Editorials

How your free speech may be at risk, and what to do about it

NAACP marchers rally in Columbia on way to Washington D.C.

Marchers are making their way from Selma, Ala. to Washington D.C. to rally for swift action on criminal justice reform.The marchers reached South Carolina over the weekend and stopped for a rally at the Statehouse where the National NAACP Presiden
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Marchers are making their way from Selma, Ala. to Washington D.C. to rally for swift action on criminal justice reform.The marchers reached South Carolina over the weekend and stopped for a rally at the Statehouse where the National NAACP Presiden

How often do you think about the First Amendment? Probably not as often as you take it out for a spin, right?

Well, it’s a really good time to think about it.

The First Amendment’s five freedoms — religion, speech, press, peaceable assembly and to petition the government — are among the most fundamental of your freedoms, and are woven tight into the fabric of America. You cannot truly be free if you are not free to speak your mind about matters of public import. Nor can you be the responsible, civically engaged citizen so desperately needed in a self-governed nation.

Yet astonishingly, that paramount principle could be in serious danger today in the Texas Legislature.

Eight years after expressly protecting your right to free speech in the 2011 landmark Texas Citizens Participation Act, lawmakers are actually being asked to consider rolling back those protections, due to vague concerns that it may go too far in safeguarding your free speech.

We respectfully, but forcefully, disagree. We’d urge you to, as well.

All the TCPA does is protect Texans from frivolous, intimidating anti-free-speech lawsuits — called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits. It’s litigation that, truth be known, is intended to cow speakers and writers into silence and even apology by punishing legitimate thought and speech through expensive, lengthy lawsuits. Where a court finds such a lawsuit to be wholly without merit, the law allows for its quick dismissal and the rightful awarding of legal fees to the innocent defendant.

The example of print and broadcast media reports comes immediately to mind, of course, and rolling back TCPA protections could certainly have a chilling effect on those organizations’ ability to inform the public. But TCPA protections go far beyond even those crucial press freedoms.

Indeed, one Texas law firm’s online recitation of the Texas Citizens Participation Act’s benefits cites a handful of court victories for free speech — and only one of the cases involved a traditional media outlet. The others include conversations at a medical clinic about alleged deficiencies by a contractor; a company’s emails that preceded an employee’s termination; other business communications; and even court filings.

Our public dialogue has never been more robust. But ironically, that has only inspired new threats to free speech. Even diehard constitutional conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently suggested that First Amendment protections in 1964’s watershed New York Times v. Sullivan decision — requiring actual malice to libel a public official — are unconstitutional.

Clearly, there has never been a more important time for all citizens to stand guard over our First Amendment. Today’s free-flowing, no-holds-barred discourse is being used by some to seek government restrictions on speech.

As of this writing no bill had been filed, but it was the stated intent of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which ironically helped pass the TCPA, to eviscerate the law in several ways — including eliminating its award of attorneys fees in frivolous suits, which would extract the law’s canine teeth. Such a dangerous, distressing notion deserves protest even in its embryonic form.

We urge lawmakers, particularly this region’s, to reject any rollback of our free speech rights. And we implore our readers to demand they do just that.

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