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March 2002

The Death of Free Speech

By Doug Patton

"We must remember that a right lost to one is lost to all." - William Reece Smith, Jr. What did you learn in school today, Billy?

Oh, just the usual stuff, Grandpa. The teacher told us about the greatest people in American history. You know, people like Malcolm X and Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

Do they ever talk about the Constitution in school anymore?

No, Grandpa, you're the only one who ever talks to me about that. I asked my teacher about it and she got all mad. Why did she get mad, Grandpa?

Well, Billy, it's against the law now for me to talk about this, but I'm an old man and I don't care. You need to hear it. The Constitution was a very old, very precious document that had a great deal of meaning in our lives for the first two hundred years of our nation's history. We believed in the words written by George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and the others we once called the Founding Fathers.

Yeah, my teacher called them the Founding Outlaws. She said they all owned slaves and they beat them and I shouldn't talk about them.

Well, in a way I guess they were outlaws. They wrote the Declaration of Independence and started a new form of government. And while it's true that it was wrong of them to keep slaves, they gave us all a better nation than had ever existed before. They wrote the Constitution, which guaranteed certain rights by agreeing that those rights were given by God.

Oh, we're not allowed to say 'God' in school. You could get in so much trouble. My teacher says only fanatics talk about God. Are you a fanatic, Grandpa?

Yes, I guess in today's world I am, Billy. You see I believe as those Founding Outlaws did that each of us is endowed by our creator - God - with certain rights, and that among those rights is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The writing of those words was the most important moment in our history.

That's not what my teacher said.

I'm sure she didn't. What did she say?

She told us the greatest thing to happen to the country ever was something called Finance Campaign Reform or something like that. She said it happened about thirty years ago, in 2002, and that it cleaned up government. She said before that government was open to the highest bidder. I didn't understand it very well.

Well, Billy, she was right about one thing. That bill called Campaign Finance Reform was important all right, but not the way she meant it. You see, that was the year the people lost the right to criticize our government. Before that, a person or a group could buy time on TV or radio and talk about the record of a member of Congress. Or they could distribute voter guides letting people know where their elected officials stood on the issues.

Wow! You used to be able to do that?

Oh absolutely. But then something terrible happened. That right was taken away and the only people allowed to talk about government officials were those in the news media. The big newspapers and the big TV networks suddenly were in a position to decide who was a good representative and who wasn't. Soon they were the only ones allowed to publish their opinions.

Why didn't people fight against it, Grandpa?

Oh, believe me, Billy, some of us tried. We could still communicate with our elected representatives in those days, and we all knew that bill would pass the Senate if it got that far, but we never thought it would. We assumed that the House of Representatives, which was supposedly controlled by Republicans, would reject it outright. But they betrayed us, pure and simple, Billy. Some of them fought for the Constitution, but too many Republicans joined the Democrats and took away our right to criticize our government. And then when the president signed it. Someone's at the door, Billy. See who it is, will you?

Mr. Patton, you're under arrest for sedition and corrupting the mind of a minor child. Good job, Billy, you can take off the microphone now.

Sorry, Grandpa, but you really shouldn't say such nasty things about the government.

 

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