Mike Siegel: First amendment protections, myth versus reality

Congress shall make no law respecting…or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…

Mike Siegel
April 24, 2017 - 1:02 pm
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It is stunning to see the level of ignorance about what our First Amendment protections are. It is also stunning to see survey after survey reflect substantial numbers of people do not understand the First Amendment and are perfectly willing to give up some of these free speech rights because we “have gone too far.”

Absurd and naïve are words that come to mind about these troubling views of a right that was fought for by our Founders and for which hundreds of thousands of our military heroes have given their lives since the Bill of Rights was approved.

There are two blaring examples of how this misunderstanding of the First Amendment has been demonstrated lately.

First is the discussion on a cable news channel over the weekend with a host and four “pundits” discussing Facebook Live and the video that aired showing grizzly violence that we would all agree should not be shown.

On this broadcast, every member of the panel accepted the alleged fact that the First Amendment protected the video of this violence being broadcast on Facebook Live. This is absolutely and unequivocally wrong and a misstatement of the First Amendment protections. It was frustrating to watch the host and the panelists never distinguish what those protections are.

In effect, we are protected by the first ten amendments to the Constitution from government interference with those rights. This applies to the federal government through the First Amendment and to the states and local government through the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Let’s be clear: The First Amendment does not protect us from private companies. Therefore, there is no First Amendment protection from private companies, which of course Facebook is. They can set their own standards on what is acceptable for posting and what is not. The allegation therefore that we have free speech protection to publish anything on Facebook is absolutely untrue. They can limit what they publish.

As toxic as that view is in suggesting free speech applies to private companies, we have an even more onerous application the other way. Colleges and universities across this country have either cancelled appearances by conservative speakers or had violence by students and outsiders coming in to agitate against such speakers using violence and physical harm to supporters of free speech.

Yes, public colleges and universities have an absolute obligation to protect free speech under the First Amendment. They are public entities and cannot interfere with free speech on their campus. They can do only time, place, and manner regulations but cannot stop the speech. Thus, if there are agitators interfering with free speech on campus, the administration must protect the speakers and those who choose to hear them, and not surrender to the threat or reality of violence or intimidation. The campus must use its campus police or local police authorities and have the interference with speech ended by arrests and prosecutions where appropriate.

Instead, Ann Coulter the well-known conservative pundit has been treated with ultimate disrespect at the University of California at Berkeley by that school’s administration, when her speaking engagement was cancelled then reinstated at the administration convenience. Last Tuesday, the school announced the speech by Ms. Coulter was cancelled.

The Republican student group who invited her said they would file a lawsuit against the administration for this reprehensible act. Even Bill Maher, the leftist commentator defended Ann Coulter and her right to speak and called the whining students at Berkeley, f…ing babies.”

This is the reverse abuse of the First Amendment to the issue at Facebook. Here, there is a right to protect free speech on the property of public institutions, and the key is that any time, place or manner restriction must be content neutral.

It is sadly obvious that this decision by the Berkeley administration is not content neutral.

Does anyone really believe that Bernie Sanders would be treated in the same way as Ms. Coulter has been treated by Berkeley? If you do, I have some land in the Everglades for you to build your next dream home.

As the late legendary Gene Burns often said over the WRKO airwaves:

"The antidote to free speech is more free speech." That wisdom from Gene should be heard by college and university administrators across the country.

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