What “Free Speech” Really Means


The bourgeoisie and defenders of “liberal democracy” announce to the heavens that their society is the most advanced and democratic. In doing so, they point to notions of “freedom of speech” to justify their democratic posturing. Stemming from the “democracy” that we (or some of us who aren’t in prison or otherwise excluded from the electoral process due to documentation) have by virtue of being able to vote for the safe and pre-selected capitalist candidates, the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This notion is used to justify capital’s dictatorship, saying that “You can say whatever you like; it’s a free country!”

Yet, when we peel back the layers of “free speech,” we are confronted with problems. Take, for instance, two individuals trying to express a particular idea for a particular end.

The first is a wealthy businessman, who has access to media, can afford to buy air-time on local and national television stations, has access to influential people in politics and has the resources to make generous contributions to politicians who happen to be in a position of power. His ideas are within the mainstream, his resources are vast and, therefore, he encounters little in the way of official opposition.

The second is a working person. She has only a few dollars left at the end of each month, is restricted in the time she has to express her ideas due to having to work for a living, has no connections outside of her extended family and a few friends to rely on in a pinch. Her ideas are loathed by her employers and she’d never get time off to try and give voice to these ideas if her bosses knew what it is she was saying. She may have the freedom to speak, yet with no resources, opposition at high levels and her livelihood being dependent on the secrecy of her views, this “freedom” does not seem to yield fruit.

What is freedom without power?

The above example demonstrates that two individuals can appear to have the same rights, in the sense of bourgeois democracy, yet in attempting to practice those rights experience vastly different outcomes. Sure they are equal on paper, and for those in power that is more than enough, yet in a realistic sense their abilities to exercise “free speech” are in relation to their class background.

A helpful metaphor here is the example of two people trying to speak to a crowd. One person has a high-powered sound system and microphone, capable of projecting their voice over long distances to thousands, and another has only a flimsy box to stand on. Sure they can both speak, but whose voice will be heard? The answer should be obvious.

Power is essential to understand when one examines the claims of liberal democracy, like any other claims made by the defenders of capital. In class society, capital is the basis of power, and those who have capital dominate life in all fields. They govern the economy, they make up the vast majority of mainstream politicians and they have the most funds to throw into electoral donations, advertising, educational grants and other endeavors at making their ideas public. It is capital that ensures that they have more “free speech” than working people.

The Ruling Ideas…

The power of the capitalists also exists in prevailing ideology. It is their ideas, their beliefs and values, which are upheld as “correct” and “common sense” in our society.

We are taught that the wealthy owners of our society are our “betters” and that they, by virtue of their wealth, know what is best for us. This “teaching” can be understood as their hegemony.

Take, for instance, the iconic character of Oprah Winfrey. Oprah has her own show, her own magazine with her face on every cover, a book club with a special sticker placed on books that she likes, and even her own network, aptly called OWN.

On this OWN network, she has a show called the “Master Class,” fetishizing those who have “mastered the game called life.” While some would find it ironic that a black woman would have a show fetishizing a “Master Class,” Oprah is unknowingly doing us a service by laying bare the blatant functions of hegemony through her own personality cult. Why do we care what Oprah thinks? Why should we? Why pick up a book at the book store with an “Oprah” sticker on it over any other book?

The same dynamic that begs these questions and answers them with statements as to Oprah’s “net worth” is also the one that has had us perceive the “Founding Fathers,” slave masters and exploiters of workers as they were, as the most democratic and respectable figures imaginable. As Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “ History will be kind to me. For I intend to write it.” History has been kind to Churchill, and has ignored his bloodthirsty imperialist tirades in the Middle East and India, because the people who write history are the same class of people who have seen Churchill as their champion.

It is the same for bourgeois society; those with power and similar ideas to the ruling ideas will be treated with more respect and deference than those without power and who do not agree. It is perfectly acceptable to uphold the ideas of slave owners and butchers (so long as they fly the right flag), yet any utterance of the word “communism” in public discourse that isn’t tinged with hatred for the very concept will be met with immediate confrontation and dismissal.

Corporate Personhood & the Preferred “Free Speech”

The preference of the “free speech” of the capitalists over their detractors is symbolized in the efforts taken to ensure that corporations and other vehicles of capital are given the same “rights” as individuals. “Corporate personhood” emerged in the 19th century from the efforts of corporate lawyers to change common law and apply the 14th amendment to enterprises, protecting them from prosecution and allowing them the “right” to conceal their practices, to make large donations to politicians and political organizations, etc. A corporation is not a person, is not human, yet for capitalism, it is entitled to “freedoms” that can be practiced far above and beyond the means of working people.

The State & Repressive Reinforcement

In addition to the wealthiest having the most access to the resources and hegemony which ensure their “freedom of speech” drowns out all others, there are also a multitude of state barriers to the expression of “free speech” by those who oppose the way things are. Take, for instance, the Smith Act (http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18/2385.html) which states that:

“Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or the government of any State, Territory, District or Possession thereof, or the government of any political subdivision therein, by force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any such government; or
Whoever, with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any such government, prints, publishes, edits, issues, circulates, sells, distributes, or publicly displays any written or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence, or attempts to do so; or
Whoever organizes or helps or attempts to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any such government by force or violence; or becomes or is a member of, or affiliates with, any such society, group, or assembly of persons, knowing the purposes thereof—”

can be fined and imprisoned for up to 20 years for their speech and gathering to even discuss such a thing.

One does not need to act, to take up arms, in order to be prosecuted. One only needs to “desire” and to say it, and they and those listening will be met with state repression. So much for “free speech” when your speech without action can get you fined, jailed or even killed.

The latter fate is one that has befallen many advocates for the working class, from the workers and their sympathizers murdered at the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, to Fred Hampton, who was murdered execution-style in his bed by the FBI for his involvement with the Black Panthers.

During the COINTELPRO era, many prominent members of the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements and, not surprisingly, many prominent activists ended up dead.

Should all Speech be Free?

Evelyn Beatrice Hall once said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” While this phrase would make one think of its repeater as a “principled champion of free speech,” the question is, how true is this?

The state, of course, doesn’t endorse this line (except when White Nationalists and other neo-fascists need a police escort for a demonstration; something that would never be done for leftists and other progressive forces critical of the state). The answer is, should we? Should the working class be willing to defend the ideology and proclamations of those who would seek to crush, enslave and butcher them?

The answer is likely to be “no.” Speech is rarely divorced from a certain class interest. That speech which is hostile to the power of the bourgeoisie is subject to resistance in their society. It is naturally fought against, even if they are unable to attack that speech other than by dismissing it, drowning it out in reactionary bile and silencing critics.

Just as the bourgeoisie isn’t willing to “agree to disagree” with our criticism of their power, we cannot succumb to the illusion that we can do the same. Those forces who would seek to break the unity within the ranks of the working class, be it by reinforcing racial, gender, national and cultural differences among workers, need to be combated tooth-and-nail.

This is to be accomplished by organizing working people against these notions, combating them with reason, resisting the verbal and physical violence of reactionaries whenever their activities threaten working people. Their ideas must be defeated if working people are to succeed in achieving liberation.

Conclusion: Speech Always Serves Power

The ideology of the bourgeoisie necessitates that its followers ignore material reality in their evaluation of the “freedoms” and “liberties” their system provides. In theory, having “freedom of speech” and an electoral process constitute a “democracy.” Yet in reality, it isn’t so simple.

The bourgeois analysis ignores the power dynamic, ignores that a small minority has more access to the resources, the legal rights, the prevailing dialogue on current issues, and that those not privileged enough to come from that group will typically not be able to have their voices heard in any significant sense. In class society, “free speech” is augmented to serve the ruling class above all others. Thus, this “freedom” is yet another illusion in the service of power. The only hope for the free expression of working people is in a society wherein they dominate.



Categories: Elections, Government, Media & Culture, Theory, U.S. News, Workers Struggle

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