In Defense of Free Association

by Tim Dunkin It was with interest that I read Jamie Freeze’s article “In Defense of Helen Thomas,” which was published here at Renew America and elsewhere. What grabbed my attention, as was surely intended, was the very counterintuitive nature of the title. A conservative writer, publishing on a conservative website, defending Helen Thomas, whose long career in the Washington press corps came to symbolize the intellectual bankruptcy and despicable left-wing bias of the mainstream media at their worst? So I was naturally attentive to see what Jamie had to say. While I understand the concerns that she has that led her to write her article, I found myself disagreeing with the arguments she made for a number of reasons.

Probably the cardinal error in Jamie’s defense of Helen Thomas was her assumption that the Constitution, or more specifically the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, applied to this case. The problem is that it does not. The Bill of Rights is a document which affirms the inherent liberties of the individual, true enough. But it, as with the Constitution as a whole, deals with the interface between government and the individual citizen. True to the First Amendment, the government cannot (among other things) punish you for speaking, writing, or printing your opinions. But the problem is, United Press International is not (officially, at least) a part of the US government. And it was UPI who punished Thomas by asking for her resignation, not the government.

Therein lies a common misunderstanding about freedom of speech that I’ve noticed over and over again in many different venues – which is the belief that one private entity is required to provide an open forum to other private entities to say whatever they want, whenever they want, and that the failure to do so constitutes some sort of “infringement” on freedom of speech. I see it on forums across the internet all the time - a participant will say something inflammatory, etc. etc. and will be muzzled by the forum administrators. The offending individual, invariably, will complain about how their “free speech is being taken away.”

Sorry, but no. On somebody else’s property (which, digitally, is what a private internet forum is), or when somebody else’s dime is in question, you don’t, in fact, have “freedom of speech.” Think of it this way – nobody has the right to come onto my front yard and start protesting, carrying signs, or making speeches. I, on the other hand, DO have the right to ask them to leave, call the police on them, or as a last resort, run them off with a shotgun. Your free speech ends at my property line. Ironically, if this were not so, then I would no longer have any meaningful right to private property, if someone else can come on my land and do whatever they like, so long as they cover themselves with the “free speech” label. No way. You’re free to say what you like in public, or on your own property, but you are not free to hinder somebody else’s free use of their rights just so you can exercise yours. My exercise of my private property right is not a hindrance to your free speech, since you can go anyplace else besides my driveway and speak your piece.

It would, of course, be a different matter if I actively followed someone around and pointed a shotgun at them every time they tried to say what they had to say, in public or on their own private property. I could, and should, be forcibly restrained from doing so by the police powers of the state. One of the legitimate functions of government, as we can implicitly understand from our Constitution, is to prevent private citizens from hindering each other in the lawfully use of their inherent liberties. While the government cannot constitutionally prevent me from exercising my free speech, it can keep me from hindering someone else in that use. But again – simply disallowing you to use my private property does not do this.

Now, in the case of Helen Thomas, while the issue is not one of property rights, we see that it really speaks to another, equally important (and equally disparaged) liberty – that of our freedom of association, intimately bound up in the First Amendment recognition of the freedom of assembly. Association and assembly are inextricably connected. Who you assemble with is who you choose to associate with, and this ought to hold true regardless of whether we’re talking about a local church assembly, a service organization, or a corporation. While this has been infringed upon severely (including, as Rand Paul pointed out, by well-meaning but unconstitutional efforts involved with rectifying previous civil rights violations), we need to be clear on something – businesses, as well as any other organization, have the right to determine their own composition.

This is where Helen Thomas comes into the picture. Yes, as Jamie pointed out, her comments were made in the capacity of a private individual at a private function. Nevertheless, Thomas’ statements are the business of that organization (UPI) with whom she was associated as an employee. Whether or not her comments were “uncomfortable” is irrelevant. From UPI’s perspective, what matters is whether they are unprofitable. As a for-profit business whose livelihood, at least in part, depends on the reputation the organization has as a result of its constituent parts, UPI has the First Amendment right to decide whether it wants to continue to associate with Helen Thomas or not. UPI chose not to. Helen Thomas, for her part, has no reciprocal right to force UPI to continue to employ her or to continue to give her a forum. Helen Thomas is still free to say whatever she pleases, no matter how ignorant, she merely cannot do so while drawing a paycheck from her former employer. Firing her did not infringe her free speech rights. Appeals to some supposed “unconstitutionality” surrounding this action, even regarding the spirit of the Constitution, are completely out of place. The Constitution does not force one private entity to grant another private entity a positive use of their rights. UPI’s action cannot even be properly said to conflict with the spirit of the Constitution.

Do I find that bothersome? Of course not. If I were making public statements that were drawing opprobrium upon my private employer, or were otherwise engaging in private behavior that became publically known and reflected poorly upon my employer and helped to create a negative public persona for the company or was causing it to lose money, I would fully expect that my employer would use its freedom of association to disassociate me from its organization. And it would be fully within its rights to do so, constitutionally speaking.

Granted, there are a lot of people, from Ann Coulter to John Hagee, who have made inflammatory, ignorant, or downright crude remarks. The fact that they were not “fired” from whoever associates with them is not, despite Jamie’s assertions, hypocritical. One organization chooses to associate with that sort of behavior, another does not. Both are well within their First Amendment rights either way. Contra Jamie’s assertions, this has nothing to do with “political correctness.” Again, properly understood, “political correctness” is primarily concerned with the interaction between a governmental entity (in this case, such things as universities, legislatures passing “hate crime laws,” etc.) and the private citizen. And in those cases, yes, political correctness is bad because it involves using the force of the state to hinder private individuals from expressing their opinions, etc. This has nothing to do with the issue in question, however.

While I understand Jamie’s point – Helen Thomas got a short end of the stick in a way that many conservatives who have said equally inflammatory things have not – ultimately, it’s not my call either way. By trying to cast this as a “free speech” issue, what exactly does Jamie think should be done? If she thinks Helen Thomas’ rights have been violated, and something out to be done about it, does Jamie think the government should step in to rectify the situation, and if so, then how? Force UPI to rehire Helen Thomas? Fine them for firing her? Haven’t we already had enough violence done against our freedom of assembly without adding this to it, as well? What I stand for is not forcing private organizations to maintain ties with members who act badly, out of a misguided notion that these individual members are “losing” their freedom of speech when asked to leave. Instead, I stand for maintaining the First Amendment right to freedom of association. Jamie talks about courage saying “Adios” if we don’t stand up for Helen Thomas’ right to be a fool. I say that the courageous position is to stand against the ever-increasing drive to infringe upon our right to freely assemble and associate (or not do so) with whomever we choose as private individuals.