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Freedom of speech in the “Second Gilded Age”

In “Digital Speech and Democratic Culture: A Theory of Freedom of Expression for the Information Society,” Jack Balkin (of the blog Balkinization) writes about what he sees as the appropriation of free speech ideals by media corporations in an effort to maximize their capital investments.

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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Jack M. Balkin, from the Knight Foundation. CC BY-SA 2.0.

In “Digital Speech and Democratic Culture: A Theory of Freedom of Expression for the Information Society,” Jack Balkin (of the blog Balkinization) writes about what he sees as the appropriation of free speech ideals by media corporations in an effort to maximize their capital investments:

Thus, in the digital age, media corporations have interpreted the free speech principle broadly to combat regulation of digital networks and narrowly in order to protect and expand their intellectual property rights. … Invoking a property-based theory of free expression, they have rejected arguments that public regulation is necessary to keep conduits open and freely available to a wide variety of speakers. (22)

Balkin sees this as reminiscent of a similar appropriation during the first Gilded Age of the 1870s and 1880s especially, when the “robber barons” grew wealthy and strong. Corporations of the time lobbied (and won) for new property rights and new constitutional protections against employment regulations (24). The abolitionists and others had celebrated the freedom to labor for whom one chose as a rejection of slavery; the corporations reinterpreted this as the “freedom of contract,” and used it to prevent government labor regulations (24). So, for example, when Congress passed a child labor law in 1916, the courts–drawing on the freedom of contract now enshrined as a principle in the Constitutional theory of the day–struck it down two years later (in Hammer v. Dagenhart).

Bilkin writes:

In what Clinton Rossiter called the “Great Train Robbery of Intellectual History,” laissez-faire conservatives appropriated the words and symbols of early nineteenth-century liberalism–liberty, opportunity, progress, and individualism–and gave them an economic reinterpretation that served corporate interests. … By the turn of the twentieth century, the best legal minds that money could buy had reshaped the liberal rights rhetoric of the 1830s into a powerful conservative defense of property that they claimed was the rightful heir to the best American traditions of individualism and personal freedom. (24-25)

Today, Bilkin said, we’re seeing a similar move: “The right to speak has been recast as a right to be free from business regulation” (25). Corporations have moved to extend copyright, making it both broader (covering more) and longer (lasting for 70+ years instead of the original fourteen years of 1790. ) They have also argued that networks should be freer than ever of government regulation, because such regulations–passed in the name of protecting the public’s speech–infringes on their freedom of speech.

(Interesting note: this move–discussed in Balkin’s 2004 article–is very similar to what happened with corporate money and speech in the 2010 Citizen’s United decision.)