch a crusade to ban such publications, either (which are almost quaint in view of what is freely available on the Web). I just wouldn’t take up my cudgel in Flynt’s defense today, because to do so would require dragging Madison, Hamilton and Jay into the gutter with him.
And I believe that would be wrong. The intent to protect citizens in expressing political ideas that may offend the government just seemed too clear to me. And no, I don’t accept the convenient canard that obscenity is in itself an inherently political statement.
What brought this to mind was something that Logan Smith — who is roughly the age I was when I wrote that defense of Flynt — posted yesterday on his blog, Palmetto Public Record:
It’s been less than a week since thousands of angry conservatives swarmed Chick-fil-A restaurants in South Carolina and across the country to support the fast food chain’s stance on same-sex marriage. Many expressed outrage that city officials in Boston and Chicago wanted to ban the restaurant, claiming that doing so would somehow violate Chick-fil-A’s “freedom of speech.”
This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of free speech and censorship, of course, but that’s beside the point. At least people are getting politically active — even if their form of activism is buying fried chicken.
However, we do agree that government officials who use regulations to target specific businesses are abusing their power. That’s why we’re waiting for those Chick-fil-A fans to launch a similar flash mob of support for another business being banned by city government for moral reasons — the Taboo Adult Superstore in Columbia.
When he called attention to his post on Twitter this morning, asking, “Why no defense of Columbia sex shop from Chick-fil-A supporters?” I replied, “Perhaps they believe (as do I) that “free speech” refers to POLITICAL speech. The Framers didn’t have sex shops in mind.”
You may argue that what Mr. Cathy engaged in was the exercise of religion, rather than politics, but hey — same amendment. More to the point, he was expressing himself on something that has undeniably become a political issue. And local government types in some jurisdictions were proposing to use governmental power to penalize him for it. (At this point, we could get really strict constructionist and say that this is not the same as Congress passing a law to abridge this right, and that would be an interesting conversation — but irrelevant to the case at hand. We’re not arguing the merits of a lawsuit here, but whether all those people who flocked to Chick-fil-A last week are consistent in their political ideas by not similarly defending a sex shop.)
Now, all of this said, I give Mr. Smith credit for not merely presenting the sort of empty, kneejerk, moral-equivalence argument that I fear I did all those years ago (the editorial is buried in a box somewhere in my garage, and fortunately not readily at hand). He gets into “adverse secondary effects,” which is more sophisticated than what I recall saying.
But I still say that the analogy is a false one. One would in no way be inconsistent to stand up for free speech rights in one case, and not the other. If I had been moved to participate in that Chick-fil-A demonstration, which I was not (aside from being, you know, allergic to chicken), I certainly would have felt no obligation to have defended the latter.