Being a left-leaning sometime idealist, I like to believe I have an uncomplicated relationship with freedom of speech. I’ll defend the right to publish controversial cartoons from threats from religious extremists; I’ll defend the right to say incredibly incendiary things, so long as it steers clear of threats of violence. As a robust believer in public discourse, I think more speech is generally preferable to speech regulations, although I do also believe in disclosure and accountability. However, my relationship with commercial speech is less comfortable. I feel unease when reminded of Mitt Romney’s “corporate are people, too” comment, which implies that commercial entities are entitled to the same speech rights as individuals, and I don’t like the stupidity of most political ads. In that sense, I am not an absolutist.
I mention this to illustrate why I initially felt a little weird for getting myself worked up over the freedom of speech implications of the copyright and branding policy during the ongoing Olympics in London. Generally speaking, I find it harder to muster outrage over restrictions on the free speech rights of commercial interests than that of individual. The problem in London at the moment, is that both are under attack at the same time.
The aforementioned Mitt Romney came under a barrage of criticism this week when he commented on the security troubles of the Olympic organizers (he later walked the statement back). With these very real problems, the host city still found the resources to launch a 300-strong force, tasked with policing London on the look-out for violations of the very strict copyright rules put in place specifically for the event. In the British Spectator newsmagazine, Nick Cohen recently launched a broadside against the rules, which bar any business which has not paid handsomely to become an official Olympics sponsor from as much as hinting at the fact that there’s a big sporting event going on in the city. In order to protect official sponsors like McDonald’s and Coca Cola from so-called “ambush marketing” – in which local business (often very indirectly and harmless) link themselves or their products to the Olympics, say through signs or sales bilboards – two lists have been drawn up, with words that can only be used very sparsely for commercial purposes, like “Olympics”, “Games”, “London” or “2012”. In addition there is a very strict rule on the use of anything resembling the Olympic rings. In principle, the thinking goes, the rules are in place in order to protect those sponsors who have paid to finance the Olympics from unfair “ambush” competition from “freeloading” businesses. In practice, the rules run the risk of stifling healthy competition and tilt the playing field in favor of some of the largest and most powerful brands and corporations in the world. The result is a limitation on the free speech rights of all businesses, large or small.
Read sympathetically and naively, these restrictions could potentially be considered a reasonable and perhaps even welcome attempt to curb the commercialization the event. Wouldn’t it be nice if the ability to carpet-bomb a global audience with commercial messages was somehow restricted? Perhaps, but that’s neither the intention nor will it be the end result of these rules. If the word police task force’s rules are implemented rigidly, they could even potentially any poster wishing the home team good luck in the competition, if they message is deemed to have a commercial impact or intention.
The official website of the Olympics helpfully instructs non-sponsors on how to celebrate the proceedings without infringing on the absurdly broad copyright regulations. You judge this calms your discomfort with the free speech thing (I’m not sure if I’m allowed to link directly to the website):
We want eveyone to be excited about and engage with the Games, and it is possible for business people, like anyone else, to do this – the key thing is to do it in a way that does not promote their business in association with the Games.
So, for example, we encourage spontaneous displays of patriotism – whether by someone flying a flag at home, from their car, in their office or in their shop or business premises. We hope that this will add to the athmosphere of the Games and we have always been proud of the fact that every visiting nation will have ‘home’ support in London.
Similarly, we will of course have no objection to things such as office parties to celebrate the Games, or to businesses putting notices on their intranet or notice boards to let staff know that they’re showing a game/match/event on TV. (…)
Awww. How generous of you.
And this is not to mention the restrictions placed on the athletes or the paying spectators. Presumably in order to control the communications and the public perception, the rules several curb what kinds of speech can be shared on social networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. According to a radio interview I heard with a Swedish Olympic contestant, he had to transfer his blog to his main sponsor’s website for the duration of the tournament; he was instructed not to upload any videos from the Games; to only upload pictures that were specifically approved by everyone visible in it; and only to use Twitter or Facebook if he vowed to speak only of himself and not other athletes or aspects of the Games.
The main problem may be the vagueness of the restrictions. The Swedish contestant said he did not know if tweets answering questions posed to him directly would be permitted, and so he took them down. Likewise, a week after officials seemed to suggest spectators who sported a Pepsi t-shirt would be turned away (Coca Cola is an official sponsor), it’s still unclear how rigidly, or if, these rules will be enforced. Speaking to KCRW’s On the Media, British journalist Esther Addley said she expects the enforcement to be relatively lenient, but Nick Cohen seems to think otherwise.
In closing, let me just say this: I understand that huge sporting events have to have sponsors, if only to ensure that not even more of the bill is placed with the taxpayers. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be at least a little concerned about the degree of corporate control of what is supposed to be a popular celebration of athletic accomplishment.