David Mamet: The media must not allow government to proscribe free speech

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The so-called Fairness Doctrine, the enforcement of the doctrine that any broadcast medium, voicing one political opinion must voice another, dissenting opinion will be the beginning of the end of free speech. Here's why: Who is to say what is political opinion? The line between political opinion and reportage is so blurred now as to be almost indistinct. Should such a pernicious doctrine become widespread, energy will be devoted to persuading and inevitably suborning those authorities who seek to rule on any utterance.

Such a doctrine, rather than forcing open discourse, will tend to limit it, for those media organs with a limited budget will shy away from political speech as they may have to present opposing doctrine – offending their listeners and the advertisers. Thus they will be limited to non-political speech. Lastly, such a so-called fairness doctrine will clog the courts. And, what of the off-hand comment, which the individual and his broadcast medium will have to self-censor rather than risk offense or prosecution for lack of fairness? The less we can say, the less we can see.

The great danger here, as in all government, is a default not to the rule of law, but to the administrative committee, acting – whether "good-willed" or not – in reference only to its own wisdom. This is the beginning of the tyranny of the police state. The government is not made of geniuses, it is not made of the wise. It is a natural and necessary adjunct of human life but it is made of politicians and bureaucrats.

The wisdom of the multitudes is the treasure of mankind and our greatest treasure, not only the guardian but the inculcator of wisdom, is our language. The great heroes of the English-speaking people have been poets – Lincoln, Churchill, Dr King – whom by the freedom and beauty of their language presented generally unacceptable ideas in a new way, thus changing the world. Our language is our heritage and our plaything, ever evolving and shaping our world. Through language the unknown becomes the unthinkable, which becomes merely the impossible and then the commonplace, and the nature of the world, which, finally, exists to us only to the extent which we can perceive it, changes. But speech must be free. Thank you.

David Mamet gave the Alistair Cooke Memorial Lecture 2008

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