Thursday, 20 December 2012

Newtown and free speech

Much of the debate since the Newtown shootings, as after every other such tragic incident in the States, has focused on the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Nothing surprising about that, because this is the amendment guaranteeing the right to bear guns.
The fundamental problem may however lie not so much in this amendment as in the First, which guarantees freedom of speech, belief and assembly. It’s a powerful illustration of how something that on the face of it seems entirely good, can produce terrible effects in certain circumstances.

The ten amendments to the US Constitution form the Bill of Rights

Kierkegaard got it right when he said ‘people demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use’. All the same, most of us would probably agree that free speech is an important right. Certainly, I regard it as crucial whenever I want to exercise it, though I have to say I wish I could occasionally selectively suspend it for certain other people.

Desirable though it may be, however, the right to free speech can’t be open-ended. The classic counter-example is that there’s no right to shout ‘fire’ needlessly in a crowded theatre. Civilised societies also prohibit libel, incitement or conspiracy, thought these are also constraints on free speech.

There are other, more subtle aberrations in the application of this right. The First Amendment was the basis on which the US supreme court chose to allow the so-called super PACs to operate. These are organisations that can channel unlimited sums of money into political activity, allowing them to make or unmake politicians.

It is also the first amendment that guarantees that politicians can continue to back their campaigns with TV advertising. Funding the astronomic expenditure that involves makes them more than ever dependent on donors.

Those two effects create circumstances in which political lobbies flourish. And here we are back with the problem of guns and tragedies such as Newtown’s: no political lobby is as well organised, and few are as well funded, as the NRA, the main pro-gun lobby.

It is currently following its usual tactics, of saying very little in the immediate post-massacre period. It can see the writing on the wall, and the head of steam generated by Newtown is such that the writing is powerful: there seems a real chance of some significant steps towards tighter gun control this time.
So watch the NRA, once the dust has settled. It is going to give a master-class in the use of lobby muscle in a political system more prone to it than any other in the world.

At which points its opponents will need to ponder the effect of abuse of not only the Second Amendment to the Constitution, but the First as well.

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