Media Rants By Tony Palmeri
[note: The following essay appears in the July, 2003 edition of The Valley Scene].
Some of the great political battles of the 20th century involved citizens fighting government attempts to censor speech and expression. From anti-war socialists defying the free speech restrictions of Woodrow Wilson's "Espionage Act" of 1917 to librarians and civil libertarians' ability to persuade a conservative Supreme Court to reject Bill Clinton's "Communication Decency Act," progress was made in freeing the First Amendment from the choking grip of the government censor.
The Ashcroft Justice Department's PATRIOT Act and other "war on terror" lunacies prove that government censorship remains a problem not to be taken lightly. But as Lawrence Soley argues in Censorship, Inc: The Corporate Threat to Free Speech in the United States (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002), "the private sector has far more methods at its disposal to restrict speech than does government. The methods include restricting speech on private property; threatening to file or actually filing strategic lawsuits against public participations (SLAPPs); requiring employees to sign contracts restricting employees' rights to speak during and even after their employment; banning dissident views from company publications; pressuring the media to kill stories . . . and a myriad of other methods." (p. 253).
Soley, a professor of communication and journalism at Marquette University is known as an astute critic of corporate power. A previous book, Leasing the Ivory Tower (Boston: South End Press, 1995), demonstrated convincingly that anger at "political correctness" on college campuses masked the fact that the real threat to academic freedom came from the corporate encroachment on curriculum, research, and teaching.
Censorship, Inc. shows how corporate power encroaches on our civil liberties, especially free speech rights, in expansive and insidious ways that would be met with fierce resistance were it government doing the encroaching. Why aren't corporate censorship attempts met with stiff resistance? Simply because private restrictions on speech are, according to Soley, "deeply rooted" and couched in the language of "property rights," "editorial control," or "business policies."
Soley's book provides numerous examples of corporate censorship. Let's look at three: (1) the "at-will" employment doctrine, (2) restrictions on speech in shopping malls, (3) strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).
I remember working at a fast-food place over 20 years ago and being advised by a coworker on my first day to "be careful because around here they'll fire you if they don't like your face." He wasn't that far off the mark: the "at-will" employment doctrine keeps the majority of the American workforce in perpetual fear of saying or doing something that might offend the boss and lead to termination. State and federal laws provide some protections for whistle blowing and other types of disagreement with management, but these laws vary across states and are not enforced rigorously at the federal level. Soley notes that, "Because employees can be discharged at any time for any reason, the at-will employment doctrine is perhaps the greatest impediment to free speech in the United States." (p. 23).
In ancient Greece the "Agora" was a kind of marketplace that served as a public space in which citizens could engage in political debate. Shopping malls are the closest thing modern America has to an Agora, yet communication on mall property is severely restricted. In March a father and son wearing peace t-shirts in the Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, New York were told to remove their shirts or leave the mall. After a public outcry the mall owners dropped trespassing charges, but the fact that Crossgates like thousands of other malls in America reserves the right to silence citizens should be very disturbing to anyone concerned about the decline of democracy in our country. As put by Soley, "Although they invite the public to enter, browse, and even exercise; accept public subsidies; and claim to be town squares, mall owners nevertheless claim that malls are private property, where free speech can be curtailed . . . mall owners have generously lobbied lawmakers to kill proposed legislation that would open up malls to free speech." (p. 144).
States have been very slow to protect speech in malls. The allegedly "progressive" state of Wisconsin is one of 13 that recognize absolutely no protection for mall speech. Low voter turnout and political apathy in Wisconsin and the rest of America are in large part the result of the commercialization of public space. Absent a thriving Agora, a population's major concerns shift from politics to prices.
SLAPPs are frivolous lawsuits filed by powerful businesses or developers against citizens whose only "crime" is exercising their First Amendment right to speak out against the business or the development. SLAPP suits shift the focus of a debate from the quality of a development to the behavior of its critics, move the debate from a public forum to a courtroom, and are designed to intimidate and financially bankrupt the targets of the SLAPP who are generally average citizens of moderate means trying to protect their communities. Since 1989 nineteen states have passed anti-SLAPP legislation; Wisconsin unfortunately is not one of them.
Twenty-first century activists need to fight corporate censorship with the same vigor that their 20th century peers took on the government censor. In Wisconsin, Democratic Senator Fred Risser recently introduced anti-SLAPP legislation (SB 80). Let's support Risser's Bill and read Soley's book while we still have the right to do so.
Tony Palmeri is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh