Sunday, February 10, 2008

What Freedom of Speech Really Means

 
Read the amazing story on Friendly Atheist [Atheist Billboard Taken Down].

The Freedom from Religion Foundation contracted with Kegerreis Outdoor Advertising LLC to put up the following billboard in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania (USA).


That billboard has now been taken down and replaced with,


Read what the company has to say about their decision. It should not be necessary to point out what freedom of speech means and it is not proper for an advertising company to publicly state their moral values. Do all employees of Kegerreis Outdoor Advertising LLC agreed with the statement? If not, are they going to make their views known at company headquarters? Would you?


12 comments :

  1. I'm not sure I understand what the issue is.

    It appears that FFRF contracted to buy space for a period of time on a billboard from the BB company. I assume they paid for the space, and that they received what they contracted for (a display at this location for 'x' days).

    After the contract ended, the BB company put something else up there: their own BB message. Are you saying that the BB company has no right to say what they are saying? Would it change the issue if the prior message was a cigarette or beer ad? An ad by the Westboro baptist church?

    It seems to me the BB company owns the BB, and can say anything they like. If their employees don't like it, tough. If I don't like it, tough. And if I want to put up a particular ad, the BB company has the right to discriminate on the basis of the message in my ad.

    So, what am I missing here?

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  2. Agree with Divalent...

    The company definitely looks silly and pandering, but as long as it respected the terms of the agreement with FFRF, there isn't a problem.

    The whole freedom of speech thing is irrelevant because that deals with the suppression of speech by the gov't.

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  3. Divalent asks,

    Are you saying that the BB company has no right to say what they are saying? Would it change the issue if the prior message was a cigarette or beer ad?

    No, the issue would be the same if it were a beer ad. If Kegerreis Outdoor Advertising LLC ran a beer ad on its billboard then followed it with an ad of their own saying they don't believe in alcohol consumption because it's anti-American and its values and morals are questionable, then I think there's a problem, don't you?

    What's that you say? There was nothing in their ad about atheists being anti-American? Right. The phrase "In God We Trust" has nothing to do with America.

    It's sad that you don't see a problem.

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  4. I’m sorry, but I am now more confused. The title of this blog entry is "What Freedom of Speech Really Means", which strongly implied that there is an issue of "Free Speech" at play here.

    I interpreted the statement in the initial post “It should not be necessary to point out what freedom of speech means” as implying possibly either 1) that the BB company violated someone’s free speech, OR, 2) that the BB company’s message is an example of speech that should not be considered “Free Speech” (and thus not protected).

    Larry Moran: “No, the issue would be the same if it were a beer ad. If Kegerreis Outdoor Advertising LLC ran a beer ad on its billboard then followed it with an ad of their own saying they don't believe in alcohol consumption because it's anti-American and its values and morals are questionable, then I think there's a problem, don't you?”

    Perhaps it wasn’t wise, from a business perspective, to “bite the hand that feeds you” (FFRF was a customer in the past, and might again be so), but then again maybe it was wise from a business perspective given their other customers and the people targeted by their BBs. But that’s for the BB company to decide; and to suffer the consequences, or reap the rewards, of their decision. Regardless, this is not a free speech issue, except to the extent that BB company is properly exercising their right to free speech by choosing to put up that message. (It’s their BB, they can put up what ever message they feel like; at least they can in the US). What FFRF (or I or you, or anyone else, including the government) thinks of it is irrelevant. (Unless FFRF’s contract with BB co specifically prohibited it, but even if it did, it wouldn’t be a free speech issue, it would be a breach of contract issue.)

    Larry Moran: “If Kegerreis Outdoor Advertising LLC ran a beer ad on its billboard then followed it with an ad of their own saying they don't believe in alcohol consumption because it's anti-American and its values and morals are questionable, then I think there's a problem, don't you?”

    I have no problem with that, with respect to the issue of whether they have the right to do so. Whether I agree with them is not relevant. If it bothered me enough to do something about it, I would counter it using my own free speech rights. I wouldn’t even think to try to use the government to silence them. (However, I do recognize that that is a USA thing, and that Canada believes differently, at least with respect to forms of speak that can, in some way (even implausibly), be characterized as “hate speech”).

    Larry Moran: “What's that you say? There was nothing in their ad about atheists being anti-American? Right. The phrase "In God We Trust" has nothing to do with America. It's sad that you don't see a problem.”

    Actually, it looks like what the BB company said was “In God We Trust. Kegerreis Outdoor Advertising. The previous sign posted at this location does not reflect the values or morals of our company. Thank you”

    How anyone can even think this raises First Amendment issues is beyond me.

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  5. "In Canada, advocating genocide or inciting hatred against any 'identifiable group' is an indictable offense under the Canadian Criminal Code with maximum terms of two to fourteen years. An 'identifiable group' is defined as 'any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.' It makes exceptions for cases of statements of truth, and subjects of public debate and religious doctrine. The landmark judicial decision on the constitutionality of this law was R. v. Keegstra (1990)."
    -- from Wikipedia

    The legal sections are remarkably good as summaries. I find this situation neither illegal (from a Canadian perspective) nor improper. With respect to the latter, if one were to characterise any religious commentary by an individual (companies included) as improper, then we'd all be improper people.

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  6. While I agree that the this article's title is misleading, since this isn't an instance of the government censoring free speech, I'd still say that this is rather troubling.

    I would be just as confused if was watching Conan O'Brian, saw an ad for a product during the commercial break, then saw Conan bash that product and tell his audience that he doesn't think they should buy it. Not illegal, but really odd. Or, imagine a billboard ad for Ford trucks that runs for a week, only to be replaced by a message from the billboard company stating that they prefer Chevy, and further noting that the previous advertiser's product did not meet the billboard company's standards. Wouldn't that be baffling?

    In Minnesota, I see lots of pro-life billboard ads (I noted one just this morning on the way to work). But I have never seen a billboard with a pro-choice message. I always wondered why. One possibility is that the pro-choice side simply isn't interested in buying space on billboards. Another reason could be that pro-choice organizations don't budget for billboards. Those are simple and likely explanations. But I wondered if another reason could be that many billboard companies are owned by people who are sympathetic to the pro-lifers, and actively refuse to display pro-choice messages on their billboards? The example given in this article would tend to lend credence to that notion.

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  7. Divalent says,

    I’m sorry, but I am now more confused. The title of this blog entry is "What Freedom of Speech Really Means", which strongly implied that there is an issue of "Free Speech" at play here.

    As far as I'm concerned, respect for free speech is much more than just obeying the letter of the law. If you really believe in freedom of expression then you let the other person have a say without taking advantage of your position of power. If everyone believes in the concept then nobody will assume that the first billboard in any way reflects the opinion of the advertising company.

    I should have realized that Americans see it differently. In America, if it isn't breaking any law, then you can do whatever you damn please. There's no need to respect the other person's right to free speech as long as you can get away with it.

    If you own the billboard then you can trash any client you disagree with. No laws are broken so it's not a problem.

    BTW, I am totally opposed to Canada's hate laws.

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  8. dunbar says,

    I find this situation neither illegal (from a Canadian perspective) nor improper.

    I find it sad that you think the advertising company behaved properly.

    Imagine that we had an atheist group on campus and they were advertising a talk by a well-known atheist. Imagine that the university felt it necessary to put up signs all around the campus in order announce that this was not the university's position. Imagine that the university did not do this when religious groups sponsored a speaker. Is there a problem? Have any laws been broken?

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  9. Larry Moran: "In America, ... There's no need to respect the other person's right to free speech as long as you can get away with it."

    I don't think you understand the concept of "freedom of speech". It appears that you think it means that others have to "respect" what you say. In fact, that's the whole point: you get to say it, but others get to say things too, including disrespecting and ridiculing your opinion if they so desire.

    Your university talk example is not correctly analogous (but if it was a private univesity, I would say there is no "free speech" issue). A more appropriate situation would be: The *private* university hosts an atheist to speak on that topic. Things go uneventfully, the speaker speaks, collects his check, and leaves. Shortly thereafter, the university president gets up on stage and gives a speach saying the university opposes (and even disparages) atheism.

    "Freedom of speech" is not content specific (except in very unusual situations), and it means you even have the right to be a jerk and to be disrepectful, unkind, "unfair and unbalanced", and to hurt someones feelings if you so desire, and none of that changes just because you got paid to let the previous speaker use your microphone.

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  10. I couldn't care less about the legalities, on either side of the border (other than that they set a mandatory minimum standard of behaviour, and thus must be obeyed), but your explanation is still a considerable stretch.

    Yes, Kegerreis' ad was obnoxious, sanctimonious and bigoted -- but I fail to see how it inhibited FFRF's speech in any way. AFAICS, they are perfectly within their rights (both legally AND morally) to post any opinion they wish, even including criticism of previous messages (whether this is good business is another question). What I object to in this case is the implication that there is some deficiency in the "values and morals" of FFRF -- but that is a sin of application, not principle.

    I also question whether the BB agency is in a position of power (at least, not in the same sense as a university administration is).

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  11. divalent says,

    I don't think you understand the concept of "freedom of speech". It appears that you think it means that others have to "respect" what you say. In fact, that's the whole point: you get to say it, but others get to say things too, including disrespecting and ridiculing your opinion if they so desire.

    No, I certainly don't think that freedom of speech means you have to respect what others say. Where in the world would you get such an silly idea? Have you been reading Sandwalk? :-)

    What I mean is that you have to respect people's right to say what they want to say. In the case of posting signs on billboards, you have to respect their right to do that. You can post your own signs if you want but when you are the company in charge of billboards you should be as impartial as possible because you are acting as the vehicle for the right to free speech.

    It's not against the law to behave like a asshole but it is stupid. I seriously doubt that Kegerreis Outdoor Advertising LLC really understands and accepts the basic principle of free speech.

    If they did they wouldn't have to post a sign of their own saying "The previous sign posted at this location does not reflect the values or morals of our community. Thank you."

    That's not a criticism of what the Freedom from Religion Foundation actually said. That's an implied criticism of their right to say it. There's a big difference.

    I'm sorry you don't see the difference.

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  12. Larry Moran said,
    What I mean is that you have to respect people's right to say what they want to say. In the case of posting signs on billboards, you have to respect their right to do that. You can post your own signs if you want but when you are the company in charge of billboards you should be as impartial as possible because you are acting as the vehicle for the right to free speech.
    I find it absurd to expect a private individual to conform to the abstract niceties of form and debating etiquette. If that's your real beef, then like others have said, the title of your post is disingenuous. The BB company reserves the right to say whatever it likes, notwithstanding libelous/slanderous/hateful (in Canada) speech. It seems somewhat of a double-standard to expect the BB company to shut-up.

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