Benjamin Wachs: So much for freedom of speech

Benjamin Wachs

In 1791, our Founding Fathers enshrined freedom of speech as among the first of our fundamental rights.

It appears that after 200 years, we’re sick of it. In 2012, free speech is widely seen as a troubling phenomenon that must be regulated by law.

In Pennsylvania, a new law forbids doctors from telling their patients about the toxic chemicals in compounds used for fracking, even if doctors think those compounds are affecting patients’ health.

The law, passed in February, is designed to protect energy companies like Halliburton, which spew chemical mixtures into the ground in order to remove natural gas. Those mixtures are thought to contain toxic compounds which could poison people who live nearby. Pennsylvania wants to make sure that if your doctor finds out what’s poisoning you, he can’t tell you about it. It’s the only way to protect trade secrets. Halliburton’s right to poison you is legally more important than your doctor’s right to tell you you’re being poisoned.

The freedom of doctors to say true things is of great concern to lawmakers. Several states force doctors to tell patients there is a connection between abortion and breast cancer, even though the profession’s best research says otherwise. Last year, Florida tried to make it illegal for doctors to tell their patients about the dangers of guns in the home.

But doctors aren’t the only profession being targeted. In March, Iowa passed the so-called “Ag Gag” law, making it illegal for journalists to get jobs in factory farms to report on food safety and animal treatment issues.

Getting information for a story about a public health threat used to be the hard part. Now you have to establish that you have the right to tell the public their food is contaminated. A factory’s right to poison you is considered more important than a journalist’s right to tell you about it.

At least you can still protest these injustices … right?

Not really. According to reporting by Dahlia Lithwick and Raymond Vasvari, recent changes to the federal laws mean that the government can effectively declare any protest, anywhere, illegal at any time and without warning.

Previously, the law made it a federal offense to “willfully and knowingly” enter a restricted space to protest. Now, “It is a federal offense, punishable by up to 10 years in prison to protest anywhere the Secret Service might be guarding someone” — whether you know it or not.

The government has carte blanche to criminalize protest anywhere the Secret Service might be active, which in today’s America ranges from basketball championships to public concerts to streets a member of the administration might be walking down.

If there’s a protest they don’t like, they can send someone with Secret Service protection there to suddenly make it illegal. Bottom line: If the government finds your expression of free speech inconvenient, anytime, anywhere, it can throw you in jail for it.

In “1984,” George Orwell’s protagonist Winston gives perhaps the definitive description of free speech: The ability to say that two plus two equals four. If you can’t tell the truth about the way you see the world, then you’re not free.

By this measure, forbidding doctors from having honest conversations with their patients — making it illegal for them to say “I think this is what’s making you sick” — is a fundamental assault on free speech. Forbidding journalists to tell you what they’ve seen is a fundamental assault on free speech. And putting the right of the government not to be inconvenienced above the right of the people to tell their government what they want is the most appalling assault on free speech of all.

Freedom of speech is always inconvenient. That’s why it’s so often persecuted. It needed to be enshrined in our Bill of Rights precisely because speaking the truth to power is never convenient for the powerful. Being free to speak only when it’s not disruptive is not freedom of speech at all. The Constitution promises us better.

But promises are just words if they don’t have the force of law. In today’s America, you’d better not say 2 plus 2 equals 4 if a state government, a big corporation, or a federal agency believes it equals 5.

Still, you are free to shop at Amazon or tweet your friends, which is surely what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they fought a revolution.

Benjamin Wachs writes for Messenger Post Media in New York, and is the editor of Email him at