The Heresy of Free Speech

Close image of a mans closed mouth.

The Constitution guarantees the right of free speech. That’s only the beginning of the story. People and institutions try to shut us up all the time, or make us pay a price with our pocketbooks, our livelihoods, and our persons for saying things they don’t like. That fact has given rise to the popular folk hero, the whistleblower, who risks everything, life included, to say what urgently needs saying. We became acquainted with him, on a popular level, in the Jack Lemmon film The China Syndrome, in which a worker at a nuclear plant worker is shot dead for trying to alert the public that southern California is at risk of a meltdown that could render it uninhabitable. The message at the end of the film is clear: they can do this to you too, and get away with it. And oh, by the way, maybe it’s time to think about buying that second home in the Rockies, but not downwind of anything.

Free speech, of course, never applied to slaves on the plantation. It doesn’t apply to people in the workplace. Private individuals don’t stand a chance against businesses and institutions, which is why such things as grievance committees, unions, and faculty senates were instituted in the first place. On the other hand, corporations can speak as loudly as they like, through advertising, lobbyists, and, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, through hireling politicians—and, except for Bernie Sanders, is there any politician who isn’t a hireling of one sort or another? The Democratic Party didn’t do everything in its power to stop Bernie from getting its nomination for president in 2016 because of his views on single-payer healthcare or free public higher education. It did so because he ran a campaign based on small donors, and where would any politician be these days without corporate sugar daddies to fund him?

When the internet showed up, it was hailed as a new avenue for free speech in a digital world. You could blog, you could tweet. You could inform and persuade. You could also slander, deceive, and troll. The answer to the latter, as with all false or malicious speech, was speech that challenged, corrected, or refuted. In a virtually instantaneous world of comment and response, however, it was hard to sort out voices, or to know who or what was actually speaking. President Trump recently tweeted to the effect that he knew that his then-national security advisor, Michael Flynn, had lied not only to his vice president, Mike Pence—a peccadillo in the Trump White House—but to the FBI, a federal offense. This has exposed Trump himself to a charge of obstructing justice, leading one of his lawyers, John Dowd, to fall on his sword by taking responsibility for writing the tweet. What, ghost writers online? Welcome to the world of the 24/7 big screen, where it’s not free speech but plausible deniability that counts.

As the Federal Communications Commission prepares to spike net neutrality and hand control of the internet over to a few corporate monopolies, we write the latest page of our free speech follies. Which brings us to our local case, that of my Drexel colleague, George Ciccariello-Maher. George got himself into trouble last December by tweeting that all he wanted for Christmas was white genocide. Now he’s gotten himself banned from campus for suggesting in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre that mass shooting was a white phenomenon. His students have protested and staged sit-ins. His story has gone viral, as they say, and he’s been a focus of national media attention.

The Drexel administration, that always faceless character, has stated that George was banned for his own and others’ protection after death threats were received over the Las Vegas tweet. I don’t want to say that such threats, if actual, shouldn’t be treated seriously. Whether they justify silencing a tenured faculty member (or any other kind) and denying him contact with his students except online, is another matter. The administration had set up a secret committee last spring to investigate George, its charge and composition unknown. It was pretty clear that his skids were being greased.

Now, academic free speech is a little different from the more ordinary kind. I don’t feel I have the right to indoctrinate a captive student audience, however passionate my convictions may be. I do feel I have the right to get them to think for themselves about matters relevant to the course I’m teaching, a classic tool of pedagogy otherwise known as the Socratic method. (We can all remember what happened to Socrates, so it isn’t as if that’s a hazard-free occupation either.) As far as I can tell, both in watching how George’s students have responded to his suspension and in talking directly to a couple of them, he crossed no professional line in class. That would in any case be a subject for his peers to take up, not a secret committee.

So, I’m supportive of George. I want him back in the classroom, and free to exercise his more general citizen rights. At the same time, though, I think tweeting in general is a very dubious form of communication, a point Donald Trump has made far better than I can. You can’t make an argument in 140 or 280 characters; you can only flag attention and shout. When George made his comment about white genocide, my own first reaction was to wonder whether he’d ever heard of the Holocaust. When he raised the subject of Las Vegas, I remembered that Stephen Paddock’s target had been a white music group and its audience. Yes, white supremacy is an ugly thing, as are all forms of racism and discrimination (ask the Rohingya), and white rage helped make Donald Trump president. But these are complex questions, and soundbite reactions don’t clarify them. George says he has tweeted 30,000 times. I wonder how much of that intellectual energy could have been used to produce reasoned argument about the issues that matter to him, and to me too.

Free speech, we need to remember in general, is a form of public heresy. In the Middle Ages, heretics were burned at the stake. The Protestant Reformation made them heroes. Not every heretic is a hero, or needs to be. But, as John Milton pointed out long ago, we need to hear them all out to discover who may bear the vital kernel of truth.

About Robert Zaller 57 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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