Jon Miles and I have had a running conversation about free speech rights, and recently our attention turned to the Dixie Chicks. In 2003, they criticized the president during a concert in Britain, and immediately felt a backlash from country music fans and radio stations who refused to play their music. Lipton pulled their sponsorship from the Chicks' 2003 world tour, and Wal-Mart pulled their music from its shelves. In response, they produced another album featuring the single "Not Ready to Make Nice," and effectively recreated their fanbase after being embraced by the Hollywood Left. Their new patrons in Hollywood apparently felt so moved by the whole thing that they recently lionized the Chicks in a documentary called "Shut Up and Sing" that Jon and I watched at the suggestion of Steve Wall.
Where all this interests me is with respect to the response offered by the Chicks. Their belief, so the documentary illustrates, is that Wal-Mart and the radio stations who refused to play their music were censuring their right to free speech. This was curious to me. Does someone else's free speech right require my participation in their speaking? I presented Jon with the following thought experiment inspired by a discussion with Corwin Carr.
Let's say that I'm a music distributor of some sort, that I'm very liberal, and that I'm very good at what I do. In fact, I have a large majority share of the market, and in some places there are no other outlets for some artists if I do not bring their music to the market. Recently, a popular female music group from Maryland called, say, the Yankee Babes, offered critical comments on Nancy Pelosi's recent visit to Syria. "We're with you good people," they say to an audience in Austin, "and we're ashamed that the Speaker of the House is from Maryland." (Yes, Speaker Pelosi has lived in and represents California, but she was born in Maryland, and I couldn't pass up the Yankee Babes thing.) Their comments are met with wild applause from that crowd, but I am offended, and do not feel at liberty by my conscience to continue distributing their music. Even if doing so would be lucrative for me, it would also make me complicit in publishing speech that I do not endorse, even if I do endorse the right itself. Let us further remove any financial contingencies, and suppose that I satisfied the opportunity costs incurred for the products produced and sitting in my warehouses. The Yankee Babes are financially no worse off than if they'd spent the time to produce an album that no one bought.
Have I censured free speech? It seems strange to say so since the right in question exists in parallel with, and is perhaps even thought to be an expression of, the liberty to order one's life and live according to the dictates of one's conscience. Speech rights are normally understood as negative rights that entail that I not interfere with the speaker's speaking, but if my participation is required for speech to reach an audience, does the right to free speech become a claim right such that others are entitled to it? This seems to confuse the right to speak with the right to be heard, the latter being what my participation as a distributor furnishes. The right to speak as a political right seems to entail claim rights only for the public spaces and forums that belong to everyone. Arguing that free speech rights entitle one to the activity or property of another seems therefore to argue against the principle those rights exist to protect.
Nevertheless, the Dixie Chicks seem to think that this is what happened to them. Unless and until I (or one who roughly agrees with me) gain the participation of others willing to distribute these arguments to at least as wide an audience, I'm concerned that this wider notion of the right to free speech will create many of the same problems it was originally intended to solve.