“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These words start the American Bill of Rights and, supposedly, guarantee the freedom of speech to American citizens. While this may sound nice, America’s immemorial commitment to free speech is a simply a myth.
The two primary groups who propagate this myth – the Right and moderate liberals both – have done much to erode the principle of free speech throughout America’s history. In a time as interesting as our own, this is not a fact we can afford to forget. Despite the rampant revisionist narratives that pervade our political discourse, Americans must remember that it was conservatives who have historically limited free speech and the Radical Left who have always fought to stop them.
Despite what the American Constitution may claim, the limiting of free speech has been a tradition as American as apple pie. Indeed just 10 years after the ratification of the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech to all American citizens, the Sedition Act was passed in 1781, making it illegal to criticize the government and president of the United States. From the criminalization of mailing abolitionist propaganda to the South in the 1830s to the jailing and execution of potential communist sympathisers under nonsensical charges in the 1950s, conservatives have always utilized the state to silence political opposition from the Left.
Throughout American history, the silenced victims have always been the same: abolitionists, Black Nationalists, communists, anarchists, feminists, anti-fascists, and anti-racists. In other words, the Radical Left. In the 1830s, abolitionists lead a mailing campaign, distributing anti-slavery literature in the South. In response, conservative state governments banned the mailing of anti-slavery propaganda. Right-wing mobs calling themselves Lynch Men raided post offices to prevent the spread of abolitionist speech. One hundred years later, the conservative war against free speech continued. In the 1940s, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a committee dedicated to eliminating anti-American sentiments, wilfully declined to investigate the Ku Klux Klan while concentrating on investigating communists and trade unionists. While HUAC was letting the KKK run free, the FBI decided to launch its own investigation into groups fighting against violence targeting black people: anti-lynching movements. The FBI placed members of these groups under strict supervision and monitored their speech. These are but two examples out of many demonstrating how conservatives have historically oppressed the speech of Leftist voices.
While the Right used the state to control speech, the Left has historically defended the right to free speech for all people. In the early 1900s, a series of laws known as the Comstock Laws criminalized the shipping and distribution of sexually explicit material, often targeting contraceptives and information on sexual health. In response, a group of anarchists, women’s suffragists, and birth control advocates founded one the first American organizations dedicated to the preservation of free speech: The Free Speech League. The League helped provide legal aid for those targeted by laws limiting free speech, including those impacted by the free speech fights of the Industrial Workers of the World.
The Industrial Workers of the Word (I.W.W.) was perhaps the greatest defender of free speech in American history. Founded originally in 1905, the Wobblies, as they were called, were first and foremost a union dedicated to preserving the rights of unskilled. With this goal came the need to preserve the freedom of assembly and protest, a freedom which had been consistently under attack by the American Right. In order to maintain this withering freedom, the Wobblies engaged in a series protests and campaigns between 1907 and 1916. The free speech fights, as they would come to be known, targeted cities where right-wing governments limited the free speech of unionists. The Wobblies travelled to these cities and gave provocative speeches on every corner until arrested. This continued until the jails were filled by Wobblies and their supporters, creating a logistical nightmare for police enforcing the speech limiting laws and eventually leading to the repel of the speech limiting law.
Not all free speech fights ended so successfully. Right-wing vigilantes often resorted to violence to further silence the Left. In certain cities, those fighting for free speech barely escaped with their lives. Right-wing mobs captured prominent Wobblies and forced them to perform patriot gestures while beating, raping, and sometimes even murdering them. In one extremely graphic account, Ben Reitman, an anarchist survivor of a right-wing attack during the San Diego free speech fight, described in detail how he was physically and sexually abused and forced to kiss an America flag while a right-wing vigilante branded “I.W.W.” onto his skin with a cigar. The Wobblies were driven from San Diego, forced to give up their fight for free speech by the violent tactics of the Right. For these who fought and suffered in their support of freedom, the Wobblies and their leftist supporters saw the preservation of free speech as a goal worth suffering and dying for, an all too common occurrence due to the violence of the Right.
In 1920, anarchist, communists, and other leftists came together to found the most famous civil liberties defender in American history: the American Civil Liberties Union, or the ACLU. Known today as one of the great bastions of civil rights and liberties, the ACLU started as the legal defence group for communists who were unjustly targeted and arrested on false and exaggerated charges during the First Red Scare. Like their spiritual predecessor The Free Speech League, the ACLU also continued the fight against the Comstock Laws and promoted the distribution of information on sexual health. The ACLU at its roots was a leftist organization created to fight the Right’s destruction of free speech by protecting American communists.
With the rise of the New Left in the 1960s, free speech fights flared up again with the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Perhaps the most famous American free speech movement, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement protested prohibitions against objecting to the Vietnam War. In once incidence, over 700 students – mainly Leftists and Leftist sympathisers – were arrested for voicing their beliefs. This incident sparked a series of protests across the campus and the nation fighting for free speech and against the Vietnam War. As the trend thus far should suggests, right-wingers once again fought against those fighting for free speech. Conservative icon Ronald Reagan himself jumpstarted his political career by promising to “clean up that mess at Berkeley” and limit the speech of the Left. Once again, the Radical Left was the champion of free speech, despite attempts to limit it from the right.
So why the hell don’t we remember this history? In schools across the nations, Americans are told to memorize lists of court cases regarding free speech without a single reference to the leftists who fought and died in the streets for their supposedly guaranteed civil liberties. The history of the Left, and the noble principles they fought for, has been erased from American education. This history is important – we, as Americans must remember who fought for our right and must not allow our history to be erased for a political agenda.
The targeting and blacklisting of leftist groups and individuals is not simply a historic issue – the Right still uses this tactic to attempt to silence opposition. The violent reaction of the police against Occupy Movement protests proved that there are clear limits on freedom of speech when it is leftists who are speaking. Furthermore, this targeting and silencing of left-wing voices exists today on our very own campus. The conservative publication The Stanford Review recently attempted to blacklist and force the resignation of Professor David Palumbo-Liu for the terrible crime of being against fascism. The Stanford Review is but another name in the list of right-wing institutions that have historically attempted to limit the free speech of those fighting for liberty and equality. We as Americans must remember how the Right has historically restricted the free speech of those who oppose it. We must not let our history get erased or forgotten by political agents. And, most importantly, we must remember and learn from the leftists who fought and died for freedom and liberty in order to continue the fight for a better world.