Who’s Talking?

As long as we’re on the subject of First Amendment Free Speech rights, a federal judge has just handed down a decision that illuminates another aspect of those rights.

As I explained yesterday, our right to free expression is protected against government interference. Usually we think of that interference in terms of censorship, of government shutting us down. But this judge’s decision–which rests on decades of settled law–reminds us of another thing government cannot constitutionally do: it cannot compel our speech, either.

(Reuters) – A federal judge on Friday struck down a 2011 North Carolina law requiring abortion providers to perform an ultrasound and explain it to a woman before having an abortion, arguing it violated the constitutional right to free speech of doctors.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles found that a state does not have “the power to compel a health care provider to speak, in his or her own voice, the state’s ideological message in favor of carrying a pregnancy to term.”

If the right to free speech means anything, it means that we have a right to form our own opinions, based on the widest possible access to information, and to share those opinions with others, or not, as we see fit.

Being forced to recite a script and pretend it represents our own views, like being forced to affirm allegiance to a deity or a nation (see Barnett v. West Virginia Board of Education), isn’t just intellectually dishonest; it violates our most fundamental liberties.

Compelled speech is especially pernicious when it intrudes upon the doctor/patient relationship, which depends to a great extent upon the patient’s ability to rely upon the candor of her provider–to trust that her doctor is acting in her best interests.

The principle extends well beyond medical advice, however. If the government could tell professionals of any sort what to say, if lawmakers could impose “correct” communication on scientists, police officers, media figures… how would Americans ever be able to trust anyone?

How would we know who is really talking?


  1. Of course we do permit some forms of compulsory speech, most notably in the area of product warning labels. Two things to note about that, however, are that SCOTUS has held that commercial speech is subject to a slightly lesser standard of protection and most mandated product warning labels include some sort of tag to indicate that the warning comes from the government.

  2. I have always questioned the court’s ability to “compell speech” of journalists who refuse to name the source of their information. Do courts have the power to jail them if they do not provide this information? I don’t see that covered in the 1st Amendment. Of course neither do I see where anyone with the cash or valid credit card can be considered a “troop” and allowed to purchase as many weapons of all caliber as being protected under the 2nd Amendment. Is a puzzlement!

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