Black Confused on Free Speech

RECEIVED Mon., Nov. 27, 2006

Dear Editor,
    Surprisingly for a publication that's in the business, there seems to be a confusion at the Chronicle about what the right to free speech is and is not. Louis Black is laudably clear that he recognizes everyone's right to say (and do!) what they want but then adds that he would prefer that right to be exercised without having to worry about censorship or retaliation ["Page Two," Nov. 24]. That does nothing but move the debate from the meaning of free speech to the meaning of retaliation, since "censorship," properly defined, refers solely to governmental penalties, which no one claims happened (or should happen) with the Dixie Chicks. If the government were to retaliate with fines and/or imprisonment for what one says, that too would be censorship and an unacceptable denial of the right to free speech. However, if an audience retaliates by not buying CDs or concert tickets, that is (or should be) perfectly acceptable in a free society (although perhaps unpleasant to the target) – but that seems to be what Louis' beef boils down to. Unfortunately for his position, saying whatever one likes and having immunity from the consequences is not free speech but irresponsible speech. Only dictators get to enjoy that one.
    Louis' observation that "Criticism is not censorship, expressing concerns is not demanding legislation, and disagreeing with people is not telling them to shut up" adds little light, as it could apply equally well to any side of the question – to the Chicks' criticism of Bush or to the resulting criticism of the Chicks or to Louis' criticism of the critics. Perhaps he could review that paragraph for comfort if the talk radio on the subject gets too irritating.
    Meanwhile, across the aisle, in her review of Shut Up & Sing [Film Listings, Nov. 17], Marjorie Baumgarten considers us lucky that the Chicks chose not to surrender "their freedom of speech." Marjorie, in America it's impossible to surrender one's freedom of speech – but not to evade the free-market consequences of its exercise.
Alan McKendree
   [Louis Black responds: Did I use the word "censorship" anywhere in that column? I'll have to check. My only point is not that retaliation should be illegal, but I would think that a lot of people would be concerned if the media mobilized to shut up someone or some act because of their opinions. I actually don't entirely get the point here. I'm just joining the ongoing public dialogue on this issue. Without censoring, asking anyone not to speak their mind or seeking legal restrictions I'm objecting to a point of view and an intense media effort supporting that point of view. There is open dialogue, and then there is demagoguery. Whether from the left or the right, the latter is offensive. Perhaps the letter writer sees no difference? As a writer I feel that if the media purposefully works up public hysteria, there is an obligation to point it out. Finally, when I'm talking about free speech here and other places I'm not referring to the Bill of Rights; I'm arguing that in a healthy and open society people should feel free to speak. Others should feel just as free to disagree.]
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