Standard and Poors, a leading financial ratings agency, downgrades the credit worthiness of the United States from AAA to AA+. The consequences of these actions for the past few days speak for themselves. Markets have been in disarray and the value of stocks and pensions have plummeted. As a result of all of this, there are those in congress calling for an investigation of Standard and Poors and its ratings. At first you might think this is a slam dunk issue, shouldn't the opinions of Standard and Poors be considered as little more than a matter of free speech?
The fact that congress is calling for an investigation is no bell-weather cause for alarm. Congress routinely holds investigations over matters of high importance. Eventually however, congress may have to face a more serious question. Should the very fabric of America's well being become threatened, it may have to decide whether it wishes to prohibit speech which has the potential of crippling or seriously damaging the nation.
As this website amply notes, freedom of speech is not an absolute right. There are many limitations and exceptions. One of those exceptions has to do with the statements that may be made against the government and its efforts in times of war. At one time, congress passed laws criminalizing antiwar speech in the Espionage Act of 1917 and the updated Sedition Act of 1918. These laws imposed fines of up to $10,000 and up to 20 years in prison for speech and press deemed to impede America's war efforts. The supreme court upheld the legitimacy of these laws in Schenck v. United States and Gitlow v. New York. Additionally, there have been other laws forbidding the publication of state secrets and information used to harm people--such as information explaining how to make bombs (United States v. The Progressive Magazine).
During World Wars I and II battles were fought with conventional weapons. Today's wars are fought just a surely in cyberspace and economic arenas as they are on battlefields. Though presently, there are few, if any, laws forbidding speech which has the potential of harming the American economic system, I think it is a sure bet that we may see such laws in the future. Should this occur, it may well be the beginning of many governmental abuses against private citizens who speak out against the outrages of the ever developing corporate oligarchy.
For the moment, corporations are enjoying a golden age of Supreme Court protection. Under the Robert's court, Corporations have been granted free speech rights the same as individuals (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). In many ways, they enjoy more protection than individual citizens. Yet, should America begin to suffer prolonged and agonizing financial pain, it may well be that our lawmakers create another limitation of free speech.