Whose Speech is Protected?

“What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?”—Audre Lorde

Reflections from the Inside

Nicholas: Last semester, the two of us—with some wonderful friends and partners—organized a counter-rally against Charles A. Murray ’65, the (blatant) white nationalist that the Open Campus Initiative saw fit to bring to campus. A major criticism against our protest was that we were trampling over the free speech rights of Murray and OCI, a critique made doubly damning in the minds of our opponents due to OCI’s purported purpose to “test free speech” by inviting “controversial speakers” to Harvard. We were failing that test. We were proving OCI and its followers right, that Harvard’s leftist snowflakes just couldn’t take the “intellectual discourse” guaranteed by free speech values.

Salma: As the students who were organizing the counter-rally, we were catapulted into a national debate about freedom of speech on college campuses. The debate has been framed as a binary: You either defend freedom of speech or attack it. You either sit back and watch silently, complacent as Murray is invited to campus or you’re childish, unwilling to listen to differing opinions, labeled as unreasonable. Through our response to Murray’s campus invitation, we attempted to introduce more nuance into the conversation and to challenge that binary which has been eternally rigged against us.

Playing into the theory that speech in America exists in a marketplace of ideas—that false or harmful ideas will be filtered out by the powers of supply and demand—we decided to challenge speech with speech.

N: Who, in theory, does the right to freedom of speech—the right against infringement by a governmental body on the capacity to speak—protect? Who is it meant for?

The right to freedom of speech is a political decision to enshrine the ability of those under threat from the state/majoritarian culture to fight back, to resist. In other words, the right to freedom of speech exists in this country for black Americans, Muslim Americans, Latinx and queer and working class and undocumented and all other Americans who are under threat from their government. People like Murray have never been threatened by this country’s government, a government that is itself still resting on the vestiges of its white supremacist past. Just look at Brandenburg v. Ohio, in which the U.S. Supreme Court completely revised their free speech doctrine in order to refrain from prosecuting a Ku Klux Klan member for anti-black speech. Salma, you and I needed the right to speak that day. Fifty years ago, we would have been the ones imprisoned, or beaten, or lynched, for daring to vocalize our blackness.

The thing is, speech does not exist in a vacuum. The free marketplace is a myth. Ideas do not rise unhindered by the weights of political power and social capital. The right to speak one’s mind does not itself exist independent of structures of power and disempowerment, equality and inequality. Who then, in practice, has the right to freedom of speech? Who is able to apply this right intended to protect those disempowered by the majoritarian state?

Again, fifty years ago, we would’ve been faced with a lynch mob, strung up to die, and the government would’ve done nothing. It is not Murray who needs the right to freedom of speech: It is you and I. But historically, and to this day, it is not you and I who receive this right, but Charles Murray.

S: We know that freedom of speech comes at a cost, and that cost is a hefty one—speech that threatens the humanity and existence of those most vulnerable in our society is tolerated and uplifted, often unchecked. The cost is human lives, dreams squandered, voices disempowered, terror inflicted. And that cost is always paid by those who are most vulnerable.

In Collin v. Smith, the Supreme Court ruled that the regulation of a Nazi march in Skokie, I.L., a town that was majority Jewish, was unconstitutional because the Jewish residents in the town could ignore the march, could simply avert their eyes from the trauma that was directly targeting their community. Marginalized communities have consistently been asked to turn the other way when they see a cross burning, to stay smiling when scientific racism is given a platform. We have consistently been asked to bear that burden.

Freedom of speech doctrine is formulated around whiteness, around those who have never experienced the visceral pain of being told that you are less than because of your race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. It is formulated around those who have never faced the systematic oppression that comes hand in hand with these interpersonal attacks, and who have never been asked to bear the costs that come with a libertarian free speech doctrine.

N: Radical advocates of color are consistently labeled as enemies of free speech. By daring to speak against the great monolith of white supremacy, in all its nefarious manifestations—such as Murray—they are believed to be dismantling some universal right. We have sought to remind our readers that an activist of color critiquing a state-supported manifestation of our oppression simply cannot be dismantling the freedom of speech. They are, in fact, exercising it. Who truly challenges freedom of speech? Not us, but rather the opponents of activists of color, those critiquing our attempts at liberation. When we stood outside Northwest Labs, we entrusted ourselves to a tradition of black and brown radicalists who dared to employ the right they were supposedly guaranteed, and suffered for it.

Our free speech is as valuable as Murray’s. Attempts to obfuscate this fact only serve to perpetuate our oppression.

Salma Abdelrahman ’20 is a Sociology concentrator living in Leverett House. Nicholas P. Whittaker ’19 is a Philosophy concentrator living in Adams House. Their column appears on alternate Tuesdays.


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