Free Speech and Offensive Speech

Today, Mark Wolf over at Rocky Talk Live picked up the story about how used the term “bitch slap” last year, before the organization went after Jon Caldara for using the same term. This morning, I also briefly appeared on Peter Boyles’s show on 630 KHOW to discuss the story. I wanted to elaborate on a few of the remarks I made to Boyles.

Free speech can only be understood in a legitimate and coherent way in the context of property rights. Let’s take some examples to clarify this point.

People have the right to say “bitch slap” all they want, within the context of individual rights. If you want, you can start a newspaper called “Bitch Slap News.” You can start a “bitch slap” blog in which you write nothing but the term. You can wander around the streets mumbling “bitch slap” to yourself. However, your right to say “bitch slap” cannot interfere with somebody else’s rights.

For example, you cannot come over to my house and spray paint the word “bitch slap” on my door. Nor can you burn the term into my grass. Nor can you barge into my home, uninvited, and start saying “bitch slap.” You cannot walk into a business and start shouting the term “bitch slap.” You cannot walk into a newspaper office and demand that the paper publish the term.

Just as you have the right to set speech policies within your own home, so businesses have the right to set speech policies within the business, subject to contractual arrangements. For example, if you work for a newspaper, you do NOT have the right to publish the term “bitch slap,” or “F*** Bush,” in violation of the paper’s policies. (Many papers have a policy against publishing the “F-word,” but no paper that I know of has a policy against publishing the term “bitch slap.” Indeed, I suspect that the term “bitch slap” has been published more frequently during the past few days than ever before in the term’s history.) My beef with J. David McSwane, the college student who published the “F*** Bush” headline in his school newspaper, was that he flagrantly violated his paper’s stated policies and then tried to claim that he had a “free speech” right to do so.

I can guarantee you that, had McSwane called Condoleezza Rice the “N-word,” he would have been gone, gone, gone. I’m not sure whether the FCC can sanction a radio station for using the “N-word;” I doubt it. Nevertheless, any radio host or DJ who called Barack Obama the “N-word” would be ejected immediately. And this is entirely proper. Even though the radio waves are today “public” — i.e., nationally controlled by the FCC — properly radio waves should be private property. And the owners of a radio station, the same as the owners of a newspaper, should have the political right to set speech policy for the station. Most stations would voluntarily and properly prohibit the use of the “F-word” and “N-word” on air. I doubt many stations would ban the use of the term “bitch slap.” However, if (for example) a Christian station wants to prohibit the use of such terms, then that is the right of the station’s owners.

Of course, if ProgressNow wishes to publicly condemn Caldara for saying “bitch slap,” that is the right of ProgressNow. They also have the right to complain to Caldara’s advertisers. However, as ProgressNow may be learning, just because you have a right to do something, doesn’t make it a good idea. You have the right to drink a quart of Vodka, but it’s a pretty stupid thing to do. You have the right to slam somebody for using a term that your own web page has used, but it’s a pretty idiotic thing to do. But if ProgressNow wants to spend its resources to destroy its own credibility, that’s fine by me. The rest of us have the right to subject the organization to the public mockery that it has so richly earned.