Why did the educated, propertied and influential white men gathered at Philadelphia to write a constitution value freedom of expression so highly that they explicitly included it in the document that founded the United States of America?
The public school rationale provided to American students teaches that under the British governing system, freedom of expression was suppressed. British citizens enjoyed informally defined degrees of free expression depending on their social and/or economic rank in society, with poorer folk who depended upon the wealthier for their livelihoods required to hold their tongues for much of their lives.
The men who have come to be known as our founding fathers attempted to create a country in which citizens, regardless of economic or social class, would have the legal right to express their thoughts and feelings about anything--as long as such expression did not encourage others to become violent, or lead to mass hysteria that could cause bodily harm to others. In other words: even in America it is wrong to shout "Fire!" in a crowded movie theatre and cause a stampede for the doors.
Since this country's inception, citizens have had the opportunity to experience and observe how well the concept of freedom of expression is working in our country. Writers such as Noam Chomsky have observed that freedom of expression without the opportunity to effect real political or economic change offers only limited power to those exercising their lungs. One person's voice or even the voices of thousands raised on a public square for many weeks lack the persuasive power of those whose voices are expressed through incredible economic power.
Making noise does not equal the ability to make change--at least not as our country's system currently exists. Or, if looking at this reality from a slightly more hopeful point of view, making noise to effect change takes a lot longer than making change using economic influence.
Freedom of expression could be a far more influential right if people burrowed a little more deeply into this idea. Why is it so important for people to have this freedom? Is it simply, as some psychologists suggest, a right that allows people to communicate who they are? Is freedom of expression what allows citizens to feel they are living authentic lives, rather than moving through their days wearing masks of compliance? And if those who wield economic power endure the free expression of those who work for them, do they really have much to lose when they grit their teeth and suffer through outbursts or written communications with which they disagree?
In a system that permits freedom of expression but expects those who are dissatisfied with the political, social or economic system to wait lifetimes before change happens, citizens enjoy a hollow right. Sadly, freedom of expression is often a constitutional guarantee that seems important but, in reality, often substitutes for real change.
Consider how long it took before blacks or women were granted the right to vote in this country. Consider how temporary changes that improve the lives of the vast majority of Americans really are when a vote by elected representatives or appointed judges--who are part of a powerful economic class or who are influenced by the political contributions from powerful economic entities--can undo progress that took decades to put in place. This year the Voting Rights Act that at least attempted to protect the voices of blacks in our country has been undermined. Decades of work designed to give blacks a voice in their states is threatened.
Freedom of expression serves the majority of people in the United States only if the thoughtfulness, commitment and courage required for such expression are understood as first steps in the process of shared governance. When the vast majority of people in a country come to a consensus about a problem and--let us hope--a shared sense of how to address the problem, they should be able to trust that elected representatives put into office with their votes will effect change that expresses the will of the people.
But citizens in our country can rely on no such reality. Instead, exercising one's right to freedom of expression at this point in our country's history has become, at worst, an unsatisfying panacea or, at best, a right whose power is valued so much less than the power of many dollars gathered into a bank account. The right to exert economic influence has effectively diffused majority voices in our country, like the roar of a crowd swept away by a stiff wind.
Freedom of expression, unfortunately, often resembles the circuses of classical Rome, where the many enjoyed an afternoon of spectacle and filled their stomachs with free bread only to return to their difficult lives when the circus was over. The thrill experienced by those who attend protests in Washington D.C.? Those who devote their limited budgets and their time to express themselves do so hoping that if their numbers are great enough and their voices loud enough they will somehow force politicians to change policy positions so that the needs of the many are finally taken into account. But how long must they wait for such changes! When such protests focus on one issue at a time, years will be needed to bring positive change to our country. And many of us understand that our country just doesn't have that kind of time to turn life around.
Freedom of expression has been gutted because this right of ours currently has little power to affect economic interests in our country. In fact, even our elected representatives have little power over economic interests that now circle the globe.
I have written this before and I will write it here again: a country that lacks the power to control economic interests within the country--even if those interests do business in other parts of the world--has lost the true power to govern. Such a country's political system is most accurately described as being in service to economic interests that are more powerful than political leaders.
It is also patently obvious that safeguarding economic interests in our country will not improve the lives of the majority--no matter how often corporations or economic experts insist such a linkage exists. Safeguarding economic interests increases corporate profits. And increasing corporate power makes these entities even more likely to put us at risk in ways too numerous to count.
We must, as a people, look long and hard at the true nature of governance in our country. We can't hope to improve the rights of blacks, latinos, working people, poor people, women, children, or the environment if each issue competes with others to get the attention of politicians and somehow convince them to do the right thing. But if all of us who are suffering in one way or another came together and recognized that the political/economic system as it currently exists is at the heart of our problem--if we devised ways to disentangle ourselves from this system--we would discover how we can understand and empathize with each other. If we learned to join forces, we would find at last how to speak with one voice.