Freedom of Speech
Equality is one of the biggest challenges in human history. Throughout human history, oppression has always been a common aspect of societal existence. One of the best ways to fight oppression has been through the use of persuasion of masses to come together. Freedom of speech, however, has been curtailed socially and legally. In the United States, for example, the law has been amended countless times without rectifying or paying attention to the inequalities inherent in the First Amendment. The law has protected inequality as it does not provide equal access to speech. The law fails to recognize that only a few people in society have access to free speech. This privileged few are the rich in the society who control a majority of the resources including the media. Without the freedom to speak freely or equal rights of access to the freedom of speech, a society will always be unjust with those in power seeking to control the masses. This social inequity and the power of those with means will be a key focus of this paper that aims to expound on the topic of speech and the freedoms therein.
To understand the issue of free speech it is imperative that a well-grounded and objective definition is first identified. Mitchell and West opine that speech can be free only in so far as it is permitted and positively enabled in all dimensions whether privately, in small groups, communally, or globally (Braddon-Mitchell and West). Mitchell and West contend that in the distribution axis for freedom of speech are ‘orthographic tokens’ that differ in the continuum. In the lower end of the spectrum where the poor in society live, the production of token utterances is curtailed while at the other extreme token expression is not only encouraged but guaranteed.
One of the ways of interfering with speech is through interfering with its consumption or the way people comprehend it; leading to the axis of communication, comprehension, and consideration. Communication has been systematically and dogmatically ignored, and at the lower end of the spectrum, speech becomes mere utterances that are never considered. When communication at the lower end is acknowledged, this is only briefly while the higher in society consider how to tackle the problem or dissent. At the higher end of the spectrum where consideration is guaranteed, and the intended meaning emerges completely unscathed, the communication is also utilized to test ideas thoroughly before ultimately adapting them if they survive the tests (Braddon-Mitchell and West). The difference in communication and comprehension at the two ends of the spectrum leads to restrictions on other liberties, thus amplifying the social divide.
As earlier mentioned, communication at the lower end of the spectrum is rare, with one of the cases where the low in society are purported to be heard being in elections. Elections are considered a way of getting the masses to give speech to their decisions on certain matters of public welfare, but this is a shroud utilized by those at the higher end of the spectrum to control the masses. The elite in society recognize that they need data on certain projects and strategies; both for informing the drafting of the strategies or testing the viability and success of the implemented strategies. Politicians will thus give voice to the low in society through voting which is a controlled way of asking which projects the masses agree on and which control strategies to be utilized in future without being explicit about it.
In some instances, the people at the lower end of the spectrum are forced to communicate, as is the case with census where people have to be counted and data on them and their families detailed. As can be seen, those at the lower end of the spectrum are at the mercy of the elite who decide when the lower in society exercise their freedoms and when they cannot. The irony is that even when those on the lower side of the spectrum are forced to speak, their speech is not always heard. Not everything resolution that the citizenry passes through voting is implemented, for example. Giving a voice to the low in society is thus a means of appeasing them and hoodwinking them that they have a significant role to play in dictating how their collective lives turn out.
Socially, inequality has led to terror, deaths, and neglect, poverty, pollution, climate change, and numerous other ills. The cause of this is an upsurge in the rich utilizing their exclusive, coercive, and violent power to gain an advantage over the rest of society. The law fails to recognize that equality of space is a tipping balance, the less speech you have, the more the power of those with speech, who get even more speech, and those with speech get heard less often (Mackinnon). The law tackles the issue instead as an issue of whether the right to free speech has been infringed on, and by what magnitude. Mackinnon, for example, recognizes that issues of campus harassment, pornography, and various other hate crimes get attention because they cause some damage to speech, but an issue such as racial segregation in education does not get such attention and is framed solely in equality terms. Even when the Constitution authorizes the creation of sub-laws at any time to promote equality, these have not been forthcoming.
The issue of the minority has been hotly contested, and especially as relates social oppression. In America, the black community has been one of the one facing the widest persecution and expression of this persecution. The history of slavery is well known, and the impediment of these freedoms, without the law giving voice to them, has been a source of continued inequality to the present day. Even though people outwardly recognized black Americans as citizens of the United States, the law did not, and they even had no right to vote in their leaders. A person who has no power to vote in who represents their rights has no way to voice their grievances and in turn contribute to the community. He, in turn, has to bend to the whims of those with power and voice, in essence enslaving him. Before the civil rights movement, black children could not go to white schools. Even in present day, there still are white-only schools. People, however, fail to notice the correlation between history, the law, and speech equality. The fact that the ‘nigger’ population is one of the poorest in the society, with the highest numbers of those incarcerated as a ratio to the population, some of the highest numbers of drug abuse, crime rate, and abortion rates. This community also happens to have the most understaffed schools, with the poorest of utilities. The slave laws that criminalize the education of black children snatches from them the freedom to express themselves.
When the top in society have all the freedom of speech, they have the power to drive the economy, and curtail political freedom as well. During the McCarthy era, there were rampant efforts to curtail the expression of a learned population of creative people who advocated for communism; with horrible consequences to careers, families, privacy, and security (Mackinnon). Such depression of speech has the risk of marginalizing and crushing powerless, voiceless dissenters who have a lot to contribute in the way of ideas.
In a laissez-faire society, the market is allowed to correct itself without interference, as should the field of ideas. The idea of freedom of speech is essentially the creation of a platform for the free flow of information which is then tested in the market for accuracy, use, and effectiveness. All ideas should be left to spread; deliberate measures should not be taken to suppress them; as in the end, the truth will prevail. For constitutional purposes, governments and citizens everywhere should recognize that the notion of false ideas is a falsity in itself; some ideas are just more offensive. The justification for the freedom of speech is to allow the spread of ideas, even though conflicting, that lead to the one hearing these ideas formulate the truth for themselves by being all the facts allowed (Braddon-Mitchell and West). The curtailing of freedom of speech has allowed for the spread of misinformation such as the hate propaganda that led to the Holocaust.
It would, however, be unwise to assume that the best place to realize freedom of speech in today’s world is without non-market mechanisms, as the world today is not a free market, and herein law comes in. The law should come in to justify the dissemination of the truth while also offering a trade-off of alternatives that allows the maximization of truth. While circulating information in the society, a trade-off must be done between consideration and the amount of speech; too much speech might lead to low consideration or too much consideration hinder the resources for distribution and production.
Many people fail to notice the implications of suppression for the future. When one suppresses an alleged bad idea, the implication is that there is a higher probability that a good future idea will be suppressed for being labeled bad. Additionally, suppressing one’s idea now only increases the chance of your ideas being suppressed in future by another person with more power than you have (Mackinnon). The notion of doing unto others what one would like done to them has escaped the world, and the more it is propagated, the higher the probability for future inequity.
The problem with the modern world is that the repression of speech does not occur explicitly, it occurs through disinformation. Disinformation as a form of mind control has been used for centuries, and is used today to control the citizenry and what they think. Powerful people today use the media as a tool to control the masses and dictate what is published and shown on the media. Powerful people control the media, and thus, publishers choose what to publish, leading to the refusal to publish dissenting material. These publishing decisions are considered the norm and have had dire repercussions for the distribution of power, especially sexual power.
The law of libel has been utilized in supporting the refusal to publish works that attack those in power while at the same time targeting the voiceless for liability. The famous case of New York Times v. Sullivan when the law of libel was first recognized set the precedence for future misuse and oppression. In the case, the Times was successfully sued for minor inaccuracies in a fundraising ad it had run for black leaders lamenting racism by white police. Sullivan utilized support for the civil rights movement to make it easier for the media to become less careful with what they publish, which brings us to another topic.
Ethics of Speech
Was Plato right when he said that the idea of free speech is false and that strict controls on utterance and reading have to be instituted to weed out false belief among the masses? In a state where the free flow of information sub serves truth, that state can be said to be in a position of free speech. If the free flow of information does not sub serve truth, however, it is no free speech. Truth is not a social end in itself; it is in turn justified by other social values that it sub serves, hence other conditions and considerations may dictate that the value of truth is ignored in some instances. In a society, maximizing the utility for the citizens is of paramount importance, and hence, strict controls on speech and reading are required when a society is in danger of consuming itself whole (Braddon-Mitchell and West).
Even though values like truth are consumed by the subject of utility, they can only be enacted and hence looked at piecemeal (Braddon-Mitchell and West). As such, when looking at the issue freedom of speech the trade-offs should be looked at in isolation to arrive at the best overall condition. This then requires an ethical theory and practice that treats them as important constructs, and that encourages people to respond to them separately.
Whereas cases of actual physical interference of speech are treated with disdain, what if the physical interference were now absent. Is the freedom of voicing one’s notions and opinions sufficient when the actual physical interference or real threat to such freedom, is absent? There are social constructs, for example, that undermine the ability of a speaker to say certain things due to the society being hostile or unsympathetic to such speech. Numerous victims of rape, harassment, abuse, and certain mental illnesses suffer in silence due to the stigma attached with voicing such opinions or truths. They are silenced by a social climate which can be created deliberately to silence people, and this is an intrusion on the freedom of speech. Another way in which society can be constructed to prevent a group from having the freedom of speech is through poverty. Through economic emancipation, people can afford the tools to have their opinions heard, or hear the opinions of others. In this digital age, information is spread through the internet, but there are communities that cannot access the internet, let alone a radio. All they have as a source of information is what they are fed by their leaders. Such people also lack the confidence to voice their opinions due to a fear of the consequences; such as losing their jobs, or being taken to prison. They have no power, and a powerless person is a voiceless person.
Having the power to voice an opinion is still not enough; one needs to utter meaningful words. There are numerous ways to make words meaningless, and this usually occurs at the lower end of the social spectrum. When using the English words to some monolingual people using another language, for example, the words are meaningful but useless. One of the ways to ensure that people at the lower end of the spectrum do not have free speech, therefore, is by ensuring that they cannot communicate in the first place. A community divided into mutually uncomprehending languages can be said to be devoid of free speech. One of the ways to ensure incomprehensibility is usually by making sure that the targets are uneducated. Thus failing to build facilities of learning, not providing education, or providing low-quality education are ways of curtailing free speech. Poverty also plays a role, as the poor cannot afford the resources to earn a decent education, or live in situations that curtail their getting time to earn the education. A child who has to drop out of school to earn food for the family is a child who is deprived of an opportunity to not only learn how to voice an opinion but also how to listen and interpret one.
Understanding a train of thought or being able to follow arguments while maintaining a sane state so as to be able to discern the truth is also an essential part of free speech. Knowing the truth requires comprehension and the exercise of practical reasoning skills; drawing conclusions from premises, and being able to appraise notions for validity, soundness, and strength (Braddon-Mitchell and West). At the lower end of the continuum lies individuals to whom words are distributed in a foreign tongue while at the other end lies individuals who have earned distinctions in practical reasoning courses and are perfectly fluent in the language of communication.
Other social constructs are created by history and past events. When some Nazis decided to demonstrate in the spring of 1997 in a suburban neighborhood of predominantly Jews, the village obtained a court restriction barring the demonstrations (Hentoff). A series of court skirmishes followed, but ultimately the protesters were forbidden from wearing the ‘swastika,’ as it represented a personal affront to every member of the Jewish faith. The Jews had been persecuted a few years previously by a people who had the ‘swastika’ as a symbol, and this led rise to the argument of symbolism under the constitution. The underlying issue here, however, is not symbolism, but the religious violence that led to historical injustices such as the persecution of the Jews.
Hate speech manifests itself in many forms, but usually, it has one cause; the belief that one population or society is better than the other. The feeling of advantage over another society has been what has led to historical vices like slavery. Perhaps the biggest historical injustices in the form of infringement on the freedom of speech have occurred in the name of religion. Besides the hate propaganda leading to the deaths of millions of Jews, religious persecution has been going on for decades. From the time of the crusades in the middle ages to the Russian Jewish persecution of the 20th century, stories of oppression on religious grounds have been abundant. In Turkey, the Muslim population, which is the minority, cannot access free speech, and they have even historically been barred from constructing mosques which also serve as schools. Religion does not go far from politics, and clauses that give expressive power to one religion than to others is an affront to the freedom of speech.
Another situation that allows for the spread of hate speech is racial and tribal superiority. Tribalism, nepotism, and racism have been at the forefront of ensuring that freedom of speech has not been achieved. These feelings of superiority lead to the suppression of speech of the other community and is usually accompanied by speech that alludes to this fact. This kind of speech can be used in inciting violence against the other community or spreading certain negative stereotype. The persecution of the minority on the grounds of race, tribe, or family can also be used to ensure that the minority do not achieve the other requirements for a free speech earlier mentioned. By ensuring that the people from a certain family, tribe or race do not get access to some amenities, are illiterate, poor, or cannot communicate, such amounts to a lack of freedom of speech.
The spread of feelings of superiority, however, can have more effect than physical shows of superiority. When you make statements or publish information aimed at making a people feel unworthy or resigned to holding the belief that they are inferior, such amounts to hate speech. In America, the media has been used to portray images of white superiority, and not even the demonstrations at Selma or Martin Luther’s efforts were enough to dissipate feelings of inferiority. News stories of African girls who feel unworthy, who talk of liking white men even though the white men do not love them back, accentuate the effects of hate speech. These feelings of inferiority have led to stereotypes that are hard to remove from society. In the current society, as a result of the digital media, there are things that have become the norm, Black Americans are violent and criminal, Nigerians are drug dealers, Russians are villains, do not trust the Germans, the Africans are primitive and poor, are all ideologies spread through speech. Usually, that is the only side to the story that many get to hear. What we hear is what we think, how we reason, what we communicate. Spreading misinformation by hatred leads to a higher level of speech inequality as it involves emotion.
In conclusion, the issue of freedom of speech encompasses numerous axes. What is apparent, however, is that it follows a continuum, where at the lower axis there is much inequity. At the lower end, issues such as poverty, racial and religious persecution, illiteracy, social segregation, and a social climate that makes inappropriate speech help reduce freedom. On the other end of the continuum lies factors such as wealth, control, and abundance of resources, political and social superiority, understanding and literacy, as well as the spread of truth. At some point in the continuum lies the tipping point and this balance involves a tradeoff among various factors. Ultimately, the freedom of speech aims to achieve the ease of flow of truthful information that can be understood and utilized correctly and for good.
Braddon-Mitchell, David and Caroline West. “What is free speech?” The Journal of Political Philosophy (2004): 437-460. Document.
Hentoff, Nat. “Free Speech for Me, but not for Thee.” (1992): 1-6. Document.
Mackinnon, Catharine. “Equality and Speech.” (n.d.): 1-10.