Bear with me here. You may think you know why government censorship is bad. It’s quite possible that you really do. However, the perpetual outcry over comment moderation and the current to do about the Limbaugh boycott suggests that a lot of people don’t. At least they don’t think about it when they’re saying this stuff. If they did, they’d know better to compare it to what they’re complaining about.
So, here goes: Government censorship is bad because the government is supposed to represent us. That “We the people” stuff really is the foundation of any state that…well, any state I and, I assume, almost all of my readers have any interest in living in. Without it, we are not citizens but subjects.
We don’t, however, have a direct democracy. With a very small number of exceptions, “we the people” elect others to do the actual job of governing. It’s a trade-off. We do less of the work, which we couldn’t manage directly anyway. We also, however, get less of a direct say in how our country/state/county/city/ad nauseum runs.
That doesn’t make our voices less important. Ironically, it makes them more so. When we don’t participate directly, our power depends on indirect influence. It depends on our speech.
In a representational democracy, our speech is (aside from money) how we convince our representatives to vote in our interest. It is how we raise votes for those we think will represent us best. It is how we persuade others to raise their voices in our interest so we are harder to ignore. It is how we even explain what we see our interests to be.
If our government, made up of those people and institutions who are supposed to represent our interests, prevents us from voicing them, we can no longer participate in our own governance. We are disenfranchised on a scale that keeping us from casting our individual votes (which is severely problematic in its own right) doesn’t approach.
“We the people” also means something else in this context. We do not get to opt out of being governed. If you are not allowed to participate in your government, you cannot simply get together with a bunch of friends and set up alternate laws and power structures that suit you better. You have nowhere to operate that isn’t already governed by someone else. Insisting on following your own laws means you will be breaking someone else’s.
“If you don’t like it the way it is, then leave.” That’s your remaining option when you’re not allowed a voice in your governance. Of course, that’s much more easily said than done. That’s why the people who say that when their interests are in power don’t go anywhere when the balance of power shifts.
Governments control the situations under which you may leave. On the larger scale, national governments completely control their borders. On the smaller, only governments retain the right to directly deprive adults of their liberty. Even if all a governmental body does is regulate what you must do to sell your house or what kind of lease may be enforced against you, it still has a great deal of control over whether you can escape its reach.
Those two factors, the monopoly on governance and the means to block the escape of those being governed, are what make almost all control of speech by governments intolerable. When you can’t escape governance, it is critical that you be able to influence it. When you don’t directly make policy, it is critical that your voice be able to work in your interests. Without that, we are reduced once again to tyranny.
That is why we (in theory) don’t allow limitations on speech from government entities without a strongly compelling reason. That is also why, when you continue to have outlets for your speech, when no one individual or group controls the means of transmission of speech, no one is going to listen to you whine about how oppressed you are.