June 30, 2011
The U.S. Supreme Court ended its 2010-11 term with a First Amendment flourish this week, striking down a pair of state laws that justices said had trampled the free speech rights of citizens in California and Arizona. You'd think that would cheer a fellow who runs his mouth for living, but I worry that both rulings may signal something more ominous than a resounding victory for civil libertarians.In the first of two important First Amendment cases, a majority of seven justices threw out a California law that banned the sale of violent video games to children.In a second ruling handed down the same day, a more narrowly divided court struck down a law on public campaign financing that Arizona legislators had adopted in an effort to temper the advantage enjoyed by wealthy office-seekers.Now, I know what some of you are thinking: that the reason these rulings disappointed me is that I don't think much of the people whose First Amendment rights the justices bent over backwards to protect.And isn't the reason we have a Bill of Rights in the first place so that every American is free to speak up, even when decent, right-thinking citizens such as myself would rather not hear what's on his or her mind?Well, fair enough: I really don't think much of video game developers whose idea of a good time is giving teenage boys the opportunity to plan a mother-daughter rape or re-enact the Kennedy assassinations on their family room Xbox consoles. And I'm skeptical that what ails this country's politics will be set right by electing more multimillionaires to congressional or state office.But I also understand that laws empowering the government to stifle either group could just as easily be exploited to silence gay people, evangelical Christians, or even — shudder! — newspaper columnists in Detroit. And I'm grateful for life-tenured justices who aren't afraid to challenge such laws, even when doing so puts them crosswise with a majority of Americans.What bothers me is that the problems the laws in California and Arizona were designed to address are real problems, and we seem farther away than ever from finding real solutions to them.Back to the drawing boardI have yet to discover persuasive evidence that playing violent video games disposes children to behave more violently in real life. But I am disturbed that parents who would rather their middle schoolers didn't spend their afternoons re-enacting the massacres at Columbine or Virginia Tech get so little support from the rest of the village, and that entrepreneurs who cater to those primitive appetites continue to get rich doing so.I also harbor no illusion that taxpayer-subsidized campaigns can ever neutralize the outsized role that special-interest money plays in modern elections. But I know that campaigns bankrolled by wealthy contributors are drowning out any genuine contest of ideas in more and more elections. And I worry that the non-wealthy majority's dim recognition that it has been relegated to the sidelines is undermining the very legitimacy of democratic government.I feel, in short, like a cancer patient who has been informed that the therapies with which desperate doctors hoped to cure him will not work — that they are ineffective, unsafe to administer and may have life-threatening side effects.It's no good placing your confidence in bad medicine, and restraints on free speech are usually that — worse, in the long run, than the ills they are designed to address.But the ills are real. And we are still grasping for remedies that are both constitutional and effective.Contact Brian Dickerson: 313-222-6584 or firstname.lastname@example.org.