Freedom of speech must extend to electronic means

Thursday, December 8, 2011

It's distressing to read, hear or see what we feel is false, misleading, biased or inflammatory "news," and there's no shortage of it when everyone has access to an unlimited electronic audience.

But before we "do" something about it, consider the alternative.

Lerpong Wichaikhammat, a Thai-born U.S. citizen who goes by Joe Gordon, has 21⁄2 years to consider that, but he's lucky. He got a sentence, reduced from five years, for insulting the monarch of Thailand by blogging from his home in Colorado.

Gordon, 55, was arrested in May during a visit to Thailand.

He was also accused of providing a web link to a biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 84, by an American author, which is banned in Thailand.

"The defendant is found guilty ... the court sentenced him to five years in prison. But he pleaded guilty. That makes the case easier, so the court decided to cut it in half to two years and six months," a judge said at the criminal court in Bangkok.

Wichaikhammat is certainly not the first to go to jail under Thailand's lÚse-majestÚ ("injured majesty") laws; one Thai got sent up for 20 years for sending "offensive" text messages.

And, generals who overthrew Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 used his alleged disrespect for the monarch as one of the excuses.

Most foreigners who run afoul of the king -- who is considered almost divine -- have served short jail sentences before being pardoned, and Gordon's attorney is applying for one, as well as receiving help from the U.S. Embassy.

But it's a sign of the times that one can go to jail in Thailand for something one types on one's computer in Colorado.

Thanks to the Internet, social media and wireless communication, individuals have more power than ever to express their opinion -- valid or not -- to more people than ever before.

Talk radio, with its conservative slant, has come under fire with calls for reimposition of the "fairness doctrine," requiring equal time for opposing views. That's not justified given to the number of sources of news delivered via cable, Internet and satellite as well as traditional broadcast and print.

But any means of communications that involves electronic communication is potentially open to restriction or abuse by government agencies.

Americans must make sure freedom of speech is strengthened by resolve, not eroded by political correctness imposed by government on electronic communications over which it has regulatory authority.

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