Reason and Free Speech

A primer and a call to arms!


On December 9, 2010, the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason magazine, Reason.com, and Reason.tv, held an event celebrating free speech at New York City's The Box and commemorating adult filmaker John Stagliano's victory over federal obscenity charges (go here for our coverage of that spectacular waste of taxpayer dollars). The idea behind the event was to draw attention to Reason's ongoing work in defense of free expression and to call for a new free speech movement that reaches beyond traditional categories of left and right. What follows is a text written for the occasion by Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie.

For Reason, the great cause of free speech is encoded in our motto: "Free Minds and Free Markets." The first half of that slogan suggests liberation from propaganda and other forms of control, as well as a challenge to exercise and expand the boundaries of thought and expression. We believe the "free markets" part tells us how best to get there—through vigorous, private competition, far away from the deadening hand of government regulation. Neither free minds nor free markets can get much done if free speech is in chains.

[Article continues below the video, "What's the Biggest Threat to Free Speech."]

[For more info on video, go here.]

Despite the prominence of the First Amendment, for most of this country's history, free speech has always been hunted near to extinction. The Alien & Sedition Acts on 1798 made it illegal to defame politicians (how then, are you supposed to discuss them?).  The Comstock Act of 1873 banned mail if postal inspectors thought it dirty. U.S. publishers couldn't legally print Lady Chatterley's Lover or Tropic of Cancer until the 1960s. Had it not been largely invalidated by the Supreme Court, the Communications Decency Act of the mid-1990s would have put Janet Reno and Newt Gingrich in charge of the Internet's content. 

Our right to free speech is built upon the sacrifices of people who risked a hell of a lot—their livelihoods, their social standing, their freedom—to make it easier to speak freely. From colonial printer John Peter Zenger, who helped establish freedom of the press against the British crown, to Allen Ginsberg, whose generation-defining poem Howl endured countless censorship attempts, to Molly Norris, the cartoonist who has been driven into hiding after suggesting "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" as a response to death threats leveled against the creators of South Park for poking fun at religion, free speech is always endangered, always under siege. 

Tonight, Reason honors a hero of free speech who was almost a martyr to the cause: filmmaker John Stagliano. As a successful businessman who marries art and commerce, John embodies "Free Minds and Free Markets." Earlier this year, he successfully faced down federal obscenity charges that could have put him behind bars for a shocking 32 years. All for the "crime" of producing and distributing adult movies to people willing to pay good money for them. In John's case, the good guys won, even as the federal government prevailed in other obscenity prosecutions in 2010. 

The charges John faced are just one threat to free expression that Reason is constantly monitoring. The casus belli of this evening is to pull together people fighting along those many different fronts—against political censorship, jihadi heckler's vetoes, anti-Muslim land use enforcement, campus speech codes, federal meddling in the news business, government propaganda—and declare the forming of a new, radical, trans-partisan coalition of people allied in support of free speech. 

Liberated from the hollow pieties of a Democratic version of free speech that can't tolerate political documentaries or giving offense, and from the Republican version that rails against obscenity and criticism of war, the new coalition is filled with people whose default setting is liberty, and who understand that the full logic of their position is bound to make other people—and even themselves—uncomfortable at times. 

Our movement may not agree on where all the boundaries are drawn, but we recognize that the threat to free expression is relentless, requiring defenders to link arms, push back, and even take the literal and figurative offensive from time to time. In fighting that good fight, we will not only prevail, we will have a hell of a good time making the future brighter and more wide-open than the most oppressive censors fear.

Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and Matt Welch is the editor in chief of Reason magazine. They are co-authors of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America, which will be published in 2011 by Public Affairs.

For an archive of Reason's work on free speech, go here.

NEXT: "The fat cats don't need the protection of property rights, because they already control the political system."

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  1. This reminds me of another video a couple days ago…..in fact it is exactly the same. If you are going to recycle, wait a few weeks!

  2. Reason “encodes” sheep.

  3. Is the lady who appears on the embedded video in fact a C-cup? LOL


    1. I also find it intriguing that she is using that form of her name, anonimity spammer.

  4. Politifact “Lie of the Year” is that Obamacare is a government takeover of health care. Well, that dispels any lingering notion that PolitiFact is anything more than a liberal mouthpiece.

  5. Whoa, I thought the privacy bot crashed. Haven’t seen it in a while.

    1. He was just taking some time off to come up with a list of new random comments. So far so good, privacy bot!

    2. Bots take vacation too, sage, you bigoted asshole.

      1. Hey, I just don’t want them bots to get all uppity and think they’re better than us humans. If that’s bigoted, then tattoo a Confederate flag on my forehead and call me Earl.

  6. Federal Reserve examiners come every four years to make sure banks are complying with a long list of regulations. The examiners came to Perkins last week. And the team from Kansas City deemed a Bible verse of the day, crosses on the teller’s counter and buttons that say “Merry Christmas, God With Us.” were inappropriate. The Bible verse of the day on the bank’s Internet site also had to be taken down.

    “I don’t think there should be a problem with them displaying whatever religious symbols they want to display,” said Amy Weierman, a Perkins resident.

    Specifically, the feds believed, the symbols violated the discouragement clause of Regulation B of the bank regulations. According to the clause, “…the use of words, symbols, models and other forms of communication … express, imply or suggest a discriminatory preference or policy of exclusion.”

    The feds interpret that to mean, for example, a Jew or Muslin or atheist may be offended and believe they may be discriminated against at this bank. It is an appearance of discrimination.


    Anti Discrimination law is a major threat to free speech.

    1. I support this woman’s free speech as I would support anyone who called her a ‘religious cunt.’ I also would support a person working at the bank handing out greetings from Satan or buttons that say ‘Jesus sucks cock.’

      Can you honestly say the residents of Perkins would be in favour of THAT free speech?

    2. That’s really just an example of a poorly constructed discrimination law. You really shouldn’t be able to discriminate, but free speech is free speech. It’s no wonder that most growth in America has been in the states that do not discriminate against people by their race or religion. The bank has every right to their Bible quotes and Christmas cheer because they are a private entity and not a governmental body.

      1. You should be able to discriminate. It’s not good for business and exposes you as a fool. But you should be free to do so.

  7. I would like to freely enjoy speech with SE Cupp.

  8. Reason’s ongoing work in defense of free expression and to call for a new free speech movement that reaches beyond traditional categories of left and right.

    #1 Matt Welch|6.29.10 @ 12:16PM|#
    *I* am the thin-skinned crap weasel. I don’t want people spoofing *anyone* here, but since that’s not going to happen until we waste precious time overhauling the comments process, then the least I will ask, particularly at this sensitive juncture, is to not spoof Weigel, so as to completely eliminate the possibility of people confusing a spoof for something he is written. If you don’t like it, get off my lawn, etc.

    #2 Mohammed

    1. Someone doesn’t understand the distinction between a private company making rules and a government making laws.

      1. I can’t wait to you defend him when he poses is nothing but the jacket for PETA

    2. wiegel is a weasel

  9. “…Neither free minds nor free markets can get much done if free speech is in chains.”

    Which is EXACTLY why we need government regulation of chains!

  10. Quothe Heinlein: “When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, “This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,” the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything ? you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.”


  11. UN mulls internet regulation options
    The United Nations is considering whether to set up an inter-governmental working group to harmonise global efforts by policy makers to regulate the internet….

  12. Hey, this article doesn’t criticize Obama. I bet half those people are Obama supporters. Why am I donating to reason if you’re not making all your articles about criticizing Obama? OBAMA OBAMA OBAMA.

  13. I find the end comment funny.
    There is one thing that is going too far in terms of free speech; libel, although that is arguably different than free speech.
    However, while we must allow people to their speech, we must remember that labeling is OK. I certainly don’t want my child watching an R rated movie, so I want to know which ones are R, but I want the right to just give him money and take him to the movie.
    I actually disagree with many of the people who said government is the biggest threat to free speech, because any serious violation would be shot down instantly. The biggest threat is really other people. As one man said, it’s political correctness.

  14. Hey, this has nothing to do with the subject at hand, but I just wanted to share this neat new Google tool with you – compare the frequency of use of words in English over time! You can choose American English, British English, or all English books!

    A comparison of “marijuana, marihuana, cannabis” supports the view that Congress didn’t know what Marijuana was when they banned it.

    “Liberty, Reason, Goodness, Love” have all declined in America.

  15. 2010 World Cup Polo Shirts Polo ShirtsGuangZHou HuiYuan Leather Manufactory is a fashion bag

  16. Nice to see Stagliano win one — but I hope Reason defends and celebrates the work of Wikileaks and Assange. It is even more vital that everyone have access to information about the inner workings of tyrannical government, than about the workings of people’s private parts.

  17. Bravissimo!

    (And that from an evangelical in Oklahoma…wrap your brain around that for a moment)

    Though I would take slight exception to, “…liberation from propaganda and other forms of control…” We should all task ourselves with being under our own self-control. For the in the realms which lie beyond the limits of our own justification dwell actions and emotions which are wholly visceral and rarely productive.

  18. How about mbt kisumu sandals this one: there are X driving deaths a year- what % of driving deaths (or serious injuries) involve alcohol, or other intoxicating substances? kisumu 2 People are pretty darn good drivers when they are not impaired.

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