It might have escaped your notice, but in the US and the UK attacks on free speech are on the rise. In order to protect us from subversion and terror, our dutiful lawmakers on both sides of the pond are busy dusting off ancient legislation, passing new statutes and making the world safe for dissenters to politely shut their mouths.
The search for new and better ways of communicating dissent, or the crackdown on free speech, misses the fact that the quality of ideas expressed with free speech has been anaemic in recent years, reflecting the quality of contemporary education and subsequent closing of western minds.
A sampling of some recent newsworthy items made it past the censors, and should raise a few brows:
8th October, The Independent reports that police enforce stringent new laws passed in 2005 to keep Stop The War Coalition (STWC) protest marchers from getting within a mile of Westminster. As one STWC participant pointed out, it seems a bit odd for Gordon Brown to be applauding protests in Burma but not in his own backyard.
1st October, the BBC reports on 171 arrests made at Faslane Naval Base. Five hundred or so people chained and glued themselves together to mark the end of a year-long protest against renewed Trident nuclear submarine programme.
17th September, Andrew Meyer, a 21-year-old University of Florida undergraduate, was given a shot of 50–1000 kilovolts of electricity with a stun gun, after being subdued by police. Meyer had been participating in a Q&A session and asked a question about why Kerry didn’t contest the 2004 election returns in Ohio, where there was pointed speculation about a Republican administration tampering with the results. The focus of news media coverage quickly shifted from any comment about police use of force to the melodramatic backstory about the student.
11th September, CNN reports that Ike Skelton, Democratic Chair of the Armed Services Committee who was running the much anticipated hearings of General Patreus, orders the Capitol Hill police to arrest anti-war protesters, including the well-known Cindy Sheehan, for interrupting what he said ‘may be the most important hearings of the year’.
29th August, The New York Times continues to report on the mass arrests of ‘protesters’ carried out by the New York City Police during the 2004 Republican National Convention. Accounts from those arrested—recently put together with documents finally released to the public detailing large-scale surveillance efforts by the police leading up to the Convention—vary from the frustrating—like three people who were told to remove a banner from public property, did so, and then were arrested anyway; to the absurd: two teenagers got off at a subway stop on their way home, were blocked by police from walking in any direction, ordered to sit down en masse with a group surrounding them, and were subsequently arrested for sitting down in the middle of the street.
Since 9/11, police and government bodies throughout the world have started using more heavy-handed tactics in cracking down on all unlawful or deviant behaviour, or even lawful and non-deviant behaviour deemed to be threatening to the state. Since the purpose of free speech is to challenge the governments in power, those exercising free speech have tasted the very tactics they rise to protest against in the first place.
Contemporary high-minded arguments about security, liberty and the nature of mankind in society get tripped up by boring old reality: did that student really need to be tasered? Was there any great threat posed by the three protestors who held a cloth banner on the steps of the New York City Public Library, regardless of the words on it? Why exactly do the STWC marchers need to be stopped from protesting this time around, as opposed to any of the previous marches near Parliament?
From 9/11 to the London bombings, Bush to Blair to Brown, the psyche and rhetoric of war and terror have trickled down from actual combat lines to the civilian cop on his beat. Marching with macho new policies in hand, many urban police officers on a large scale, well intended or not, seem to be using a blanket “lets get ‘em” as their battle cry. Perhaps by shutting out protestors and dissenters, police constables and security agents feel they are making some small contribution to restoring order in an out-of-control world. The debate about liberty and security tends to swings on a social pendulum with well-rehearsed argument on both sides.
The greater concern for society should be the changing nature and form of political speech, the scope (or lack) of our public discourse about what to do in politics, and the implications for what happens in the future. Both Clinton and Blair tried “triangulation”: adopting polices supported by the Opposition, as a way of reframing traditional Left / Right politics. It was hoped that this would reshape politics into a more consensus-driven system, but it has been so effectively used as a tactic by both sides that political opposition, and especially the use of free speech in political dissent, just does not carry the weight that it once did. Increasingly, voters are switching off from politics because they see no choices or difference between parties, while forms of protest and dissent, as we have seen, are being further neutered in the name of security and patriotism.
The Iraq War, the renewal of nuclear weapons programmes, the US election results of 2000—none of the policies have yet changed as a result of protests. And with the exception of Faslane, all these examples involve outside groups pressuring generally unresponsive governments. We are writing a story of collective futility on all sides, both the protestors and the government ministers who are protested against. Sit-ins, marches, petitions, and even elections —something needs to change.
For a number of years the answer to these cries of despair has been the Internet and communications technology—witness the fact that the video of Andrew Meyer being Tasered has had over 2.5 million hits on YouTube within a month. Unfortunately, all too often in the land of the short, flashy and sensational, the substance of public arguments is lost. However, in terms of mass coverage if the figures are correct, more people watched a handcuffed Andrew Meyer get hit with the stun gun than voted in the last Scottish Parliament election. Movements such as Indymedia demonstrate how wider access to production and distribution (as simple as uploading footage from a mobile phone to a website) can help raise the profile of causes and stories that are otherwise ignored. In short, the Internet poses incredible possibilities for expanding the dissemination of ideas—a central component of free speech.
Yet again, what the ‘net makes up for in breadth, it lacks in depth. Contrast Andrew Meyer’s protest words—“Don’t Tase me, bro” and a flavour of the 1,300 comments posted—“He was asking for it” — the histrionics can never carry the same force of argument as, say, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense or the fiery debates on the floor of the House of Commons about the abolition of the slave trade. Rather than starting a substantial conversation about the tattered election laws and machinery in the US, or about how Republican administrations and lawyers in all 50 states took the bit and ran with electoral ‘reform’ (aka large-scale disenfranchisement) after 2000, Americans are busy arguing on blogs whether Andrew Meyer is a true champion of the Left or a spoiled brat with a pathological need for attention.
Common Sense was a compelling read for American colonists in the 1780s because it laid out, in a very clear and logical style, a brand new and revolutionary argument about how society and government should be organized. While the protection of free speech was necessary for getting the argument out, it was the actual substance of Paine’s argument that was revolutionary, not the concept that he should have the right to say what he ought. More than two hundred years on, we face the opposite dilemma.
Betsy Super has worked on the Scottish Liberal Democrats re-election campaign in 2005 and the John Kerry for President campaign in 2004. Currently she is researching a Phd. at the University of Edinburgh.