Protecting Free Speech in Fearful Times

by Project Censored

Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff

This essay extends an argument originally published in Censored 2014:
Fearless Speech in Fateful Times (pp. 25-26, 249-250).

Free speech is necessary to democracy; without it, people cannot truly participate in government, as the late constitutional law scholar Ronald Dworkin expressed in a 2006 essay, “The Right to Ridicule.” Free speech, Dworkin wrote, 

is a condition of legitimate government. Laws and policies are not legitimate unless they have been adopted through a democratic process, and a process is not democratic if government has prevented anyone from expressing his convictions about what those laws and policies should be.

Although free speech is necessary for democracy, free speech is not sufficient to guarantee it. As Herbert Marcuse warned in a 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” if those who control the media have sufficiently indoctrinated the public and manipulated popular opinion, then free speech may actually serve the interests of those in power more effectively than censorship does in a totalitarian society. 

In the absence of (1) people “capable of deliberating and choosing on the basis of knowledge,” (2) access to “authentic information,” and (3) evaluation based on “autonomous thought,” Marcuse argued that democracy veered towards a form of totalitarianism (pp. 95, 97): Under democracy “with totalitarian organization,” he observed, “radically negative news” is relegated to “an obscure place” and commitments to impartiality and objectivity unintentionally foster “a mental attitude which tends to obliterate the difference between true and false, information and indoctrination, right and wrong” (97). 

Recent controversies remind us all too clearly that anyone interested in promoting free speech must contend with the possibility that some speakers will abuse their license to it by making unthinking or dangerous remarks that could weaken or demolish democracy. Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones, for example, have made careers for themselves by manufacturing controversy in order to generate attention. Jones has said that decisions by Facebook and other social media platforms to limit his access are part of “a war on free speech.” Similarly, as Steve Coll has observed in the New Yorker, Donald Trump and his far-right allies have “vigorously exploited the neutrality of social-media platforms.”

Nearly 35 years ago, in October and November 1983, the French philosopher Michel Foucault gave a series of lectures at the University of California–Berkeley. No doubt aware of the campus having been the locus of the 1964–65 free speech movement, Foucault chose to focus his Berkeley lectures on the origins of our contemporary understanding of “free speech.” 

Tracing the history of this idea back to Athens in the fifth century BCE, Foucault explained how the Greek term parrhesia—conventionally translated into English as “free speech”—literally meant, “to say everything.” As such it could carry either a negative meaning—as in “chattering,” indiscriminately—or a positive one, “to tell the truth” (Foucault, Fearless Speech, pp. 11-14). 

As truth-telling, parrhesia amounted to a moral activity that was “an essential characteristic of Athenian democracy” (p. 22). Furthermore, Foucault noted, members of Greco-Roman culture understood parrhesia as “not primarily a concept or theme, but a practice” (p. 106, emphasis in original).

In Foucault’s analysis, five distinct elements (boldfaced in the following quotation) defined parrhesia as a specific type of verbal activity:

The speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people) and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty. (p. 19, emphases added.)

By tracing contemporary conceptions of “free speech” back to their Athenian roots, we might reconceive it as fearless speech, “the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger,” Foucault told his audience (p. 16). [Note: Foucault used male pronouns throughout the lectures, but obviously fearless speech is not exclusively a male domain.]

As educators and as proponents of a truly free press, we hold the aforementioned elements as prerequisites for creating and supporting a just society. Indeed, truth-telling is the antidote to so-called fake news in a “post-truth” world. In an era when government spokespersons invoke “alternative facts” and assert that “truth isn’t truth,” parrhesia as an ongoing civic practice is our best hope. 

In this digital era of social media, when governments and corporations alike invoke the fight against fake news to warrant censorship, free speech as truth-telling requires the support of critical thinking—and, in particular, critical media literacy—or else “falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it,” as Jonathan Swift lamented in 1710. 

The provocations of Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Richard Spencer, among others, provide fodder for advocates of censorship—including some who cut their ideological teeth in battles over free speech and expression during the 1970s and ‘80s, when George Carlin and Pacifica Radio challenged the FCC; artists from Frank Zappa to Jello Biafra opposed the PMRC’s “Filthy Fifteen;” and members of congress attacked Robert Mapplethorpe and Jacques Serrano, and sought to defund the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) for its support of those artists’ work. In each of these cases, keen censors sought to marginalize subversive perspectives in ways that Marcuse might have identified as “oligopolistic manipulation of public opinion” (p. 118). 

In “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse invoked “pervasive” inequalities in access to “the means of democratic persuasion” to warrant “restraining the liberty of the Right,” which he acknowledged as “censorship, even precensorship” (pp. 119-120, 111). 

Through public events and programs on college and university campuses, Project Censored has attempted to address the inequalities that concerned Marcuse, by advocating for a truly free press (as the means to provide the public with what he referred to as “authentic information”) and critical media literacy (as a basis for “autonomous thought”). But we part ways with Marcuse when it comes to censorship—however pragmatic the argument for it may be in any specific case. 

Instead, the Project works to support the kind of autonomous, critical thinking and courageous truth-telling that Marcuse and Foucault celebrated. In journalism, in higher education, and in the public life supported by them, we advocate for a public sphere where transparently-sourced, factually-supported arguments get a fair hearing, where logic is the judge, compassion the jury, and a politically-informed and engaged public guides our elected representatives in implementing policies and enforcing laws, based on sound and open debate. Anything less is capitulation to a culture of “repressive tolerance.”

Andy Lee Roth is associate director of Project Censored and co-editor of Censored 2019: Fighting the Fake News Invasion. He coordinates the Project’s Validated Independent News program and serves on the board of the Media Freedom Foundation.

Mickey Huff is director of Project Censored and co-editor of Censored 2019. He is executive producer and cohost of The Project Censored Show; a professor of social science and history at Diablo Valley College, where he cochairs the History Department; and the president of the Media Freedom Foundation.

Sources

Dworkin, Ronald, “The Right to Ridicule,” New York Review of Books, March 23, 2006, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2006/03/23/the-right-to-ridicule/.

Foucault, Michel, Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001). Posted online at https://monoskop.org/images/b/ba/Foucault_Michel_Fearless_Speech.pdf.

Huff, Mickey and Andy Lee Roth, eds. Censored 2014: Fearless Speech in Fateful Times (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2013). 

Marcuse, Herbert, “Repressive Tolerance,” in A Critique of Pure Tolerance, eds. Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore Jr., and Herbert Marcuse (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 95–137. Posted online at https://www.marcuse.org/herbert/publications/1960s/1965-repressive-tolerance-fulltext.html.

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