Free Speech: For Privileged Classes Only?

A headshot of a young man with dark brown hair and in a plaid shirt.
Alex Kruse

The following essay was written by the Loras College YDSA chapter chair, Alex Kruse. It originally appeared in the December 7, 2017 issue of the Lorian, Loras College’s student-run newspaper under the title “Opinions are like… you know the rest.”

It was on November 1, 1917 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota when 26 socialist organizers were arrested and put in jail. The Dubuque Telegraph Herald covered the event the next morning with the title “German Socialists Sentenced to Jail”. Their crime? Speaking out against World War I. They, like socialists all across the world, saw the war as a gateway to market imperialism driven by one reason and one reason only, profit. One-hundred years on, the free speech debate looks quite different.

Last year, the debate over free speech took center stage as right-winged white nationalists were attempting to speak on college campuses and were met with great resistance. What has happened since has been a wave of free speech movements all across college campuses and recently one at Loras College. The right-wing in America has just spontaneously began to use free speech as an argument to support their hate speech. It came out of nowhere, a light switched. The right-wing never cared about giving anyone free speech but themselves. This is why the landed bourgeoisie who wrote the First Amendment denied the right of free speech to their slaves. Let us continue on this quick lesson in history for those on the right-wing who see themselves as the victims.

For many decades, and arguably still, free speech – like many of the rights labelled in the Constitution – has been only available to landed white men. The history of slavery in America is enough to show this. Did the end of slavery mean free speech was granted to all? Absolutely not. In the early 1900’s, the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies) were met with fierce opposition to their organizational events. What followed was what is now remembered as the IWW Free Speech Fights – a time when Wobblies were fighting for their rights to organize and gain free speech across the country.

One of the most notable of these fights happened in Sioux City, Iowa in 1915. Other Wobbly Free Speech Fights resulted in Wobblies getting beaten by police, and in some cases, tarred and feathered. This was the opposition they were met with for simply trying to organize. In the same decade, the First Red Scare went into effect during which many socialist and labor organizers were sent to prison or deported because they were speaking out against the injustices within the capitalist economic system. Eugene Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison for a speech he gave in Canton, Ohio. Keep in mind, these people weren’t flaunting hate speech, but rather, preaching solidarity and unity.

As we move through the twentieth century, more instances of this are visible. During World War II Americans of Japanese descent were sent into internment camps. In the 1950’s Joseph McCarthy implemented what is now known as the Second Red Scare in which he slandered and blacklisted many artists and politicians because of their left-leaning tendencies. This even forced some to move to other countries. In the 1960’s many people protesting the Vietnam War were met with great opposition. Not only this, but Civil Rights activists were harassed, beaten, and in some cases killed because of their activism. Where was the right-wing in defending all of these people? Or how about abroad, where US trained militias were silencing activists in Chile, El Salvador, and Nicaragua? Or how about in 1969 when Chicago Police murdered Fred Hampton while he was sleeping because he was the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party? Where was the right-wing in defending these individuals?

The truth is that the right-wing of America never cared about free speech until it could be used in order to preserve their power. This was quite apparent recently on our own campus, in which the phrase, “It’s okay to be white” appeared on a “free speech wall” with zero accountability. And since I’m on history lessons, here’s one regarding that very phrase. It originated on 4chan, a hotbed for right-winged white nationalism, in attempt to “humanize” white supremacy.

I refuse to take anyone who defends that phrase seriously because of its ideological roots and its contemporary usage. And so today, I laugh at the right-wing who claims to be for free speech because all they are for is preserving a power structure that suits them. They have no intention on expanding free speech to marginalized groups, they simply want to voice their opinion.


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