I often disagree with Bill O’Reilly, but I want to defend him.
A lot of smart people are bashing him on line, particularly in the blogosphere, but I think that this just proves his point. I think that he’s spot on with this erudite and well-reasoned editorial. This “Internet” is just too powerful.
When the Founders wrote the First Amendment, they could never have conceived a technology that would allow anyone to publish anything at any time, at almost no cost, and have it readable by millions instantaneously.
In fact, inspired by this work, I’m working on a book, tentatively titled “Publishing America: Origins Of The Free-Speech Myth,” in which my thesis is that very few people had access to printing presses in colonial times, and this notion of a long American tradition of a free press and individual freedom of expression is simply propaganda of First Amendment extremists. I’ve painstakingly gone over old probate inventories, and can show statistically that very few homes traditionally had means of printing and, such few as there were, they had mostly fallen into such a state of disrepair as to be useless. Unfortunately, my pet iguana ate all of my notes, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. I’m sure the print nuts will employ their usual ad hominem tactics, and call me a fraud.
Anyway, it’s one thing to have free speech when the most effective means of communicating ideas is with a printing press that few can afford, and has to have the type carefully set by hand, and they have to be printed on expensive paper, and transported no faster than a horse can run, and distributed by walking door to door.
Such a laborious and expensive process as colonial-era printing ensured that potentially dangerous ideas were more thought out, and well edited, and could usually be easily traced to their author. So, given that the investment in publishing was so high, it made it much more likely that only responsible people would be publishing things, and that you wouldn’t have wackos running around spewing crazy or confused, even false or misinformed notions at innocent and naive passers by.
In that environment, it made perfect sense to grant an individual right to print things (to bear presses, as it were), because there was little danger of it getting out of hand.
But surely the Founders never intended for every single citizen to be able to exercise such a right–in their wisdom, they would have known it would lead to chaos and unfettered thought. They couldn’t possibly have imagined the rapid-fire distribution of dangerous ideas made possible by twenty-first-century technology. Why, some people might have even put forth the absurd notion that free speech is the right of everyone.
Had they actually anticipated the possibility that the cost of publishing could drop so dramatically, they would surely have made the First Amendment a much more explicitly collective right (like the Second), in which people would only have a right to free speech in a well-regulated state newspaper.
Let’s be reasonable–of course it’s fine to let people have typewriters, and copiers, as long as they don’t have a paper magazine of more than a quarter-ream capacity, and can’t print more than two pages per minute in high-density color. There are legitimate uses for such things–printing up book reports for school, making PTA meeting notices and party invitations, and the like. We respect the rights of those who wish to indulge in such innocuous, if pointless activities, long a part of the American cultural tradition (though it would certainly make sense to register such devices, in case they’re stolen, or lest they’re used to express some untoward or scandalous thought).
Of course, we do need to outlaw the cheap Sunday-night specials, old manual machines still available in pawn shops, with sticky keys, that cause ink stains, and from which a large number of late term papers are produced by the criminal procrastinating class during the witching hours. But really, folks, chill–no one wants to take away your typewriters.
But the Founders would realize also, just as Bill O’Reilly and I do today, that no one, other than the police and politicians, needs the kind of “idea assault” publishing capability offered by word processors, blogging software, and even fifteen-page-per-minute ink-jet printers, which really have no legitimate use–they only propagate calumny and wrong-headed notions, tragically damaging innocent celebrities’ egos, sometimes permanently.
This past weekend, just to demonstrate how easy it is to lay hands on such dangerous equipment, I exploited the notorious “computer show loophole,” and went out to the big show in Pomona, California. There, I saw entire halls filled with purveyors of high-speed idea processors, rapid-fire printers, and even modems capable of transmitting thoughts at frightening rates, up to gigabytes per second. For only $4.99, with not so much as an ID requirement, let alone a background check, I was able to purchase an “assault keyboard,” with several internet hotkeys. It was fully automatic–holding down any key would result in a torrent of characters being spit out, hundreds per minute. I even saw teenaged children buying them.
Yet, when people propose sensible regulations over this, we hear hysterical cries about “freedom of expression,” and “from my cold, dead fingers.” But surely the far-fringe First Amendment absolutists are misreading it–there is a hint of a shadow of an umbra of a penumbra in there, easily accessed by referencing the Second Amendment. Bearing this in mind, it is more properly read with the following implicit preface: “A well-regulated press being necessary for the security of the State and self-important talk-show hosts, Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…”
Clearly, viewed in the light of that implicit purpose clause, these were not intended to be individual rights, any more than they were in the Second Amendment, because obviously, the Founders wouldn’t have meant one thing by the words “the right of the people” in the one case, and a different thing in the other, particularly in two adjacent amendments.
Accordingly it is equally clear that we need to implement what would obviously have been the Founders’ intent had they foreseen the Internet, and immediately pass some laws to get this thing under control. Let’s do it for the children.
Particularly Bill O’Reilly.