Free Speech Isn’t Free


Back in 2003 one of my neighbors used to have a display in front of his house he called his “9/11 Wall.” United States flags, MIA flags, reminders that we should “never forget,” it was typical of the kind of patriotic display you would see during the Bush years. On the back of his car were two bumper stickers. On the left side we were reminded that America was “the land of the free because of the brave.” On the right side, we were told that “freedom isn’t free.”

I never got a straight answer from my neighbor what “freedom isn’t free” really meant. I suppose it had something to do with the argument that if “we” didn’t invade Iraq and increase the value of Halliburton’s stock, Muslims would invade New Jersey and put us all under Sharia Law. Most of the patriotic displays that were so common during the Bush years came down after Barack Obama was elected President in 2008 and never went back up. For the most part I’m thankful. Belligerent displays of right-wing nationalism have always given me the uncontrollable urge to key cars, piss on lawn signs, and rip down Gadsden flags and throw them in the gutter. I do, however, concede that conservatives get one thing right. “Freedom” in a capitalist society is never free. It always has a price.

The classically liberal definition of “free speech” embodied in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is closely connected with the development of the “free” market. The First Amendment does not guarantee me the money to buy a printing press or the right to an audience. All it means is that Congress cannot engage in “prior restraint” on what I can publish, that the federal government should stay out of the “market of ideas” exactly the way it should stay out of the economy. None of the “Founding Fathers” and nobody in the French National Constituent Assembly of 1789 would have had any trouble with the idea that you deserve only as much “free speech” as you can buy. Karl Marx, on the other hand, argued that the French and American revolutions would not never be completed unless “democracy” were extended from the political to the economic realm. Free speech under capitalism is the free speech of the bourgeoisie, not the free speech of the working class.

American history proves Karl Marx’s point. Until 1865, for example, nobody even made any pretense that the First Amendment protected blacks. Abolitionist newspapers were routinely, often violently, suppressed by local governments in the south and the Midwest. In Kansas in the 1850s, the freedom to agitate against slavery came out of the barrel of John Brown’s gun, not out of an amendment offered to the Constitutional Convention by Thomas Jefferson. Even after the United States Civil War, the First Amendment almost always protected the interests of capital at the expense of the interests of democracy. Union organizers enjoyed no protection by the federal government until the New Deal. IWW agitators would be beaten, jailed, and sometimes lynched for reading the Constitution of the United States in public. In 1917, the Wilson Administration jailed Eugene Debs and stripped him of his citizenship for speaking out in opposition to the draft. Even today, you get about as much “free” speech as you can buy on the open market. Nobody at the New York Times or the New York Daily News, for example, has ever questioned the right of the New York City Police to issue “press passes,” to the idea that the state can determine who and who is not a “real” journalist. It’s simply not in their economic interest to give up their monopoly on reporting.


Socialist governments explicitly guarantee not only the right, but the ability to speak. The most expansive and far reaching definition of “free speech” ever made is in the Soviet Constitution of 1936. “These civil rights are ensured by placing at the disposal of the working people and their organizations,” Article 125 of the “Fundamental Law of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics reads “printing presses, stocks of paper, public buildings, the streets, communications facilities and other material requisites for the exercise of these rights.” Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Stalin acknowledged that while everybody had the right to “free speech,” not everybody had the money to found a newspaper. Needless to stay there was little or no “free speech” in the Soviet Union of the 1930s and 1940s. A constitution, as George W. Bush is once reputed to yelled at a member of Congress, “is nothing more than a goddamned piece of paper.” Yeah, he never actually said it, but whoever fabricated the quote got it right. If you depend on the state to give you the ability to speak, it will probably tell you what to say. Free speech in Stalin’s Russia meant the right to go to a party rally and denounce capitalism. It did not give you the right to question the purge trials.

The battle over “free speech” that erupted last week at the University of California, and which continues to be debated in the online media is essentially a conflict between democracy and classical liberalism, between the “market of ideas” and the right of marginalized people to organize for their own safety. After Milo Yiannopoulos, the “technology blogger” and the far right-wing, and now quasi-governmental Breitbart News, attempted to take his act – which routinely mixes classically Republican dog whistle on race with “calling out” transgender and other vulnerable undergraduates – to the campus at Berkeley, he was shut by local anarchists. Yiannopoulos quickly found defenders, even among his political opponents on the left. Liberal economist Robert Reich, for example, speculated that the protests against Yiannopolis were a “false flag operation” staged by Yiannopoulos’ allies on the right to give Donald Trump an excuse to cut federal aid to public universities. “Free speech absolutists” like Lee Fang at the Intercept argued that militant protest against Yiannopolis was only likely to backfire. Matt Teitelbaum, the President of the Towson University Democrats, put it more directly, defending Yiannopoulos and the free market of ideas against what he calls the “regressive left.”


Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

Robert Reich’s conspiracy theories, which reflect the fevered state of mind of Hillary Clinton’s supporters in the wake of their loss to Donald Trump, can be dismissed pretty easily. I have no idea if the black bloc at Berkeley was a “false flag operation” or not. Personally I doubt it, but if it was, then what Yiannopoulos is engaging in is not “speech” but conspiracy to disturb the peace, and as a British citizen he should be immediately deported. The First Amendment certainly doesn’t give foreign nationals the right to come to the United States and provoke violence against American university students, to engage in a criminal conspiracy.

Lee Fang’s and Matt Teitelbaum’s arguments, while more serious, are also typical of a certain lack of self-reflection on the part of the typical “free speech absolutist.” Neither Fang nor Teitelbaumwas born when the ACLU sued the town of Skokie Illinois on behalf of the Amreican Nazi Party back in 1977, but both have an almost religious reverence for the argument that you can best defend “free speech” by defending it for the extreme right. Fang and Teitelbaum not only forget that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results – the United States has significantly less free speech in 2017 than it did in the 1960s and 1970s – they have a mistaken belief in the inevitable march of American history towards freedom and democracy. “The arc of history is long,” Martin Luther King once said, “but it bends towards justice.” He was clearly wrong. The arc of American history is tragic, not progressive. It moves in fits and starts, in violent spasms. There are radical breaks with the past. But there can also be, as we are currently seeing with the Presidency of Donald Trump, a violent return of the repressed. As long as the United States a capitalist, and a settler colonial society, the most reactionary side of American history is never far from the surface.

Some people who know me might imagine that I’m contradicting things I’ve said in the past. I have little use for the new movement for “in loco parentis” rules at the American university. In general, I find restrictions on speech as useless as affirmative consent laws. I regularly use terms like “political correctness” or “SJW,” terms that would make me unwelcome among the undergraduate left. I’ve written blog posts accusing Twitter of hypocrisy over their banning Yiannopoulos and not, for example, David Duke or Richard Spencer. As with any contentious political event, however, people are often polarized in unexpected directions, and I find myself quite siding with the multi-cultural “SWJ” left against the free-speech absolutists at The Intercept. The reason, simply put, is that as critical as I can be of the current student left, I also feel compelled to defend democracy against capital. Yiannopoulos, who is backed by powerful interests on the far right – he’s essentially a front man for the Breitbart operation — is arguing for a return of the American university to what it was back in the 1980s when I was an undergraduate, when it was dominated by straight, white male fraternity brothers. The people determined to keep him off campus, the coalition of black, gay, feminist and transgender students, make mistakes, but they still represent the way forward. I’ve long argued that the authoritarianism of the liberal identitarian left – people who will explode with outrage every time some sorority girl wears a native American costume but who will ignore Obama’s drone war in South Central Asia – would provide a series of wedge issues for the far right. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to side with the far right.

Free speech isn’t free. In the end it comes down to how much you’re willing to fight for or how much you’re willing to buy. Milo Yiannopoulos and his ruling class backers can pay for a lot. They can get book deals with major publishing firms. They can pay for permits and security fees. They have access to the President of the United States. Yet last week at the University of California, they got shut down by militant protest. In the battle for the public square, democracy beat the free market. In spite of all my intellectual differences with the people who organized the black bloc at Berkeley, it’s impossible not to take their side.

1 thought on “Free Speech Isn’t Free

  1. katharineotto

    Well done and thought-provoking blog. I figure nobody’s going to stop me from saying what I need to say, but I do try to exercise some self-restraint. There’s always a mature way to express important concepts. I believe that will give me more credibility, a more open-minded audience, and the reassurance that I’m willing to listen as well as speak.

    Unfortunately, when you make rules to control others, you risk being bound by them yourself. Allowing Yiannopoulos to speak may have defused the situation, and those who didn’t like what he said could have laughed or booed. This way he got more publicity, and made the opponents look like hypocrites.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s