Saturday, November 1, 2008

The States of Sarah Palin and the First Amendment

It's not, as, well, insane, as not being able to name a newspaper you read, or a single US Supreme Court decision with which you disagree (other than, if you disagree with it, Roe v. Wade), but here's Sarah Palin on the First Amendment:

If [the media] convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations," Palin told host Chris Plante, "then I don't know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.

As Glenn Greenwald on Salon and many others have pointed out, the First Amendment protects the media from government officials, not vice versa.

Now, to twist yourself into a pretzel to give Palin her due, or to try to make a modicum of sense of what she is saying, the First Amendment does protect the speech of everyone, including government officials and candidates for any office. They are indeed entitled to be as critical as they like about their opponents, without fear of governmental reprisal. But this protection is not from media reporting and commentary, but, again, from the government shutting down, preventing, or punishing this speech. So Palin is wrong, again.

But let's continue in the twisted pretzel mode a little further, just to be fair. We do have laws against libel and slander, which allow anyone to sue anyone else, in a civil court, for defamatory, untrue statements. Liddy Dole is being sued by her Democratic opponent Kay Hagan about one of Dole's ads in North Carolina, and Norm Coleman is suing his Democratic opponent Al Franken for defamation in Minnesota. But these are civil suits - one citizen or candidate or candidate's campaign suing another - and the government, in the form of the courts, is acting as a referee, not a censor. Therefore these are also not First Amendment issues.

By no stretch of logic, then, does Sarah Palin's bizarre reasoning on the First Amendment make sense. But here's something that may be of comfort to Palin: she is not alone in misunderstanding the First Amendment. Well meaning people misunderstand the First Amendment all the time, when they say that a private organization does not have the right to control the speech on its premises. The First Amendment has nothing to say about what private or any organizations do, other than that the government can't interfere with their speech. And government officials and people in Congress misunderstand the First Amendment, when they say the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated, or when they support FCC fines for broadcasts found objectionable. The First Amendment expressly prohibits such government actions.

In sum: Sarah Palin apparently does not comprehend the First Amendment. But its defenders have their work cut out for them, even if Obama wins by a landslide, which I hope he does.
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