Freedom of Speech and Outrageous Public Displays

Glen T. Martin

2 December 2011

The problems of free speech within a free, civil, and democratic society are immense. When does free speech become offensive and destructive of the framework of the common good? Clearly, the common good is not reducible to mere majority wishes, nor to majority ideas of what is appropriate. For vocal groups, or even some majority, may wish to limit speech in ways that endanger the framework conditions of civil liberty itself. The common good represents an (often constitutional) framework that protects both freedom and the opportunity for flourishing for the entire society, including minorities.

Article three of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that everyone has the right to “life, liberty, and security of person.” This certainly includes the right to personal privacy in our homes and apartments. But does the right to security of person in public spaces go beyond physical security to the right not to encounter disturbing ideas and images? I do not think so.

Some segments within civil society may find certain forms of speech offensive or disturbing (for example, a recent anti-abortion display at Radford University here in southwest Virginia that included scenes from the Nazi holocaust), but the a priori framework of a free civil society can only be, and must be, the principle of maximizing freedom. Authorities of all sorts (from university administrations to city councils) must protect both liberty and security of persons – a difficult balance that may require resisting public pressure. Citizens clearly have the right to protest, or counter-protest, things they find offensive, but the responsibility of authorities is to protect the framework that makes all such expression possible.

Over the past 27 years, I have been involved with many protests and displays at Radford University. In the 1980s, my campus groups sponsored public displays of the maimed and tortured bodies of the victims of repressive US policies in Central America. Some on campus were outraged by the photos of these holocausts (some 200,000 tortured, maimed, or murdered by the US supported military in Guatemala alone). In the 1990s, my campus groups repeatedly set up displays of the atrocities committed by the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some on campus found these very offensive with their photos of horribly deformed people with massive radiation burns and their skin drooping from their bodies.

In the first years of this century, my campus groups set up a mock graveyard in front of the main university library, with many miniature coffins surrounded by large photos of dying, maimed, and starving children caused by the genocidal sanctions imposed by the US against Iraq. Some on campus were shocked by this and did not want these photos publicly displayed where they had to see them when walking in and out of the library. Should the university administration have made some statement that these displays were tasteless and offensive, or forced us to move to some remote part of campus where few would see? I do not think so. It is their business only to provide the framework for both our freedom and the physical security of persons.

There is now an emerging student and faculty movement called “Occupy RU.” Should their speech be tasteful and unoffensive? What is the Occupy Wall Street movement about anyway? At its root, it appears to be about an obscene society, a society of homeless and unemployed people without healthcare, security, or hope ruled by an immensely wealthy elite who are both above the law and out of control. It is about a society that spends trillions of its citizen’s dollars destroying the lives and hopes of other peoples around the world in direct violation of both the wishes and the interests of the citizens at home. It is about a national security state that spies on citizens, arrests them arbitrarily, uses violence against unarmed protestors, and is itself an obscene travesty of democracy.

The fact is that we do not live in a free, civil, and democratic society – and this complicates the problem of freedom of speech even more. We live in a class society in which the 1% by and large own and control the means of communication. They use this control and their great wealth to blanket the citizens with slanted news and propaganda aimed at justifying the status quo and protecting their destruction of democracy. They do this, in part, through promoting patriotic jingoism – ideological illusions such as “democracy and free trade,” “God and country,” “free enterprise,” “fighting terrorism,” and “national security.”

Our society is also clearly a war-society, in which the lion’s share of our public wealth becomes devoted to domination, surveillance, and destruction of those perceived as “enemies” at home and abroad. In war, anything goes, and that is why a war-society is the opposite of a free, civil, democratic society. Our militarized government lies to us continuously about their motives, and actions, and plans, and they actively attempt to prevent us from seeing the atrocities they regularly commit around the world. A war society, like a class society, is inherently destructive of speech in a wide variety of ways. It is an obscenity, and those who speak publicly are fully justified in making this obscenity public – even if this offends some sensibilities.

Under such conditions, tremendous pressure is placed on the authorities (from university administrations to city councils) to limit speech that protests these atrocities and to protect the institutionalized speech of the wealthy and the military that is designed to cover- up and hide the dark underbelly of a corrupt and undemocratic society. The one realistic option that citizens have if they wish to struggle for a just and democratic society is their speech, and their ability to raise public protest to truly disturbing and attention-getting heights. It is not a matter of having only the conditions for polite, civilized, and informed dialogue and debate (although this should be promoted whenever possible). It is a matter of the people using the last remnants of their freedom (formal free speech) to raise holy hell, to be offensive to the common sensibility, and especially to disturb those who are comfortable with class society and a war system and who wish not to be confronted with their complicity.

And that is why, if the authorities do not freely provide the conditions for both maximum liberty of speech and our security of person, the people are justified in nonviolent civil disobedience. They are justified in taking back their democracy, taking back their human rights, and throwing both their bodies and their speech against the repressive machinery of the authorities. Speech and action may well have to publicly display the obscenity – the holocaust – of a class-system linked to a war-system, totally out of control, that is everywhere raping and pillaging our planet and its citizens.