case against free speech
(2019) by Peter Moskowitz
this book is not anti free speech. it is anti the concept of free speech
this book is not about whether the first amendment is good/bad… is about why the first amendment is nearly irrelevant, except in its power as a propaganda tools
the path to free speech, i will argue, has less to do w a law about speech, or many laws, than w ending racism and ineq
but as i hope to prove.. free speech has never really existed because freedom and liberty have never really existed for the vast majority of americans..t
and so really.. for no one.. (none of us if one of us et al)
this oppression and suppression have been constant since the founding of this country, and therefore free speech is a hollow signifier – pointing to a past that never existed..
so why write a book on free speech if i think the term is essentially meaningless? because the concept holds so much weight in our country.. we argue endlessly about whether it is being trampled on.. et al.. t
but we rarely ask what free speech is or how we got to the free speech crisis we supposedly face today
this is not a definitive account of free speech, but a necessary intervention, prodding us to be more critical of the term, and maybe along w it many of the other lofty concepts we hold near and dear (democracy, freedom, etc)
this book primarily deals w freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, because that’s where i see the most contentious fights happening..
i think if we start to interrogate the meaning of free speech, we will get to some messier questions about our country, and that’s a large part of why i wanted to write this book: to encourage people to pick apart the rhetoric we encounter daily, go beyond headlines and opinion pieces, and ask of free speech the same question we ask of other political tools – who benefits from them, and who doesn’t..
my previous book on gentrification came from the same desire: to unravel the rhetoric we had been taught and identify the system, power players and solutions to a massive problem..
this book is also not unbiased – i am an anticapitalist, and m views of free speech emanate from a materialist understanding of the world.. i believe in what some have called ‘positive liberty’ the idea that people are free only when their material conditions are equal (as opposed to ‘negative liberty’ in which freedom is defined as a lack of formal obstacles to achieving ones’ goals)
i believe the more we all interrogate what we have been taught as fact – that we have free speech, that we live in a democracy, that the us is some kind of arbiter of freedom – the more truth we will unveil about who controls..t our politics and why our society remains so unequal.. if we can get beyond rhetoric to address those scarier questions, we can get closer to true equality in this country..
part 1 – where we are now
ch 1 – the line
the history of free speech in this country can also be thought of as a history of how we define action, and particularly how we define violence.. where we draw the line.. ie: bill stripping health care from millions is an ie of violence that we currently consider acceptable in our democracy.. and.. the line is defined unevenly
for free speech absolutists this argument will fall flat.. because they believe free speech should be completely unrestrained no matter what.. but what we rarely acknowledge is that in every case concerning free speech, we are already starting from a severely restricted baseline..t there are countless legal limits on free speech that we rarely debate
first amendment already has many inborn limits (ie: what is considered speech.. writing/protest/art?; beyond speech.. advocating killing of president et al).. those are perhaps some obvious limits, but they prove that what we think of as free speech is already free ish speech..
when we debate free speech, we are not debating whether we like free speech, because we’ve never really had free speech.. we’re debating where the line is, and who gets to hold the line in place or move it.. that line is in constant flux.. millions of dollars get spent defining that line each year by super pacs and other political groups and by non profits like the aclu.. millions more get spent by corps to keep defn of free speech from encroaching on intellectual property.. countless hours and sums of money..t
we’ve been arguing about free speech, but we haven’t been minding the line, or paying attention to who is influencing it..
this line of thinking was one i heard form most antifascist i interviewed that day: free speech didn’t mean anything when the people they were battling were advocating genocide, and when the entire apparatus of the state seemed willing to take their side
(on his ptsd from being almost hit by same car as heather) when you’re always fearful, calmness can become depression.. – a nice night at home alone became a shadow filled solitude i needed to escape from but had no clue how to..t
the only illegal actions to take place in charlottesville were the murder of heather heyer and the sporadic beatings doled out by the white nationalists and counterprotesters throughout the day.. everything else – white nationalist chants encouraging the murder of jews, mexicans and black people’; the alt right internet forums whose members encouraged one another to shoot leftists and run them over w their cars prior to aug 12; the fact that many of the right win protesters were armed w semi auto weapons – that was all sanctioned.. it wasn’t only legal.. it was grounds for police protections..
but we as a country questioned none of this ..
‘not against free speech.. against violence and genocide’
how do we actually get to this place where free speech isn’t just another word for the protection of white supremacists
”free speech’ is like ‘terrorist’.. who doesn’t hate terrorism.. who doesn’t love free speech..?’
in other words, the constant focus on it as a term makes us all feel like we’re fighting for universal good, but it might obfuscate some harder truths..t charlottesville was proof: free speech is not just about speech, but about the history of white supremacy in our country, the politics of ineq and racism, and our failure to reckon with and settle our violent past and present..
ch 2 – are we all snowflakes
the first amendment only applies to the govt’s ability to interfere w speech.. it has nothing to say about college curriculums or the merits of student interrupting conservative speakers.. by and large we are not debating the legality of the first amendment but the morality of it
the first: is invoked in nearly all our debates.. it is the moral compass.. yet it has little to no bearing on vas majority of free speech controversies.. first amend has rarely been enforced to protect speech.. our conceptualization of free speech rights largely dates back not to the founding of this country but to series of court cases that are barely 50 yrs old..
andrew sulivan: we are talking more about the spirit of the first than the actual legal defn.. what other law has that power..?
no other law holds such sway over our discussions w/o having actual legalistic consequences.. the first then has become primarily a propaganda tool.. how did that happen..? why did we start caring about free speech so much
the first is not meant to protect us from the consequences of anyone but the govt infringing on our rights. in fact, for the vast majority of american history, virtually no on thought the first meant we had an unrestrained right to speech. that idea is very new
free speech in us began as a right reserved only for property holding white men and was gradually expanded over 100s of y ears to include everyone, though some of its largest expansions came in defense of slaveholders, nazis, and the kkk.. while the largest expansions were almost universally used against leftists, abolitionists, and antiracists..
how did something w such murky, morally conflictual beginnings become viewed as an inherent good.. something we should strive for not only legally but in every interaction, every protest?..t
even our most common conception about the limits of free speech – that we should stop speech only when it present a clear and present danger comes not form a case in which speech presented a clear and present danger, but from the us govt prosecuting peaceful dissenters..
200 yrs of history show that free speech was never legally guaranteed in the us..
koch bros et al.. buying out uni’s.. funding wave to ensure conservatives beat out liberalism on college campuses
being silenced is an intense fear about losing the grip on the world they know, in which white men dictate the course and bounds of ed and society writ large.. …we’re relitigating the same debate after a new round of campus activism…
i’d mark the start of our new era of free speech worry in late 2015 w the publication of ‘the coddling of the american mind’.. by jonathan haidt and greg lukinanoff..
‘the current movement is largely about emotional well being’ the authors wrote ‘more than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psych harm.. the ultimate aim.. to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded form words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.’
since then we’ve been in a semipermanent free speech panic, seeing ie’s of violations everywhere..
the idea that free speech is constantly being trampled on is very recent. it’s a product of the 1980s and it has less to do w an increase in violations of the first amendment, or a decrease in americans who care about it, than w a will funded conservative campaign to rework how we think of speech.. no proof that campus politics have meaningfully gotten more restrictive..
ch 3 – campus wars – middlebury
the entire philosophy of neoliberalism, perhaps the most (in my opinion, destructively) influential idea of the last century, was essentially birthed out of the econ dept of one school: the uni of chicago.
stanford and mit were central to the creation of the internet. colleges contract w our military; their professors serve in presidential cabinets and as advisors to politicians.. they produce the studies upon which policy is based. in those ways, colleges are a a kind of collective rehearsal space for america: they are projection of whom we may become and whom we fear we are
colleges are also easy targets. because college students ate by their nature part of temporary communities, they don’t have a lot of opps to push back
once i started poking at that free speech bubble on college campuses i found that what happened at middlebury and at dozens of other schools w similar stories, was really about much more than free speech, but about everything that free speech can mask: namely, our unsettled history of racism
‘it’s classic social movement theory’ the prof said ‘people who have no other power have the power to disrupt’
what all this suggested, to brockelman and other students, was that while things like climate science (mckibben – middlebury’s most famous prof) were a settled matter for middlebury’s admin, the question of black people’s intelligence was not – campus 4% african american
ch 4 – campus wars – evergreen
it is somewhat ironic that colleges are the main locus for today’s battles for free speech because they are, and alway shave been some of the most restricted speech environments in the country.. ‘we have a very specific form of knowledge production.. why is it anti intellectual to question’
like mboya/rogers can you hear me law et al
ch 5 – pushing the line
the idea of free speech, she said, means nothing to those who are deported, arrested, or killed..t
part 2 – where we’re going
ch 6 – the shadow campus
if a billionaire said outright that he wanted to infiltrate college campuses and take them over, reshaping their curriculums to support conservative and free market viewpoints, i would argue that it would cause too much of a ruckus.. free speech sound much better.. it’s a genius strategy: not only fight the enemy, but get many of our enemies to defend you while you battle..
conservatives have been good at clocking their true agenda in the language of free speech – smuggling in their controversial views under the guise of academic freedom
what will campuses look like in 20 years
god i hope
they’re battling an entire system that is increasingly rigged against them, from who pays the speakers they disagree with, to who is responsible for making their tuition more expensive, to who influences their curricula.. now wonder they’ve taken to the streets..
ch 7 – speech and the streets
(on protestors getting arrested/charged in mass) – isaac dalto compared it to many copyright lawsuits: ‘the goal is not necessarily to win. winning’s nice.’ but the real point is to tire people out, drain them of their resources until they give up.. watch lists and landlord black lists.. et al
ch 8 – who’s speech matters
after standing rock.. there aren’t dozens of tv cameras and national news reporters in north dakota anymore. there wasn’t even a local tv news crew at rattler’s sentencing.. for 100s of the activists who were most central to the fight, a cloud has hung over their heads for the past two years.. n dakota authorities charged nearly 850 people for a variety of offenses related to the protest at standing rock..
736 of cases have concluded w a significant number of them dismissed or give plea deals w/o much jail time.. for a select few though, including rattler, the charges and potential consequences were much more severe.. he faced up to 15 yrs for allegedly helping light fire to a barricade to prevent cops form coming into the camp and destroying it.. the charges against him and several others – civil disorder – was used in the 1960s to limit the power of black lib movement.. rattler ‘it was worth it as long as i kept people safe and on oct 27 i kept a lot of people safe’
cointelpro (fbi running a surveillance op infecting every facet of the american left since 1956) – a new kind of war on dissent – tracked 1000s of people
black panthers became an obsession for cointelpro leaders.. zeroed in on mlk
as noam chomsky pointed out in a 1975 essay, we can contrast america’s reaction to cointelpro to that of another 1970s scandal – watergate – to see where our country’s priorities lay.. both involved illegal wiretapping, breaking into private offices, stealing documents.. but only watergate ended in dozens of prosecutions.. wall to wall media coverage, and several hollywood movie renditions of the events.. w cointelpro no govt officials were prosecuted.. today barely remembered..
we can see similar double standard play out today in our free speech debates
i wanted to talk to mapache (ice protester) because his case made me think about the intrinsic limits of speech according to the us govt, or any govt.. in defining what private property is, we already limit free speech; in defining a line between speech and action, we limit it further, and in defining who is and is not a citizen, or what actions can revoke you of your status as an american, we limit it even further still free speech for those born on us soil, who did not make the error of tax fraud years ago, who do not wear masks, who do not advocate the overthrow of the us govt, who are wiling only to speak on public property, whose speech does not infringe on anyone’s copyright – that’s more of a mouthful than the first amendment, but it’s the true nature of speech in this country..
18 yr old mapache (sergio salazar): ‘the idea was created to defend a certain class.. the idea of free speech is completely incompatible w the idea of private property.. if you’re in somebody’s establishment.. if you’re at work, you can be fired for what you say.. the idea that you have freedom to express yourself is completely incompatible with govt of the us..’..t
i believe there’s also flip side to all this: speech means nothing w/o someone to hear it.. so it’s not only about who is allowed to express themselves, or where people are allowed to express themselves.. speech is about who we are willing to listen to..t
cc @jilliancyork @BiellaColeman
begs a means to listen to all the voices.. ie: tech as it could be
when we talk about free speech, we’re really talking about everything else. and until we reckon with that everything else.. there will be little point of talking about free speech..t.. at all.. until we acknowledge that poor people, women, people of color, and immigrants have less ability not only to speak, but to be heard, then free speech will remain exclusive, a unicorn, a fantasy
begs we focus on a means for every voice to be heard.. every day – one with a focus deep enough to get to everything else.. (so.. w detox embed.. so that voices are truly their fittingness) et al – mboya/rogers can you hear me law
ch 9 – free speech in the panopticon
foucault: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so
power, foucault wrote, must be like the man inside the cloaked watchtower: visible, but unverifiable.. you know it’s there, but you can’t quite pin it down.. just like cointelpro.. just like the memphis police dept
as data collection and analyzing spread.. even the inventor of the term ‘cybernetics’ norbert wiener, sounded the alarm..
the military was largely secretive about its computer work.. but when info did leak.. the military was forced to, at least publicly, shut the project down. in reality, it was transferred to mit and renamed the cambridge project. when mit and harvard students and profs, including zin and chomsky, protested the project, the military rebranded it.. officials insisted the cambridge project was about using data to help.. though the cambride project no longer exists.. mit still works closely with and gets much of its research funding form.. the us military
in 1993 wired published its first issue.. to frame internet as a democratizing, even hippieish tech.. financially supported by nicholas negroponte.. who had spent 20 yrs working for military, helping to develop arpa.. they gave a kind of hip, liberal sheen to military tech and corp control.. in early days.. extensively profiled telecom millionaires.. who were waging a war against the govt to privatize the internet..
the new brand of millionaire backed techno utopians were deeply influenced by steward brand.. who published whole earth .. which advocated for self sufficiency and diy culture.. live w/o govt help.. brand inspired .. that we are all individual parts of a machine, and the way to liberty is to allow those machine parts to function w/o intervention
cool.. but not machine like.. rather an undisturbed ecosystem: ‘in undisturbed ecosystems ..the average individual, species, or population, left to its own devices, behaves in ways that serve and stabilize the whole..’ –Dana Meadows
the internet is not a neutral machine.. it was built by people.. if we are concerned about free speech, we must right of the bat recognize that the internet inherently privileges some people’s speech over others
doesn’t have to be that way.. it’s just that it was created by whales in sea world not by truly free/thinking people
page and brin to help military come up with search engine/algo for all their data
safiya noble – algos of oppression.. – google 70% men 2.5 % black men
the problem is, a social justice based search engine would have no way of making as much money as google, and therein lies a conundrum of free speech under capitalism.. the speech that rises to the top is the speech that reinforces the system we live in..t
begs a mech that listens to every voice.. everyday.. and makes money irrelevant
huge: tech as it could be..
wish you could hear me now
on journalists getting laid off.. google and fb taking more than 60% of ad revenue.. we’ve essentially ceded control of the digital public square..
page: how do we org/motivate people.. a really interesting problem..
on ie: google fb twitter.. being able to shut people down
there has never been speech w/o risk
if our free speech is defined as speech on public property that does no interfere w traffic or police activity, that does not advocate for the overthrow of the govt, that’s tracked and watched by police and corps like google and fb, is it really free? and more important, given all those limiting factors, can it change anything? and if ‘free speech’ doesn’t change anything, then what’s the point of it all?
conclusion – toward a smarter defn of free speech
throughout this book i’ve argued.. not that free speech is bad, but that it simply does not mean much.. it is an empty signifier that has been co opted by every part of the political spectrum throughout american history..
does that umbrella obfuscate the state’s support for fascist and white supremacist ideas and persecution of anything with the ability to change our world?
the entire concept of the us senate means that rural americans’ votes greatly outweigh those of urban residents
under us capitalism, the powerful have more of a say.. by design
so why does the myth of free speech persist? for the same reason americans perpetuate the myth that we’ve moved beyond racism, or the myth that our econ is in better shape than ever before: those who benefit from these myths have a vested interest in making sure we still believe them..
harold lasswell 1933 – preeminent expert on and big supporter of propaganda.. wrote that because americans were by and large too stupid to make decisions for their own good, propaganda was necessary to sway them in the right direction
propaganda, lasswell wrote ‘is the one means of mass mobilization which is cheaper than violence, bribery or other possible control techniques:
curiosity is most humane – cheapest – most controlled/safe/orderly.. et al ie: undisturbed ecosystem: ‘in undisturbed ecosystems ..the average individual, species, or population, left to its own devices, behaves in ways that serve and stabilize the whole..’ –Dana Meadows
how do we keep believing in free speech or even freedom.. as the govt deports thousands, imprison hundreds of thousands, and cracks down on peaceful protest?
by offering up a nother way.. for everyone.. even the deporters/imprisoners/crack-down-ers
free\dom et al
i don’t think it’s a coincidence that a supposed free speech crisis has cropped up at this moment in american history. when 6 in 10 americans don’t have $500 to their name, an ever increasing number of jobs are part time, health care can bankrupt anyone who is not wealthy, our electoral system is increasingly precarious, and global warming looms on the horizon.. free speech is not an idea.. but a thick layer of paint obfuscating many truths – about racism, facism, uneq econ..
the more you peel the paint back, the more you reveal the reality, the deep rot of a country in unending crisis.. it’s our choice if we want to deal w that rot now, or keep painting and painting, making the layers thicker and thicker and thicker until the paint tis so thick.. the smell of its coats so pungent, that it become obvious to all there’s something we’re trying to hide..
the thickest of paints ie: whales in sea world
what happens if we start to peel back that paint – if we stop obfuscating the truth and instead deal w it? if we use free speech not to layer over the truth, but as a tool to pull back the layers?..t
to do that, we have to move toward a more materialist defn of free speech, and work toward a positivist version of liberty – the idea that people are truly free only when they are materially equal..
what we currently have is a theoretically (though not in practice) negativist defn of free speech: anyone is able to speak in the us.. there are (theoretically) no formal obstacle to that (though i hope this book proves that is not true)
in negativist liberty, although you, i and the koch bros have a theoretically equal right to speak, we do not have the same ability to convey that speech, or the same guaranteed that our speech will be heard
bigger question/concern.. why do we want to be heard..? i think our focus on that (why we think we want to be heard) is a huge part of the problem ie: to fight for rights, et al..
if we were all truly free to our fittingness.. i think we’d only want to be heard in order to find our people.. that day.. so that we can be about what we are curious about .. that day..
this is why freedom of speech must be tied to economic, gender and racial inequality if it is to mean anything at al: if we truly deserve the same right to be heard, then we have to fight for everyone to have a level playing field
again.. i think we’re messed up on why we think we want to be heard.. if truly free in our fittingness.. econ, gender, race, rights.. become irrelevant – not so now for sure.. but it would be in an undisturbed ecosystem (which we are totally able to create – if we do it globally/unconditionally)
only then when an activist has the same ability to speak and influence policy as a billionaire, will free speech exist in this country..t
we have to go deeper.. not truly free speech.. just because we can speak and be heard.. we all need major detox.. to get back to us.. first.. otherwise.. we’re just leveling the field for whales in sea world
of course to get there we have a lot of leveling to do.. as of now most people are not even on the same playing field as those w true power in our country. we’re not even playing the same game..
even if we were.. none of us are playing the right/humane game..
realizing a meaningful defn of free speech.. one that encompasses everyone, not just those w privilege who want to uphold our current system.. – will likely require massively overhauling our govt thru illegal actions and perhaps violence.. only then will free speech apply to all..
a truly meaningful defn of free speech.. begs we listen to our hearts .. first.. every day.. otherwise.. we just become loud/heard whales in sea world