This place matters

This place matters

Monday, June 21, 2010

I'm working in this store, right? This kid walks in, wants to buy a tobacco product, so I card him. He doesn't have an ID, he say, because he's just gotten out of prison. But he could prove he's 18, he says, because he has a tattoo. Across his narrow chest is a giant swastika, nipples to navel. As I escorted him briskly out the door, I briefly wondered whether I was violating his First Amendment right to free expression, but couldn't bring myself to care.
Of course, I wasn't violating his rights, because he was in my store (well, my boss's store, but he had my back). I could kick somebody out for saying they like kittens, and the only person I have to answer to is my boss.
Which is why people who create goading Facebook groups like "F*ck the Troops" as "experiments in free speech" don't have a leg to stand on. Facebook doesn't have an obligation to give idiots a platform from which to be idiots. In fact, any private entity can compel anybody to shut up as long as that anybody is in the entity's yard, so to speak.
In fact, when you think about it, it's not exactly as easy to speak freely as I always thought. We don't have free speech on anybody else's property, which makes picketing pretty tricky out here in the land of a thousand strip malls. Kids can't say whatever they want to in schools, the FCC limits free speech on the airwaves, and some kinds of speech in the workplace can get you fired or sued or both.
If you want to say something damning about somebody else, you'd better have evidence that this damning thing is true should you end up in court. It's illegal to lie in court or in a lot of other places. There's no specific law preventing you from mouthing off to a police officer, but I wouldn't suggest trying it. Then there's the elastic clause of prurience, a nebulous concept that local governments define as they go... at one time, according to my pal Bill Bryson, the Bronx Jeer (or the act of blowing raspberries, if you prefer) was considered so prurient that it couldn't be done on the radio.
You can't get a big group of people exercising free speech together in a public place without a parade permit. Oprah Winfrey got sued just for saying she was afraid to eat meat because of mad cow (Oprah ultimately won the court battle, but the fact that the lawsuit made it to court is pretty crazy). Judges can issue gag orders to folks involved with court cases - remember when Jay Leno wasn't allowed to tell Micheal Jackson jokes?
If you want to swear on a CD, you get a Tipper Sticker, and unless you're willing to change the content of some songs and movies, Wal-Mart can refuse to sell your stuff.

There are excellent, excellent reasons for a lot of these limitations. Big groups of people protesting stuff can turn into mobs in the blink of an eye. Businesses have a business to run and employees to keep happy, and ex-cons with giant swastika tattoos are bad for business, or so I hear. Prurience laws keep pornography out of the hands of minors, letting people lie in court defeats the purpose of the justice system, and Wal-Mart has a legitimate need to sanitize things for their customers' protection... I guess. But one doesn't usually think of free speech as being so limited a concept. Or I never did.

Here's some more work from the fabulous Andrew Line

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