Free Speech: Turned on Its Head

Free speech, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, has been turned on its head by right-wing zealots, it has become a bludgeon and weapon to be used against the poor and disenfranchised people of this country and the world — a tool to empower and enrich the  oligarchy, destroy democracy, and intimidate people’s movements. Who woulda thought!

The underlying principle of the first amendment was to create a “market place of ideas” in which unpopular and minority viewpoints would have a vehicle by which to challenge the mainstream positions of the day. It was thought that by allowing unpopular, fringe positions to be heard, the people would have a forum in which to accept or reject different positions and decide what the best course of action would be.

It never occurred to the framers of our Constitution that “free speech” could be transformed into the scourge of our current democracy, and an excuse for every form of oppression possible, from torture to fraudulent elections.  The examples of this transformation are everywhere:

1) The Citizens United case: By characterizing corporations as “persons,” and finding that they had “free speech” rights (with no accountability or responsibility other than to make money), the United States Supreme Court sold what vestiges of democracy were still present in the country to the highest bidder. Secret PACs and billionaires can now purchase the political officeholders of their choice, and ensure that their actions will be unregulated and free from government opposition. By refusing to regulate or control corporate abuses, Congress has undermined the entire democratic process. Within a decade or two, all politicians will be on the payrolls of their corporate sponsors. Grassroots campaigns and underdog victories will be a thing  of the past, and billion-dollar campaign chests will produce a government of corporate choice.

2) John Yoo and Jay Bybee: These despicable attorneys were the authors of the legal memos, sponsored by George Bush and Dick Cheney, that have been used to rationalize and justify the murder and torture of thousands of victims of U.S. aggression worldwide. By suggesting that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and tearing out fingernails were merely tactics amounting to “enhanced interrogation,” they gave the green light to the monsters running our government to endorse renditions, tortures and every other war crime the Pentagon can envision. Unmanned drones, Special Operations assassinations, nuclear missiles and war crimes are now our country’s leading exports.

At a crucial point when UC students were demanding that Yoo be thrown off the staff at UC, the students at Berkeley and the law school fell victim to Dean Christopher Edley, Jr.’s (who had joined Boalt Hall as dean and professor of law in 2004) argument that to deny Yoo a chair on the faculty at the law school would deny the man free speech. Progressives and liberals were defeated when they bowed down to the fatuous  explanation that his free speech rights trumped the impact of his analysis. Likewise, free speech was the explanation given by our fearless leaders to guarantee Bybee a seat on the Court of Appeal. So, instead of spending their lives in prison, where they belong, these war criminals have been rewarded by those who thrive on slaughter and hatred.

3) Skokie, Illinois: In 1977 a 30-member Nazi organization made the announcement that it intended to march in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The Nazis claimed that they had the constitutional right to free speech, regardless of their history of lynchings and murders of African-Americans. The citizens of Skokie claimed the right not to have  demonstrations that would instigate heinous memories and violence parading in front of them in their community.

It remains a paradox: free speech has become the code word for allowing racist, homophobic divisive organizations such as the Klu Klux Klan and Nazis to intimidate and destroy minority communities. And it has been allowed, established and expanded throughout this country — especially surrounding the issue of immigration, with its round-ups, unlimited detentions, families torn asunder, deportations, etc.  Under the rubric of “immigration reform,” xenophobic racist forces in Arizona and other states have scape-goated Mexican and Latin communities, forcing them into hiding. Does “free speech” allow racists to brand immigrant communities as communities to be feared and hated?  Should racists have the right to “protect” their privileges by claiming that free speech authorizes them to say anything they want, regardless of the consequences of their hatred? Free speech is now equated with the right to instigate fear and hatred against gays, minorities, women and anyone else the right-wing sees as a target.

The divide and conquer mentality that motivates such hate groups runs deep: blame the victims for the outrages of the oligarchy, and turn one section of the working class against the other. It has been a successful formula for years.

4) Mainstream media propaganda: All one has to do is turn on the mainstream media to hear the  propaganda being spouted by the oligarchy. Just as the American people were lied to about so-called weapons of mass destruction by the likes of Colin Powell, and an assortment of Bush’s lackeys, so now do we hear of the need to bomb Iran. Our endless wars against Muslims, our  assaults on every independent nation on earth (Venezuela and Cuba immediately come to mind) — all are brought about through “free speech” fabrications. No need to rely on the truth to  persuade the American people of anything; all one needs to do is own the media in order to create a killing frenzy directed against the enemies described by the oligarchy. The monopolized ownership of all major media outlets assures a uniform presentation of imperialist rhetoric disguised as “news.” The poor simply cannot compete and are silenced accordingly.

Even progressive forces give airtime to the torturers, right-wingers and others to appear unbiased. The handful of reporters who purport to give alternative views of what is going on in the world feel compelled to spend half of their time explaining what the fascist position is on the subject before they even dare to speak truth to such violence.

Equal time, as it applies to television reporting, fosters the belief that governmental truths are the only legitimate ones, and progressive or “fringe” reporting is to be ignored and viewed as of secondary importance. The government-controlled media never gives equal time to those  positions that are contrary to Pentagon double-speak, they merely parrot the propaganda that is currently being spoon-fed to a passive populace.

There was once a market place of ideas in this country, where unpopular or minority viewpoints viewpoints could be espoused to persuade and convince the government to change its policies. With the monopolization of the media into the hands of the oligarchy, there is no longer meaningful dialogue in the television or newspaper media. Instead, we are force-fed one-sided sloganeering and fear-mongering in the guise of news. While a handful of newspapers (the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Hightower Lowdown, Yes Magazine, etc.) and hundreds of internet blogs provide alternative news and analysis, they are simply not wealthy or powerful enough to overcome the propaganda blitzes put out by the oligarchy on a 24-hour per day basis.

In short, free speech has been turned upside down, and is now a major justification for interminable war, domestic imprisonment, torture and an economic disparity unheard of in the annals of history. The reality is that free speech is too important to lose, and progressives must find a way to regain equality in that battlefield.

Luke Hiken is an attorney who has engaged in the practice of criminal, military, immigration, and appellate law. Marti Hiken is the director of Progressive Avenues. She is the former associate director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and former chair of the National Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force. Read other articles by Marti Hiken and Luke Hiken, or visit Marti Hiken and Luke Hiken's website.