Michael Matteo: The economics of free speech

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

The 1st amendment reads as follows: “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.”  This basically means that the government doesn’t have the right to limit a person’s ability to speak freely with two notable exceptions, which are public safety and honesty issues. Firstly, you can’t say something that causes imminent danger to others and secondly, slanderous speech is not protected speech.  Given these 2 exceptions to the rule, it would appear that most people would understand that the first amendment ONLY applies to government limiting speech, and therefore, it would be understood that this has nothing to do with the consequences someone might suffer for speaking freely and getting suspended or fired for it.

Every so often some event or issue occurs that generates numerous opinions about free speech and what it really means. Many Americans who have been trained from kindergarten about the 1st amendment are quick to make the claim that a private company is violating freedom of speech, but that is actually false because there is no amendment regulating free speech in the private sector.   Yet, there are definitely limits on what people can and cannot say.  Many universities impose speech codes, and everyone is aware that there are certain words or expressions you should not use if you want to remain employed.  Hate speech is condemned and many believe laws should be passed to limit hateful or offensive ideas. The problem is that what may be construed as “offensive” varies from person to person.

The private sector is dominated by economics and that means that if an employee is going to cost a company money, the company has every right to fire or suspend that employee for controversial remarks that affect profits of that company.  Whether it is a suspension for Whoopee Goldberg or a company like Spotify opting to bow to pressure to censor Joe Rogan’s program, private companies do what they do because of money.

There was a time when consumers would buy the things that they enjoyed and used on a regular basis when they went shopping.  I don’t remember my father unloading the trunk of his car with groceries and telling me that his purchases made the world a “better place.” In today’s world, many people believe it’s no longer about buying products you like; it’s about buying from companies that also share your political views.

Since Hollywood is very political, ask yourself what movies you refuse to see because you disagree with the actor’s, director or producer’s political views?   If you’re on the right, perhaps you buy Chick-Filet and if you’re on the left, maybe you buy Ben & Jerry’s ice cream because both companies have been very vocal about the causes their political agendas.  It was widely reported that the president of Home Depot contributed money to Donald Trump’s campaign, and Amazon donated millions of dollars to Black Lives Matter. Anyone who watched the Super Bowl will have no problem determining which companies advertising supported a woke agenda, and decide whether they want to do business with that company.  It is up to each individual to decide whether the politics of a company is a factor in whether or not they should buy what that company is selling.

There was a time in America, when the American government actually violated the rights of citizens because of their political affiliations.  This era was on the 1950’s and was known as McCarthyism.  It was a time when Americans, especially in the entertainment industry lived in fear of being blacklisted because they were labeled as communists by government officials on the right.  I don’t believe anyone would want to live that way again, but it appears America is headed in this direction, if we are not already there, except now it’s those on the left who seeks to blacklist people and companies for views that they see as unpopular.

In a hypersensitive world, people’s ability to speak freely is seriously curtailed.  Unfortunately what is lost when we censor or force people to self-censor is honesty.  Tolerance is a casualty of cancel culture, which is ironic because the battle cry of many on the left is “Diversity, Inclusion and Equity” which all require tolerance.

One of the pillars of democracy is the ability to speak freely, but the consequences of speaking freely can destroy a person’s career, so people are hesitant to speak about certain topics that may be unpopular with certain groups.  Yet, what is the harm in letting people express their views?    In, On Liberty, a book that shaped American democracy, John Stuart Mill wrote, ”If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, once wrote, “If you want to know who rules over you, look at who you are not allowed to criticize.” This was written over half a century ago, but it rings very true in today’s world of cancel culture.  Winston Churchill wrote, “Everyone is in favor of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.”  Both of these quotes are as applicable today as they were when they were stated.

As the United States becomes more polarized, consumers may start to make columns on their grocery lists and entertainment preferences that involve passing on products created by liberal or conservative companies depending upon their own political views.  Sadly, for many individuals, the ability to simply like something because of the content of its ingredients and therefore, purchase it, seems to be secondary to political agenda-driven economic choices for many people who believe that the freedom to say something requires agreeing with what a person or corporation says and supports.  Capitalism allows us the opportunity to make our own economic choices, and democracy affords us the ability to exercise our Constitutional freedoms and let there be no confusion that there is definitely a relationship between the two, which each of us must consider when we make purchases.


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