On the specific internet sites I was watching—and I kept flipping around from site to site specifically to highlight the experience I want to tell you about—the debate was featured more or less exactly as on TV, but with the addition of an ongoing feed of tweeted comments directly from viewers’ Twitter accounts also visible on the screen. For readers who don’t tweet, Twitter is a micro-blogging site that also serves its clients as a kind of a social networking service. The basic idea is simple enough—you open an account, people sign up to follow your tweets, and then you communicate to all those people whatever you wish…as long as your communication—your tweet—does not exceed the 140 character limit. Does it sound appealing to be part of a world that communicates in 140-character mini-messages? Apparently it does to a lot of people—there are 500 million active users out there who generate 340 million daily tweets. Almost more astoundingly, Twitter itself fields 1.6 billion search requests every single day. Mostly, of course, the tweeted comments concern no one other than the tweeter and his or her tweeted-to minions. But Wednesday night an arrangement was set in place to allow individuals to tweet their comments on the debaters’ points directly to the sites streaming the debates. And that seemed remarkable, at least to me, not for the content of the tweets that appeared on my screen, which ranged from occasionally insightful to fully dopey (with “nowhere-near-as-clever-as-the-tweeter-him-or-herself-thought” somewhere on closer-to-dopey side of that spectrum), but for the reality of the phenomenon itself. I myself do not have a Twitter account. But for just the briefest of moments on Wednesday evening, I came as close as I ever have to wishing that I did. (Fortunately, the feeling passed by morning.)
Here were two men, one the most powerful political office-holder in the world and the other a serious contender for the job of most powerful political office-holder in the world debating about details that could conceivably win or lose the election for either of them. And there, secreted away in a thousand thousand living rooms, were the American people—or an interesting cross section of them—commenting in real time, or in almost real time, on what they were hearing not to each other, much less to their pets or their plants, but to millions upon millions of their co-citizens. (Given the truly remarkable lack of vulgar or offensive comments on my screen, I assume there must have been some filtering mechanism in place to safeguard the dignity of the larger undertaking. But the comments that got through certainly seemed to represent every conceivable point of view and didn’t strike me as having been censored at all with respect to their political orientation or candidate preference.) In some dark parallel universe, the officers of a malign FBI would have spent Thursday browbeating the staff at Twitter into revealing the identities of the tweeters who dared comment negatively about the president or, in a slightly alternate version of that alternate universe, Governor Romney. But I don’t believe that I am being naïve in assuming that no such activity took place at all. Americans take it for granted, as well we should be able to, that comments injected by individuals into a debate between the candidates vying to be our supreme political leader and the commander-in-chief of our armed forces are entirely protected as free speech of the specific type in which all may freely engage without fear of reprisals that is unambiguously guaranteed by the First Amendment. But perhaps we take that freedom, as we do most others of our most basic freedoms, just a bit too freely for granted.
Let’s compare the scene from last night with, say, Thailand, where Daranee Chanchoengsilpakul was sentenced last year to eighteen years in prison for merely “intending to insult” King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit at a political protest during the course of which she was invited to give a brief speech. (As shocking as that might seem, however, what should we say of the case of a different Thai citizen, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who was facing a possible fifty years in prison for allowing the website she manages to publish an article that contained a few sentences deemed insulting to the royal family? She was found guilty in February and sentenced to eight months in prison. Her sentence, fortunately, was suspended and she was allowed to leave the court, if not quite free, than at least unincarcerated. But what shocks is the potential penalty she was facing, not her actual sentence.) Nor is Thailand alone in its draconian approach to free speech when it comes to the nation’s leadership. It is against the law in Greece, for example, to insult the president of that country. Merely disparaging the president of Italy is illegal under section 278 of Italy’s criminal code. It is against the law in Morocco and Jordan to insult the kings of those countries. Even in ultra-liberal Norway, defaming the king is punishable with up to five years in prison. In fact, many countries have lèse majesté laws that prohibit people from speaking even discourteously, let alone with real hostility or disdain, about that country’s head of state. All these laws seem to be rooted in the conviction that it is reasonable, even just, to curtail the citizenry’s right to express itself freely when the specific way it is being curtailed has to do with preventing unfriendly chatter about the nation’s leaders.
In these United States, free speech also has certain widely accepted limits that the courts have imposed on the simple concept as presented in the Bill of Rights. Speech that incites others to violence or to the commission of crimes is not guaranteed by law in our country. Nor is threatening language that is deemed likely to provoke physical violence. Nor are certain varieties of pornography, although (as we all know) a precise, easy-to-apply definition of pornography itself continues to elude our nation’s jurists. There are other exceptions as well, mostly easy to justify and widely accepted, at least by most, as reasonable. But more to the point is that all nine justices of the Supreme Court voted unanimously in 1997, in a case known as Reno vs. the American Civil Liberties Union, to strike down the anti-decency provisions of the Communications Decency Act passed by Congress in 1996, thereby extending First Amendment rights to the Internet. (There has been a lot of legal wrangling between Congress and the courts since then, most notably with respect to the Child Online Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1998 but repeatedly struck down by the courts as at least partially unconstitutional. The final sense of how the law should be applied, as far as I can understand it, is simply that the same rules that govern freedom of expression in traditional contexts such as oral speech and printed materials are deemed also to extent to material “published” on the Internet even though the word “published” in that sense obviously means something quite different than it did in the pre-cyber age.)
What seems interesting to me is that so many countries with commitments to freedom of speech seem to find it reasonable, even natural, to limit their citizens’ right to speak out freely specifically when it comes to speaking poorly of that nation’s head of state. To American ears, that rings, to say the very least, oddly. As well it should! The freedom to criticize our leadership, even (or rather, especially) harshly and bitingly, is at the core of what it means—or should mean—to be the free citizen of a free country. Indeed, embedded in the idea of unfettered freedom to criticize our leaders and potential leaders sharply is the ancillary notion that it is our leaders who serve us, and not we, the people, them.
As long as we can keep that specific part of things alive in our country—the right of ordinary citizens to comment as acerbically as they wish on the demeanor or remarks of the country’s top leadership or would-be leadership—I think we will have managed to hold onto the essence of free speech in an ever-evolving world. And to call our world “ever-evolving” is really to say the very least: Twitter, with its current half a billion account holders, was only created in 2006. Before that, if my readers can remember back that far, tweets were solely what Tweety Bird emitted when he was running away from Sylvester. So we’ve clearly come a long way in a short time. (Do they even make Tweety Bird cartoons anymore?) But that specific aspect of the experience I had Wednesday evening was why I found myself looking past the content of the debate the other evening—which I had been anticipating with such enthusiasm but which, for some reason, ended up striking me as unexpectedly dull—and taking great pleasure in the tweets that kept popping up on my screen. This, it struck me while watching, is what makes America a true democracy: not the right of ordinary citizens to run for office, or not just that, but even more profoundly the right of ordinary citizens with nothing to lose openly to mock our leaders and would-be leaders, laughing derisively at their missteps, calling them sharply to task for making any statements deemed even marginally misleading, and generally feeling entirely unobliged to hold their tongues even when it comes to criticizing people vying for the right to command the combined armed forces of the world’s most powerful nation. If you ask me, that is the freedom that makes this country truly great.