Free Speech for Whom?

Ashesh Trivedi, Fall 2015

By: Ashesh Trivedi, BK ’18, for the Fall 2015 Issue (PDF version)

Free speech does not — nor has it ever — existed in this country. Debates rage continuously, primarily on college campuses, about the waning strength and viability of free speech. Liberals and conservatives alike lament restrictions on the ability to say whatever you want in almost all settings. We must defend racist or violent speech just as vigorously as we fight for our right to spread messages of equality and love. How else are we to achieve a truly free society? But this is an unrealistic method for achieving this goal of true freedom.

And more illogical than unrealistic is the belief that in defending offensive views is where we defend free speech. Freedom of speech, as manifested in America, is supposed to be a universal defense of expression. But this isn’t the reality of “free” speech in America.

There are several assumptions about society in the United States that form the basis for a defense of free speech in America. Classical liberal idealism provides the foundation for these assumptions. The First Amendment guarantees that all American citizens can express their opinions as they so choose. But the core of truly free speech is that every person who is free to speak has the same capability of reaching other persons as their peers. It is the latter of these assumptions that primarily contributes to the underlying inequality of speech in America. Free speech, in any manifestation, was never meant to allow people to yell into an empty forest unheard. This is a useless and unproductive act. The purpose of speech is to communicate with another. Speech isn’t speech if it’s an unnoticed and unregistered act. It requires a community of people to convert it from thought to speech, and it’s in this conversion that speech becomes unfree.

The ability of every citizen in this idealized America of total free speech to reach other citizens, which is a fundamental aspect of speech, is distributed entirely unequally. It is based in further assumptions of equal economic and wealth distributions. And its largest fallacy is the belief that the government is at all levels an arbiter designed to ensure free speech.

Now, I hope it is abundantly clear how absurd these assumptions are. At the most direct, income and wealth distributions in America are excessively unequal. And as a direct result of this, a supposedly neutral government disingenuously protects speech and expression while effectively manipulating the mechanisms of the state in the favor of the owners of substantial property.

Any influential form of media is concentrated in the hands of large corporations, financial organizations, and other such entities which disseminate information and control national conversations for a vested purpose. The Internet democratizes information and its spread, but the majority of information and media, even that found on the Internet, is still consumed from one of a few primary sources: newspaper publications, magazine articles, and television programs that are directly or indirectly controlled by a wealthy elite. To take part in the activity of producing consumable media, you must have substantial material wealth, capital, and productive capabilities. From this, the most charitable understanding of “free speech” can only be said to apply to those substantial media capitalists. These media capitalists instigate and direct national conversations and dialogue. Their views aren’t entirely homogeneous, but they do represent a certain bloc of beliefs. And because of this, only certain opinions, which find their support in one of these groups, find their expression in our media system. It is an absolutely free speech, but it is a free speech for a certain few.

Yet, the majority of people in this country cannot indulge in the same freedom of speech. Freedom of speech necessarily rests upon an equal possibility of magnitude of people reached. My father can rail against Kanye as often as he wants, but if my mother and I have walked out and he is shouting for only his ears to hear, it cannot be misconstrued as an effective freedom of speech. It is only speech in the loosest and least defensible definition of speech. An empty audience surrounding his soapbox may be cathartic for him, but he is not indulging in his right to “freedom of speech.”

The ability of every citizen in this idealized America of total free speech to reach other citizens, which is a fundamental aspect of speech, is distributed entirely unequally. It is based in further assumptions of equal economic and wealth distributions.

But Ashesh, peaceful demonstrations, public forums, and so many other choices are left to buttress this “freedom of speech!” And these machineries certainly can help combat disenfranchisement of all kinds. But once vested interests face substantial threats of instability, these peaceful assemblies are converted, in the public dialogue that they control so powerfully, to public nuisances that must be immediately disbanded. The various “neutral” limbs of government, in tandem with the mass media corporations make it their directive to end the demonstrations. If it appears that real economic and political leverage can be gained by the disadvantaged, the most propertied citizens and their mechanisms will see to their disbanding.

We see no better example of this phenomenon than peaceful civil rights demonstrations in American history. Time and time again, the police and other weapons of the executive branch are wielded to remove the masses from public spaces under the pretext of preventing violence. In the name of a common peace and good, the space designated for expression has become a space reserved for silence.

Where to turn for an attempt at massive cohesive communication? Public spaces have become unusable. Police brutality for generations, crowd control at any major gathering of dissatisfied citizens, and continued, only slightly-less-subtle segregation, make the material conditions to realize free speech nearly impossible to come by. Private spaces require a certain material security from which free speech can arise and be disseminated. Few in this silenced class own large enough material spaces close enough to other silenced citizens to express real concerns and demand equality in a way which will effect real change. So a public space becomes the only arena in which this speech can be made. A physical space, a communication space, and an ideological space are necessary for speech to be made. When these spaces are denied, free speech can’t exist.

Attempts to exercise the promised right of free speech by those who need to use it the most are met with violent and overwhelming repression. The state will strike whomever it needs to with its violent means, as well as its parallel apparatus of the mass media, to support and defend the most financially powerful.

A physical space, a communication space, and an ideological space are necessary for speech to be made. When these spaces are denied, free speech can’t exist.

Speech isn’t a weapon by itself. But by virtue of social divisions along class, race, and wealth, speech has become weaponized. It is a tool of whomever has a monopoly on legalized violence: the state. It can be used to influence and dominate the ideology that citizens live in. Free speech doesn’t exist. In a level environment, speech could arise equally from all, and be heard equally by all. But America is a harshly divided country. Wealth, race, and numerous other categories divide our country in ways that directly dictate who is allowed to express themselves freely. Free speech in America is a fantastical ideal upon which liberals and conservatives can unite to defend a right they have weaponized. It’s another method of state control, one which all states must implement to ensure peace and safety for the class that the state serves. And until the state serves the working and laboring classes, which are the overwhelming majority of citizens in America and across the world, these classes will never have free speech.

Only when reactionary and often violent speech is suppressed for the safety and well-being of marginalized peoples does the question of free speech become one that mainstream commentators on both sides of the aisle defend to death. But it is the daily and constant suppression of speech across the country that goes unnoticed which should be analyzed. The lack of free expression by those who need it most is ignored. Freedom of speech doesn’t exist for the working classes; it exists only for those who control the state.