Right to Free Speech?

Defenders of the Constitutional right to First Amendment free speech are always quick to assert that the U.S. is a wonderful country because citizens have the right to disagree with their government without fear of reprisal. When Medea Benjamin stood up and spoke out during President Obama’s foreign policy speech on May 23 at the National Defense University (whew!), the President made the point that she was exercising her First Amendment right to speak her mind. Then Obama made the fatuous claim that he was doing the same, implying that their rights were equivalent. This brought thunderous applause, as the saying goes, from the audience.

What nonsense. The rights of Medea Benjamin are in no way even remotely comparable to those of a President of the United States. Obama made this ridiculous claim even as Ms. Benjamin was being forcibly escorted from the room. President Obama can command the attention of the media at any time, and the population at large usually has the option of listening in. Dissenters such as Ms. Benjamin have no such right. Often, she doesn’t even have the right to stand on a soapbox on a city corner with impunity. In some cities of this great nation, she would be summarily arrested, illegally of course, but arrested none the less.

In this country there is a broad right to speak freely about just about any subject, but there is no right to be heard, that is to have a venue to make such free speech meaningful. The President can call a press conference and always be guaranteed an audience. Medea Benjamin has the right to call a press conference as well, but that doesn’t mean anyone will show up. Even I have a right to call a press conference, but it is certain that no one will show up to hear me.

The plain truth is that in practice, this right exists so long as your expression of it doesn’t make a difference. There are many clear examples of this. The Occupy Movement, according to an increasing number of citizens, was beginning to make a difference. Their campaign was attracting attention, and worse, from the point of view of those holding power, more and more people were beginning to agree with them. Try to find the Occupy Movement today. The Movement continues on Web sites and such, but effectively they were stripped of all means of expression of free speech by the imperial corporate state, in accordance with the corporate powers that are really in control. There was no way that the power structure of this nation was going to allow the Occupy Movement to jeopardize the accumulation of profit.

Worse still, the government, and therefore the power lords, will have the right under the terms of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 to detain U.S. citizens based on a suspicion that such persons might possibly commit some act of terrorism at some time in the future in the opinion of unspecified government “authorities,” presumably Homeland Security, CIA, FBI, NSA and such, although such power could conceivably reach to much lesser minions of the corporate state. No habeas corpus here. Under the circumstances of the Act a prisoner or detainee cannot petition if there is no way for a court even to know that a petitioner exists. This is Gitmo for the rest of us. Or worse, like disappearances in Argentina or Chile. Oh boy, are we in trouble, morally for the government and physically for just plain folks.

“National Security” has become the shibboleth for all manner of expression of state control over the population. A government agency has merely to claim that virtually any action is a threat to “national security” without proof or even definition of the term and therefore may be suppressed. “Action” does not necessarily involve physical acts. Conceivably expression of dissent may be so classified, and in fact often is.

Formally, citizens of the United States of America still have broad rights under the First Amendment. The Amendment reads: “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.” Now, these rights are all subject to interpretation, and technically such interpretations fall under the aegis of the Supreme Court. Good luck.

This post conflates habeas corpus and the First Amendment. Yet they are connected in a practical sense. It is the erosion of habeas corpus that facilitates denial of free speech in the extreme. Lawyers could easily shred my layperson’s apprehension of these matters. They are good at that, especially when they want to exert control. Yet how far are we from the sort of society wherein police or military will break down doors in the night and spirit citizens away, never to be seen or heard from again?

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