I got into a conversation with a friend a while back about first amendment rights and specifically within that the freedom of speech. We talked about how important and integral this is to our advancement as people. Through this conversation I began to question the validity of this freedom of speech and expression. It seems to me that freedom of speech and the ability to freely express yourself and speak is on a sliding scale based on various levels of privilege.
Take for instance Trump. He is allowed to say any number of patriarchy, xenophobic, neo-liberal, racist things that he wants. Why? Because all the things he says upholds the systems of oppression already in place within the current US socio-political-economic power structure.
Now if a black working class woman were to run for president and have the same level of momentum in her campaign it would be impossible for her to push forward a radical black feminist inter-sectional socialist narrative. She would be outcasted and ostracized immediately. Her lack of privilege would automatically make it so that she would be required to take a moderate stance on just about everything.
A perfect example of this is Barack Obama. He has to reassert as often as possible that he is not the president of Black America but America in general on numerous occasions. His policies have done very little for the material conditions of the black community despite being uplifted by the black community and driving out the black vote in record numbers during his original election cycle. Often his rhetoric has reflected blaming the black community for their own problems, citing lack of adequate parenting and mentorship, without truly addressing the systemic reasons why these broken families and communities are the way they are. His need to take the middle road has been troubling. It begs the question, is he really free to speak? The most powerful black person in the US arguably and is he really free to speak?
The reason I start at the “top” is because I want to illustrate an important idea of access. The freedom to speak also is undoubtedly tied to access. What is the purpose in being able to speak freely about ideas if no one can actually hear these ideas and they are shut out from any forms of dialogue. Freedom of speech becomes empty and hollow when only certain types of speech have the volume turned up when they are broadcast while the rest is only played through a filter of white noise. When you have 6 major corporations that own 90% of all media that propagates the problem even further.
Now an argument may be made that these ideas are appropriately marginalized because they represent a minority in our culture and thus the ideas that are being uplifted are those that fall in the spectrum of what most US citizens think and feel. So freedom of speech allows you to speak but the popularity of the idea itself is what carries it into the mainstream or not.
I respond that is a double edge sword. Ideas that now lay on the fringe must be allowed within mainstream discourse in order to allow for the challenge of traditionally held dogmas to prevent from perpetuating false narratives. Also how could we really know if an idea can gain popularity if allowed, if there is no actual access to spreading the idea to those who may accept it. Ideas themselves cannot change if they are not allowed to spread freely and with similar access to those they could possibly change.
Also I think it is important to recognize the drastic repercussions faced by those who attempt to spread ideas that may counter the oppressive power structure currently in place. Most notably MLK, Malcolm X, Oscar Lopez Rivera, and many of the Women and Men of the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, and other third world or anti-imperialist movements. Many of these people have been arrested, killed, beaten, and harassed by government agencies as well as denied employment for their ideological viewpoints that were not degrading of any person or group of people but instead a recognition of oppressive forces and the way they have beaten down people like themselves.
Now these may be drastic but what about your average working class person who may not be so entrenched in this kind of alternative thinking. Courts ruled that a person can be denied employment for wearing dreadlocks, a traditional hairstyle mostly worn by black people. This freedom of expression thought to be covered by the first amendment is sacrificed in the name of white-euro ideas of professionalism and conformity. Various typical white longer hairstyles worn by both white men and women have not been demonized to the degree as black natural hair has and is rarely cast into the realm of “unprofessional.”
So again I reiterate that freedom of speech has to come with an important level of freedom to access the mechanisms in which speech is spread and dialogue is had at a level where the masses can be influenced by it. If only a homogeneous group of people have the absolute access to the spread of their speech that automatically undermines the freedom in and of itself. This could only happen if there is communal control and ownership of the means to produce mass media by the people themselves and not private corporations. Until this point when it comes to the question “Am I Free to speak?” the answer would be “not really.”