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Reason Foundation

Reason and Free Speech

A primer and a call to arms!

Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch
December 17, 2010

On December 9, 2010, the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason magazine, Reason.com, and Reason.tv, held an event celebrating free speech at New York City's The Box and commemorating adult filmaker John Stagliano's victory over federal obscenity charges (go here for our coverage of that spectacular waste of taxpayer dollars). The idea behind the event was to draw attention to Reason's ongoing work in defense of free expression and to call for a new free speech movement that reaches beyond traditional categories of left and right. What follows is a text written for the occasion by Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie.

For Reason, the great cause of free speech is encoded in our motto: “Free Minds and Free Markets.” The first half of that slogan suggests liberation from propaganda and other forms of control, as well as a challenge to exercise and expand the boundaries of thought and expression. We believe the “free markets” part tells us how best to get there—through vigorous, private competition, far away from the deadening hand of government regulation. Neither free minds nor free markets can get much done if free speech is in chains.

[Article continues below the video, "What's the Biggest Threat to Free Speech."]

[For more info on video, go here.]

Despite the prominence of the First Amendment, for most of this country's history, free speech has always been hunted near to extinction. The Alien & Sedition Acts on 1798 made it illegal to defame politicians (how then, are you supposed to discuss them?).  The Comstock Act of 1873 banned mail if postal inspectors thought it dirty. U.S. publishers couldn't legally print Lady Chatterley's Lover or Tropic of Cancer until the 1960s. Had it not been largely invalidated by the Supreme Court, the Communications Decency Act of the mid-1990s would have put Janet Reno and Newt Gingrich in charge of the Internet's content. 

Our right to free speech is built upon the sacrifices of people who risked a hell of a lot - their livelihoods, their social standing, their freedom - to make it easier to speak freely. From colonial printer John Peter Zenger, who helped establish freedom of the press against the British crown, to Allen Ginsberg, whose generation-defining poem Howl endured countless censorship attempts, to Molly Norris, the cartoonist who has been driven into hiding after suggesting "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" as a response to death threats leveled against the creators of South Park for poking fun at religion, free speech is always endangered, always under siege. 

Tonight, Reason honors a hero of free speech who was almost a martyr to the cause: filmmaker John Stagliano. As a successful businessman who marries art and commerce, John embodies "Free Minds and Free Markets." Earlier this year, he successfully faced down federal obscenity charges that could have put him behind bars for a shocking 32 years. All for the "crime" of producing and distributing adult movies to people willing to pay good money for them. In John's case, the good guys won, even as the federal government prevailed in other obscenity prosecutions in 2010. 

The charges John faced are just one threat to free expression that Reason is constantly monitoring. The casus belli of this evening is to pull together people fighting along those many different fronts - against political censorship, jihadi heckler’s vetoes, anti-Muslim land use enforcement, campus speech codes, federal meddling in the news business, government propaganda - and declare the forming of a new, radical, trans-partisan coalition of people allied in support of free speech. 

Liberated from the hollow pieties of a Democratic version of free speech that can’t tolerate political documentaries or giving offense, and from the Republican version that rails against obscenity and criticism of war, the new coalition is filled with people whose default setting is liberty, and who understand that the full logic of their position is bound to make other people - and even themselves - uncomfortable at times. 

Our movement may not agree on where all the boundaries are drawn, but we recognize that the threat to free expression is relentless, requiring defenders to link arms, push back, and even take the literal and figurative offensive from time to time. In fighting that good fight, we will not only prevail, we will have a hell of a good time making the future brighter and more wide-open than the most oppressive censors fear.

Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and Matt Welch is the editor in chief of Reason magazine. They are co-authors of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America, which will be published in 2011 by Public Affairs.

For an archive of Reason's work on free speech, go here. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Nick Gillespie is Editor in Chief, Reason.com and Reason TV

Matt Welch is Editor in Chief, Reason


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