The free speech of marginalized groups in the United States has been consistently and systematically impeded and undervalued, but I think it’s safe to say that 2017 can officially be declared the year free speech became a sobriquet for white privilege.
To be clear, the history of free speech in The United States is long, and complex and filled with an exhaustive list of modifying court cases. However, there’s a relatively new development in public discourse about free speech. Greg Lukianoff, a self proclaimed “pro choice liberal”, wrote Unlearning Liberty which premises that censorship on college campuses is leading a generation of young intellectuals to topple a “long standing tradition of debate”, thus unlearning liberty. He also runs FIRE, a free speech advocacy group that conveniently frames free speech as being the objective necessary to maintain a free society, regardless of ideology and creed.
But it’s not at all an honest representation of the legacy of censorship in this country.
On November 21st, 1964, about a year after the March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr received a blackmail package from the FBI that contained a letter urging him to commit suicide. Just to clarify, he was a private citizen being threatened by a federal institution. A copy of that letter was found in the files of the deputy FBI director during the 1971 office raid that revealed the existence of COINTELPRO. You know, that nifty little program J. Edgar “Literal Spawn of Satan” Hoover created, that equated black activists to the KKK. But at least they gave Dr. King the courtesy of a letter, he was a Reverend after all. Fred Hampton, a rising Black Panther leader had no such title so he instead got drugged and murdered in his bed by the Chicago Police Department. He was 21 years old, too young to even rent a car. And even Dr. King, who we tend to talk about with such grandeur, was assassinated when he was 39 years old. He couldn’t even technically relate to This Is 40. But I’m sure both of these assassinations could have been prevented if Hoover was just open to honoring the longstanding American tradition of debate. I mean we all remember the great debate that took place in the early 19th century when slaves lost in a battle of wits trying to defend their own livelihood.
Pointing out the intellectual dishonesty of amnesiac historical recounts isn’t hard. All you have to do is look. The beginning of the Free Speech Movement is credited to the UC Berkeley protests in 1965. As if over 200,000 people didn’t show up for the March on Washington in 1963. As if in 1960, Georgia legislature didn’t make sit-ins a misdemeanor ahead of planned protests in order to arrest black college students. As if black people haven’t been protesting since they stepped foot in this country. None of that counts as free speech. It’s only free speech when people with privilege and power in society begin to self victimize. When they make the active choice to be oppressed based on nothing but resentment. I’m so terribly not sorry that I feel no sympathy for white men being banned by private companies from using their services. The fact that we can’t tell the history of black leadership, to this day, without mentioning the FBI, that alone comprehensibly tells you who’s voices are valued. That’s a First Amendment crisis. Spare me the unmitigated anger at safe spaces on college campuses, which remains to me an enigma. Lukianoff and other free speech absolutists on both the left and the right fallaciously portray the current state of censorship on college campuses as totalitarian when black people have a history of being murdered by the government for daring to demand equality. Claiming that an entire society is unlearning liberty, as if free speech entirely encompasses the word.
The idea that censoring the free speech of nazis and Klansmen is a slippery slope, that protecting their right to protest means protecting the right of marginalized people is not only preposterous, it’s historically inaccurate.You can’t have an honest discussion about the value of free speech without accurately representing how certain voices have been perpetually excluded from debates. But next time you or your loved ones are protesting hateful, racist or bigoted rhetoric, and you get run over by a neo nazi in a mid life crisis Mitsubishi, remember that living in a free society comes at a cost. Freedom isn’t free. And sometimes, it’s not even freedom at all.