Free speech absolutism is having a moment on the right. The tragic killings of journalists at Charlie Hebdo sparked a rousing defense of freedom of expression, with conservatives castigating news outlets for refusing to show cartoons from the French weekly, and even equating the assailants in Paris to purveyors of political correctness.
“The people who at Brandeis University, Rutgers, Harvard, Berkeley … who have actually had people disinvited to speeches they were going to make on their campuses, align more closely with the terrorists in Paris than they do with the people from Charlie Hebdo,” said Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld last week. On campuses, “people really seem to be going insane at the idea that other people would be allowed to say things that they might find uncomfortable or offensive and attempting to narrow the zones in which that’s allowed to happen,” added Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle on the radio show "Left, Right and Center."
This conflation of terrorism and campus speech codes has a long history of antecedents among conservatives, as my colleague Heather Digby Parton explained at Salon recently. Conservatives long to see themselves as rebels, revolutionaries with the audacity to offend, lest they let terror “win” by clipping their sails and censoring their speech. And they see liberals as squishes, cowering and intimidated, wanting to “offer therapy and understanding for our attackers,” in the words of Karl Rove a decade ago.
It would be a small silver lining coming out of the horrible murders in Paris if they reawakened an adherence to the actual meaning of free speech, where you don’t have to agree with what’s being said to defend someone’s right to say it. And to be clear, I actually differ with activists drumming alternative viewpoints off campuses, which seem to be the best setting for debate and discussion (though I’m mindful that free speech doesn’t necessarily correlate with a university paying someone thousands of dollars to make remarks).
But there’s a giant gap in this newfound war on censorship. It neglects the most prominent recent example of this country shutting down free speech. I’m talking about the repression of public protest movements, most notably the violent dismantling of Occupy Wall Street encampments, a censorship directed by the state.
The right to peaceable assembly is as much a part of the First Amendment as the right to free speech, and in fact they intersect. In 2011 the tens of thousands of Occupiers across the country had no access to a printing press or real estate in a newsweekly. So they used their collective voice, basically all they had to use, to call attention to an economic system that doesn’t work for the 99 percent. In their view, the best way to maximize the reach of that opinion was through an ongoing protest, using public spaces to register dissent.
This was not welcomed as a new addition to the public debate, or an example of boldly exercising the sacred, inalienable right to speak out. In fact it was immediately seen as a problem to be solved. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security gathered intelligence on Occupy protests from even before it began, coordinating this surveillance with local police nationwide and even the New York Stock Exchange and private businesses. City councils subsequently passed a host of new laws, presented as protections for health and safety, to criminalize assemblies and justify evictions from encampments.
A 2012 report into law enforcement responses to Occupy Wall Street documented violent late-night evictions, illegal arrests and arbitrary detentions. Police across the country used pepper spray to disperse peaceful protesters and beat them with clubs and barricades. The report also cited 85 arrests of journalists in 12 cities reporting on the protests, among other obstructions of the press, another one of those First Amendment clauses. New York City just settled lawsuits with three protesters for $142,500 over police misconduct.
At no time did the army of free speech warriors on the right speak up against this state-sponsored repression of peaceful assembly and protest. They did suggest that the protesters should leave the country if they opposed the economic system, and they did whip up fear by equating outlier criminal conduct with the entire movement. Traditional media and government, particularly on the right, worked hand-in-hand to discredit the protests and ensure no backlash when they were inevitably and brutally repressed.
You would think that conservatives, theoretically wary of state power and allegedly steadfast in their readings of the Constitution, would have something to say about police crackdowns of First Amendment guarantees. But some opinions should be shoved in the face of detractors like an upright middle finger, and others should be subject to a paramilitary-style assault and removal from the public square.
I’m sure conservatives found the Occupy message uncomfortable, and they had every right to oppose it and offer rebuttals. But they’ve spent the last week arguing that it’s wrong to extinguish that uncomfortable speech, to narrow the zones where that expression can take place. In fact they’ve called anyone who tries to shut down speech the moral equivalent of a terrorist. Does that also count for the nation’s law enforcement apparatus knocking out those who question the effectiveness of unregulated crony capitalism and soaring inequality?
We’ve seen this before in America, of course. Gilded Age progressives who dared challenge the system found themselves beaten and even killed for their demands for justice. That modern movements have thus far struggled to find the same eventual success may be chalked up to our Age of Acquiescence, our inability to conceive of a better lot for ourselves. Or maybe we’re just at the beginning of a generational struggle for economic justice. But it certainly makes it harder at the beginnings of that movement that too few would defend something so simple as their right to speak.
With public protest undergoing a renaissance in America, this is more than a rhetorical point. You cannot pick and choose which free speech is worthy of defense and which can be allowed to wither. You cannot vow eternal support of the right to blaspheme the Prophet Mohammed and go silent with that support when someone questions the secular religion of our economic and political system.
The dissolution of Occupy is rarely discussed as a free speech issue. But maybe amid a new round of protests for justice and dignity, we can get a reassessment. The marketplace of ideas shouldn’t have a boundary around it to keep out anything outside the range of acceptability. If you tweet #JeSuisCharlie, to be consistent you should add #JeSuisOccupy.