First Amendment Advocacy Is Fading in Its Prominence

Article excerpt

The year 1999 was the "year of censor," reported The Media Institute, a group established to encourage freedom of speech, competition and excellence in journalism.

Legislators nationwide were filtering content for minors, restricting advertising and withholding information about potential hazards at chemical facilities. And law enforcement agencies seized journalists' photographs to help identify suspects.

"No longer is the First Amendment a bedrock principle to be defended against all onslaughts. Rather, the First Amendment has become a procedural hurdle to be overcome in pursuit of other social goals," the institute said in a book-length report.

I asked Patrick Maines, president of The Media Institute, to respond to some questions. Here are excerpts:

Q. Does your institute oppose all restrictions on free speech, including bans on billboards, tobacco advertising and child pornography?

A. All restrictions on free speech are dangerous. There is enormous weight given to precedents, and not just in the courts but in legislative and regulatory bodies too. We believe that all speech -- including commercial speech -- is entitled to substantial First Amendment protection. Thus, we oppose restrictions on billboard ads and on tobacco advertising, but not on child pornography, which is a crime and not entitled to protection.

Q. Do you feel that restrictions for minors, though well-intentioned, may not be carefully crafted?

A. Restrictions are often too broad. A good rule of thumb is to ensure that we are nor regulating in a way that reduces all speech to that fit for minors.

Q. Does it seem that even major media organizations have become quiet on First Amendment rights?

A. First Amendment advocacy has gone almost completely out of fashion. Lots of people would restrict the speech of someone else but not many would countenance any restrictions on their own. I think the First Amendment has become far too much a legalistic concept, talked about and debated almost solely among lawyers.

My comment: The First Amendment is designed to protect unpopular speech, so its protections can be lost not defended aggressively. …