“When speech is censored or suppressed, it is an affront to everyone because it prohibits our collective access to that information. Make no mistake, that is generally the intent of the suppressor.“
The majority of the debate on the subject of free speech generally revolves around an individual’s right to say something, and whether the suppressing institution is acting reasonably and within the scope of its authority. Although this debate is old, it never ceases to rear its ugly head when someone is censored or penalized based upon the espousal of a particular, and possibly unpopular belief.
In the U.S., before any debate on free speech can take place, many people usually feel the need to go ten rounds arguing about the distinction between Free Speech and the First Amendment to the Constitution. So let’s get that out of the way. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from enacting laws that would restrict a person’s right to free speech. This protection is from government action. The First Amendment does not protect an employee of a private company that is fired for speech that hypothetically violates the company’s decency clause. Subsequently much of the discussion about free speech gets sidelined into a constitutional quagmire and we fail to see the forest through the trees. It is very important that people realize that regardless of the legality, when a company terminates an employee based on the content of their expression, that company is violating the principle of free speech.
To suppress free speech is a double wrong.Frederick Douglass
It violates the right of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.
When we solely examine free speech from the perspective of the speaker, we are only acknowledging half of the equation. In terms of its relative value to democracy, our right to say something is not as important as our right to hear something. A healthy and functioning democracy is dependent on an informed citizenry. When speech is censored or suppressed, it is an affront to everyone because it prohibits our collective access to that information. Make no mistake, that is generally the intent of the suppressor.
I often refer to myself as a “free speech absolutist.” With very few exceptions (i.e. yelling fire in a crowded room), I do not support censorship or suppression of any kind. I do not even support the suppression of “hate speech.” If someone wants to stand on public property with a sign and a megaphone chanting something akin to “Jews will not replace us,” I will support their right to do so. However, I wouldn’t be particularly bothered if someone were to walk up to that person, grab their megaphone, and smash them in the head with it. In other words, while I’m a proponent of free speech, I’m also a believer in karma.
In all seriousness, while I do support people being able to speak their minds, my passion for free speech is more based upon what Frederick Douglass referred to as the “right of the hearer.” For example, the NFL’s stifling of Colin Kaepernick was not merely an affront to HIS right of free expression. It was a violation of our collective right to “hear” that expression. Our rights as “hearers” have been systematically eroded by the complete corporate takeover of our media. Censorship is not merely suppressing a person’s right of free expression. It is the authoritative control over our information.
The consolidation of media corporations that resulted from the 1996 Telecommunnications Act has essentially morphed into one singular mouthpiece of the state. Simultaneoulsy there has been consistent ousting, blackballing and “canceling” any voices of dissension. Journalists who have spoken out against the Military Industrial Complex have been fired and deplatformed by corporate media. Journalists who wanted to cover stories about progressive campaigns were threatened by their publishers. What has resulted is that our mainstream news has become a cocktail of fear mongering, divisive wedge issues, and nationalist propaganda — all of which is designed to keep us fighting amongst ourselves instead of finding solutions to our collective problems. It is not an accident that most Americans are more familiar with the Kardashian family than the president’s cabinet.
While increasing corporate censorship does pose the most significant threat to free expression, it is most dangerous when paired in conjunction with what many people believe are their “rights to not have their feelings hurt or be offended.” Another downside of a corporate-owned media is that those corporations are beholden to their various stakeholders. Complaints from outspoken suburbanites or religious communities have been shown to have an impact on the content of programming and advertising. In other words, people’s “feelings” about particular topics or language have been able to impact the informational content that is available to us.
I want to be very clear that on a personal level and regarding my personal relationships, people’s feelings do matter to me. However, when it comes to the issue of free speech, I could not care less about people’s feelings. I don’t care if Sara at “Mommy and Me” does not like the image of an assault rifle on a billboard. I don’t care if your co-worker Jack is offended by a news segment on female genital mutilation. And I most definitely do not care that the DNC was humiliated by the release of the Podesta emails. While the first two are hypothetical, these all represent scenarios involving factual information of value for a particular or interested audience. We are all “an audience.” Allowing people’s feelings to trump our “right to hear” is opening the door to authoritative control over our access to information, which is a fundamental threat to democracy.
It is not a coincidence that in recent years around the world, we have simultaneously been witnessing an increase in authoritative governance and an increase in speech suppression. The global oligarchy knows that an ignorant populace is less likely to challenge the power structure. And therein is the gist of my fierce and unapologetic advocacy for Free Speech. It is because I know that it is imperative to our ongoing battle for unfettered democracy.
By Jen Perelman, former Congressional candidate and host of JENerational Change!