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Freedom of Expression: A Hollow Right Without the Power to Create Change

By       Message Sandra Lindberg     Permalink
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View Ratings | Rate It Headlined to H3 9/23/13


From Occupy Wall Street 9--17--2013
Occupy Wall Street 9--17--2013
(Image by WarmSleepy)
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Occupy Wall Street 9--17--2013 by WarmSleepy

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.

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Sandra holds a B.S. in theatre, and an M.A. in theatre criticism from Illinois State University. Her M.F.A. is from the Professional Actor Training Program at the Old Globe Theatre--University of San Diego. She also recently completed a Paralegal (more...)

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