Free Speech and Politics
Terry H. Schwadron
April 27, 2022
We’ve been watching a continuing collision of concerns about free speech with issues of both accountability and public responsibility.
The remarkable showdown in Florida between Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the man who would be president, and Disney over its right and felt responsibility to speak out about a law whose underpinnings and supportive comments are distinctly anti-gay, is only among the latest examples.
“DeSantis Aims at Disney, Hits First Amendment,” read the headline in The Atlantic Magazine.
Despite the back-and-forth petulance between the need to speak out and the apparent need to preserve a white, Christian, straight, pro-life society, the debate is worth more consideration because presumably this incident embodies how DeSantis would serve as president — which we should believe is the real point here.
What makes it absurd, of course, is that in pursuing a politics that allows corporate free speech only to companies that agree with him, DeSantis and the Republican state legislature moved so fast as to likely trip across a punishment that illegally eliminates special self-governance for Disney within the state and that could cost local taxpayers a billion dollars in back taxes that Disney should have been paying itself. Among other things, legal elimination of the Disney-run town government could require a local referendum.
No defense here for Disney, which, as a private company, probably never should have been granted self-governance powers. But that was then — 55 years ago — when Republican orthodoxy was to pave the way for corporations and any other obstacles
But the speed, inelegance, bureaucratic sloppiness, and outward partisan political tone of the incident has further marked DeSantis an authoritarian bully who simply wants to dictate to localities, educators, lawmakers and companies what he finds as acceptable speech, behavior, voting rules and behaviors.
Is this what he wants us to think “conservatism” and “populism” represent to make him a compelling candidate? The Associated Press summarized the dispute by saying that DeSantis “is testing the limits of his combative leadership style while sending an unmistakable message to his rivals that virtually nothing is off limits as he plots his political future.”
Despite opposition to DeSantis’ so-called Don’t Say Gay law, Disney is no liberal bastion. But like other large companies with generally younger workers and a diverse audience, it finds itself caught with trying to be accessible to all and yet able to stay silent when there is a bill with distinct anti-tolerance afoot.
DeSantis notes that “Don’t Say Gay” is nowhere in the parental rights law now adopted, and that its purpose was to discourage teachers from teaching or mentioning anything that might possibly be perceived as encouraging our youngest students from thinking about sexual or gender identity, specifically without involvement or knowledge of parents. Examples of this appearing as a problem have been few and far between.
But Disney management spoke out, and we have an unpleasant political spat. DeSantis thinks it reasonable to encourage parents to sue teachers and school departments to pursue his goals and to punish a corporation that opposes his goals.
If you’re a free speech advocate, Mr. DeSantis, you need to support the freedom of opponents to make objectionable remarks or take positions different from yours. That’s the whole point of freedoms in this country, and illustrates the flip side of freedom, which is tolerance for opponents and even responsibility for protection of common access to the good life.
It’s true for covid, it’s true for those who want to note treatment of racial minorities and civil rights, it’s true for Jan. 6 participants and people who want responsible opinion aired on Twitter or on college campuses.
If you don’t believe in freedom of speech, fine. Live with the consequences. But don’t say one thing and mean another. And don’t run for president believing that you are anything than an autocrat in the style of Russian and Chinese leaders.
With Freedom, Responsibility
Meanwhile, we’ve been hearing an awful lot of the other side of free speech. That is, the apparent freedom to shoot one’s mouth off, but then denying that was what was said aloud.
Out latest rendition among politicians from both parties is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, (R-Calif.), who continues to deny that he was ready to call for the resignation of Donald Trump as president after Jan. 6 despite the unearthing of an audiotape in which he clearly does say exactly that.
The current issue is not so much whether Trump should have resigned for his role in encouraging and assembling rioters and then sitting on his hands, but the role of accountability and responsibility in free speech.
Instead, McCarthy comes across a political chameleon willing to say or do anything to advance to the House Speaker’s role, likely a prize only for showing loyalty to enough Trump House allies to win a leadership vote. Viewers of Fox News never saw mention of the tape, by the way, though other right-leaning sites did pick up both the tape and the Trump response.
C’mon, Mr. McCarthy. If you’re willing to say it, believe it, and stick with what you say. Republicans are all over Joe Biden for what are perceived as repeated inabilities to stand by his own words on the border or on inflation or gas prices. But generally, Biden does stick by his words, even as his popularity numbers continue to slide lower. By contrast, it is the effects of Biden’s policies as opposed to his words that undercut his approval ratings.
We’ve seen it with Elon Musk’s false but self-serving tweets, that will draw only more attention as \ Musk deals with the reality of his new purchase of Twitter as a beacon of free speech, apparently in denial that the practicalities of content moderation will force something less than purity.
We’ve seen it in statements about election fraud from Mark Meadows, former White House chief of staff even as it turns out that he was registered to vote in three states simultaneously. We watched as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene denied in court that she said Nancy Pelosi should be put to death for treason or that Joe Biden should not be president just before prosecutors in a case about her eligibility to run for reelection were shown in the very same courtroom. We’ve seen it for years now with Trump, who denies having said any number of statements captures on tape, from bleach treatments for covid to crowd sizes to withholding weapons aid to Ukraine.
One thing you can say on behalf of DeSantis is that he at least sticks by what he says, even if I don’t like it.