Tuesday, January 27, 2004

CBS & Self Censorship

Although I agree that CBS should air the MoveOn ad, I disagree with those (including MoveOn founder Eli Pariser) who claim the network's decision not to air it presents a free speech issue. Companies and even the media have a right to self-censor, and we certainly have a right to criticize their motivation when they do. But when CBS refuses to air an ad or a program, that's not a violation of free speech. If the government were to prevent CBS from airing the ad, then, yes, that would be a free speech/first amendment issue.

Consider Rush Limbaugh's complaint after he quit ESPN:
It’s such a tempest in a teapot, particularly in the sense that we live in a country where there is supposedly a First Amendment and you can offer opinions. But you can’t, in certain places and at certain times, you can’t offer an opinion.
Rush is wrong. As media attorney Thomas Cafferty points out in the latest issue of DiversityInc magazine (print version only):
He's legally incorrect when he says his free speech was impinged upon because the constitutional protection, whether it's in the state constitution or the federal First Amendment, protects against 'government' interfering and restricting speech."
This make sense. For example, few of us would question a company for firing someone who insisted on distributing hate literature at work, and a printer has the right to refuse to print that same person's brochures. But the government does not have the right to prevent the same person from cranking out those same brochures in his own basement to disseminate by whatever legal means.

So, I have a right to complain to CBS about their absolutely questionable judgment of late, but I only undermine the integrity of my own arguments if I claim CBS is obstructing the First Amendment.

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