Freedom Isn’t Free

berkeley free speech

The Internet was thrown into an uproar on January 14, 2014, when the DC Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an FCC regulation protecting Net Neutrality. [1] The FCC’s rule essentially banned internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Verizon from discriminating against certain content providers. In the wake of the court’s decision, the government can no longer stop ISPs from selling preferential download speeds to services like Netflix and Hulu. The Internet can, at a moment’s notice, lose the openness that has defined it from its creation.

By now, everything that can be said about Net Neutrality has already been said. In fact, AJ Stoughton posted his own thoughts on the recent court case on this site. [2] Regardless, the debate about Net Neutrality exposes another, less recognizable fact about the freedom of speech that the First Amendment is supposed to protect. It helps us recognize that freedom cannot exist in a vacuum, that, sometimes, gaining one freedom means losing another.

The Supreme Court, for example, is set to rule on the recently heard case of McCullen v. Coakley, in which the court will decide whether a Massachusetts law establishing a buffer zone around abortion clinics violates the First Amendment. [3] Massachusetts has taken great pains to protect women from protestors on the way to abortion clinics, and the Supreme Court has approved of buffer zones in the past. This time, however, the outcome is far from certain. If the conservative justices on the court win out, Massachusetts’s buffer zone law may be history.

Much like anything involving abortion, McCullen is a highly controversial case. People on both sides hold deeply passionate views about it, and, regardless of whether one supports the protestors or the women seeking abortions, it is easy to recognize that both sides are fighting for a form of freedom.

The protestors are seeking freedom to express their opinions, to condemn what they see as injustice, and to do so publicly for all to see. At the same time, the women going to abortion clinics want to maintain their privacy and dignity in the middle of what may be the most difficult decisions of their lives. They want to exercise their right to abortions, and crowds of protestors undoubtedly make it more difficult to exercise that right.

It is the same sort of problem posed by the Net Neutrality debates. Content providers on the Internet want to share their opinions, to start online businesses, and to do so independently of corporate sponsors. ISPs, on the other hand, want to maintain control of their users. They want to promote their own viewpoints and encourage their own businesses. One may side with independent content providers and support Net Neutrality, but it is important to recognize that, whenever the government protects a certain kind of freedom, it also eliminates a different sort of freedom.

In other words, freedom may not be a zero-sum game, but it is pretty darn close.

This is more than just a truism. This means that every time the government acts to in the name of preserving freedom and pursuing greater liberty, it must look closely at its goals. Still more important, it must recognize that freedom involves more than just noninterference. It requires an active government to protect the weak and the marginalized.

Sometimes, society may not offer that protection. Perhaps the government should not enforce buffer zones around abortion clinics. Maybe it should not force employee insurance plans to offer contraception. At the same time, maybe it should prevent employers from discriminating against minorities. Maybe it should stop bigots from harassing homosexuals online and in person.

Different people will have different opinions about these situations, and it should be up to society as a whole to decide what freedoms the government should protect. Every single person should know that these decisions have consequences, though. Avoiding choice is not an option. We should embrace the constant tensions between freedoms and actively create the kind of society we want to live in. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that doing nothing is enough. We should step into the light and deal with all the complexities that life may bring. We will never be able to protect everyone’s freedoms, but with this awareness, we may be able to protect better freedoms.

 [1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/15/technology/appeals-court-rejects-fcc-rules-on-internet-service-providers.html?_r=0

[2] http://thetally.org/2014/01/17/the-importance-of-net-neutrality/

[3] http://www.npr.org/2013/12/20/255870199/supreme-court-considers-legality-of-abortion-clinic-buffer-zones

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