Ph.D. Octopus

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Do protesters threaten free speech? (A: No, no they don’t)

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By Wiz

Karl Rove recently got interrupted at a speech in Beverly Hills by Code Pink. They repeatedly heckled his speech and he eventually left the stage. This, of course, is a constant threat to certain types of elite speakers. It happened to John Yoo so much that he now holds his class in secret. My personal favorite moment was back when John McCain tried to speak at the New School. He was booed so often that his best buddy President Bob Kerrey came out and berated the students, at which point someone in the crowd reminded Kerrey that someone who was a war criminal probably shouldn’t be so self-righteous.

Wendy Kaminer, in an otherwise reasonable article about how heckling is not protected free speech, starts complaining that protesters like this are violating the rights of everyone else. These protesters are “effectively restricting the rights of others — not just Rove but audience members who were interested in hearing from him.” She concludes, “The heckler’s veto limits speech.”

Now, one might say, its hardly like the American people have suffered a lack Karl Rove’s influence in the public discourse. But its the tone of Kaminer’s piece that really bothered me. There is nothing I hate more (well there probably are things…) than the “When you think about it, its really the protesters who are violating my rights” type argument.

First, a quick history lesson.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the vast majority of the American population- North and South- was vehemently opposed to the abolitionist movement. Anti-abolitionist mobs were common, as “gentlemen of property and standing” took to the streets to violently assault and even kill abolitionists and their African-American allies. Not only was the press almost unanimously hostile to abolitionists (with the exception of the black press) but so were other organs of public opinion. Universities were overwhelmingly closed to abolitionism and almost every mainstream Church distanced themselves from the movement. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was only one of many abolitionists who discovered this the hard way; in 1848 he was fired from his post as a preacher in a Newburyport Unitarian Church by, as he wrote to his mother, “the well-to-do merchants” in his congregation who disapproved of his anti-slavery activism.

Parker Pillsbury, one of Foster's Partners

In this atmosphere abolitionists had a tough time getting their message out. One who tried was Stephen S. Foster. Foster wasn’t the compromising type. Slave-owners were murderers and rapists, he declared, the federal government aided and abetted it and so it was a sin to vote or hold office. Worse of all the Northern churches apologized and defended the slave-owners. Foster discovered this on his own when he was expelled from Union Theological for his anti-slavery activity. So Foster wrote “A Brotherhood of Thieves; or, A True Picture of the American Church and Clergy.”But that wasn’t enough, so with some of his friends like Parker Pillsbury he took to entering church services of particularly loathsome pro-slavery ministers and denouncing the sermon, calling on the congregation to “Come-out” and attempting to give his own alternative sermon. In Portland Maine, this almost got him killed, as an angry mob beat him half to death.

Benjamin Lay

Interrupting church services was, in its own way, an anti-slavery tradition. My personal favorite abolitionist was Quaker Benjamin Lay. A four-foot tall, hunchback vegetarian, he is known for having interrupted a Quaker meeting by bursting in and plunging a sword into a Bible that he had filled with red berries, making it appear that the book was bleeding. I’ve never totally understood the symbolism, but the point is he was hard to ignore.

The take away point is that free speech and democracy work best when they are rowdy things, when there is a vigorous back and forth and when as many people as possible engage in the public discourse.

People often talk about the “marketplace of ideas.” This is a more appropriate analogy then they realize. Just like real marketplaces, we all are formally equal in our rights to free speech, but enter the marketplace with vastly different substantial power, making a mockery of that formal equality. I, for instance, do not have the same effective speech as Roger Ailes- owner of Fox News- just like Foster did not have the same effective power as the preachers he denounced.

To paraphrase Marx, the ruling ideas in any society are the ideas of its ruling class. A big reason for this is that powerful people have far greater access to newspapers, universities, churches, and all the other means of opinion making. To say that marginalized movements must limit themselves to the formal exercise of free speech is to ask them to acquiesce to this inequality, to accept their inferior position.

Kaminer’s argument- that rowdy students are a threat to democracy and free speech- is the exact type of argument that you might expect from someone who already has a huge megaphone and therefore assumes that all is well in the public discourse. If you don’t like Karl Rove then you can just use your column in the Atlantic Monthly to disagree with him! “If only,” people like Kaminer piously sigh, “everyone just stuck to polite reasoned debate, liberal proceduralism, etc…. we could solve our problems diplomatically.” It’s the same attitude that hates protests and student occupations and every other way that disempowered people need to use to get their voices heard.

Ask yourself, as a thought experiment, what would truly be a sign of a democratic society: one in which elites like Karl Rove have to face angry crowds who challenge him, or one in which we sheepishly sit back without questioning or confronting him?

(Now, of course, shouting at speakers is a tactic, and like any tactic can be used both by our side and by the other side, and can be misued. I’m sure you can imagine or have experienced situations when this was inappropriate. But when tea partiers did this to some affect back last summer by taking over town halls and all the liberals huffed and puffed -and made themselves look weak and whiny in the process- I have to admit I felt ashamed. Why the hell didn’t we do that during the Iraq War?)

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Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 2, 2010 at 00:22

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