The theory is that we enjoy a right of free speech. But that’s not true. What the Bill of Rights says is, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . .” It doesn’t prevent someone from abridging your freedom to speak within, say, the newspaper, church, or movie theater that s/he operates. It just says Congress can’t pass laws preventing you from speaking freely.
Of course, that’s not entirely true either. State and national legislatures can pass laws that allow you to be prosecuted as a terrorist if you say the wrong thing on an airplane. They can pass laws that allow people to sue you for slander if you say the wrong thing about the wrong person. They can punish you for saying something that someone else has already said — if, for example, you excessively quote someone’s book.
And then there are the nonlegal constraints. Everybody knows you don’t badmouth a former employer in a job interview. Commonly, you dare not say something kind about a person whom you are expected to treat as person non gratis. You may hesitate to compliment the Nazis for something they seem to have done well; you may hesitate to ask the wrong kind of question, or state the wrong kind of opinion, in Sunday School; you express yourself circumspectly on the street, so as not to get punched in the nose. Men learn caution when responding to the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?”; women learn to recite that size does not matter. Our lives are simply filled with situations in which we learn not to speak freely.
So it would be impossible to eliminate free speech. For better or worse, that has already been done. What remains is to eliminate “free speech,” i.e., the term, which presently functions as a kind of doublespeak that purports to mean one thing and actually means something very different. What we enjoy is not free speech; it is, more accurately, a certain degree of constraint upon governmental prosecution of nonpreferred utterances. Genuine free speech would entail a kind of society that would seem very unfamiliar to today’s Americans.
When the false claim of “free speech” is eliminated, people may find it more difficult to evade the reality of the many ways in which they are constantly taught not to be honest with others or, ultimately, even with themselves. Identification of problems is, often, an essential first step in understanding and solving them.
There are things in America, and in ourselves, that need improvement. Let us claim a right to be honest about those things. Let us acknowledge the ways in which law, society, and self prevent us from exercising that right. The sooner we can achieve an accurate appraisal of our actual situations, the sooner we can begin figuring out how to improve them.
(This item was previously posted in my ideas blog.)