Flat White

Freedom of speech guarantees your right to know

17 November 2019

5:58 PM

17 November 2019

5:58 PM

The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution contains the following words:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

If we watch the order in which these rights are expressed, we can see that the free exercise of religion by the people is followed by freedom of speech of the people, followed by freedom of the press, followed by the people’s right of assembly. There are two rights of the people followed by the freedom of publishing. It seems to suggest that the freedom that the press is granted is a freedom, first and foremost, to publish what is being spoken by the people.

That is not a limitation on freedom of the press, for there will be many things that the press will want to publish that are unimportant in a political sense, less important in the sense that they might be of curious interest only, like a woman’s magazine. Nevertheless, the First Amendment suggests that the Constitution recognises a hierarchy in the public interest and therefore in what the press must be free to publish. Which begs the question, what is the public interest?

Let me begin by saying that it is not in the public interest to gossip even if the public might be interested in it. Nor is it in the public interest to publish pornography, despite the public interest in watching it. The public interest is much more important than that. The public interest includes but is not limited to what the government or indeed the press or the public is doing. But, the public interest at its most important is concerned with a system of government that is based on the public; that is, one based on the consent of the governed, or republican government.

The American founders were more than familiar with the teachings of the English philosopher, John Locke and framed a republican Constitution in accordance with his arguments. The English too had followed Locke’s advice in the 1689 Bill of Rights which converted an absolute monarchy into the republican form that lawyers call a constitutional monarchy. The Australian founders based our Constitution on the American model even if it is unrecognisable today.

The point is, that there is a hierarchy of issues that are in the public interest. But those that are of supreme importance will relate to the preservation of a republican scheme that is based on the consent of the governed.

In the USA, at the moment, the efforts of the Democrats, first with the Mueller enquiry (which found nothing) and now this impeachment enquiry (which is nothing), go to the heart of the Republic. Democrat lawmakers claim they are preserving the Constitution; but the fact that Democrat lawmakers have issued articles of impeachment for five of the six Republican Presidents since Eisenhower, suggests that the Democrats see impeachment as an electoral strategy.

This strategy, however, will have serious ramifications for the republic, for it has probably put an end to the bipartisanship that must survive an election if republican government is to survive. One of the first US elections was celebrated for the reason that the losing side did not use their guns to overturn the result. Ballots not bullets had arrived.

Bipartisanship will be all but dead in the water after President Trump leaves office, for Republicans will merely wait their opportunity to exact their revenge on the Democrats. If Republicans control the Senate and the House, a Democrat President will be impeached or impeded from carrying our his program. And if that becomes the norm, the great experiment in republican government will be over; to be replaced most likely by mob rule.

James Piereson in The New Criterion has explained the danger to the future of the Republic in terms that even the most partisan can understand. If we keep in mind that the US public interest, in its highest form, is in the future of a republican constitution, then how that interest is being served by the mainstream media is also in the public interest. And it also follows that it is in the Australian public interest to know whether the MSM are adequately questioning how the US Democrat strategy will affect the future of republican government in that country.

With the rise of the corporate mega-media companies, the MSM currently threatens republican government in the USA. For whatever reason, quite possibly, profit, it has become a partisan actor in American politics, choosing to publish or broadcast partisan opinions almost to the exclusion of different voices while assuming freedom of partisan speech.

Yet, the issue always lying in the background of the MSM activities is whether their opinions promote the public interest as the Constitution intended or just pander to partisan interests from where their profits derive. How do the people tell whether they are being groomed, seduced, or informed? 

They can’t; unless that is, we the people have a firm idea of the hierarchy of issues in the public interest. If the public interest is based on a republican government, then the media have a duty, not just a right, but a duty always to relate specific issues respectfully of how they promote or hinders republican government. In the USA, knowledge of the Constitution, its purpose and its history was once the concern of civics classes in American schools. While those classes have been discontinued in America, they were never a part of Australian education.

The result is that few Australians have the political knowledge necessary to know how Australia ought to be governed, a condition that is exacerbated by the partisan view that substitutes diversity for unity that is encouraged by a legal framework that protects minorities while restricting freedom of speech.

Friday’s opinion piece in The Australian by Rosalind Croucher, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, that squad of zealots for 18c, praising free speech in the context of our MSM’s “Your right to know” campaign, shows the confusion in our current debates.

Whatever the defects that exist in the United States, they are blessed with a constitutional guarantee of freedom of worship and freedom of speech. If only Australia could boast of it.

David Long is a retired solicitor and economist.

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