Is Free Speech Really Free?


Submitted by Lawrence Rafferty, (rafflaw), Guest Blogger


After a few recent discussions about Free Speech in earlier threads, I came across another example of how limited our Free Speech really is.  At a recent speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a former CIA employee, Ray McGovern, attempted to protest her speech about Democracy and Freedom of Speech and how the freedom to disseminate information helped the Egyptians rid themselves of a brutal dictator. 

“As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday about the failures of foreign leaders to respect people’s freedoms, a 71-year-old U.S. veteran Army officer, a man who spent 27 years in the CIA and delivered presidential daily briefs, a peace activist and proponent of nonviolence, the man who famously confronted Donald Rumsfeld for his war lies, the man who drafted our letter to Spain and delivered it to the Spanish Embassy on Monday, our friend Ray McGovern turned his back in silence.  As Clinton continued to speak about respecting the rights of protesters, her guards — including an uniformed policeman and an unidentified plain-clothed official — grabbed Ray, dragged him off violently, brutalized him, double-cuffed him with metal handcuffs, and left him bleeding in jail.  As he was hauled away (see video), Ray shouted “So this is America?” Clinton went right on mouthing her hypocrisies without a pause.”  Truthout

When I read this sad story about Mr. McGovern, it reminded me of a similar incident where a University of Florida student named Andrew Meyer was being rude and obnoxious in asking questions of Senator John Kerry in 2007 and he was attacked by police and eventually tasered into submission.  You remember the “Don’t tase me Bro” guy don’t you?   What do these two stories have in common?  I believe that they are both examples of our First Amendment rights being reduced or eliminated in front of our very eyes.  Where was Sec. Clinton when this arrest happened?  She was at the podium and didn’t bat an eye when McGovern was hauled off by police just as John Kerry allowed the tasing of Andrew Meyer to happen at his speech.

What was Mr. McGovern’s crime?  He had the audacity to turn his back on Sec. Clinton’s speech!  Off with his head!  Well he did get to keep his head but he was thrown in jail for over 3 hours and was injured during the arrest by the officers and was not given medical assistance.  What did the obnoxious Mr. Meyer do to get arrested and assaulted with a taser?  He was just being a pain in the ass. 

Is this the Free Speech that you imagine when you read the First Amendment?  Is this the Free Speech that the founders of this country had in mind when they decided Free Speech was so important that they were going to make it the very First Amendment?  Is Mr. Cox in Indiana who lost his deputy Attorney General’s  job over his “give them live ammunition” tweet that Prof. Turley discussed earlier this week egregious enough to differentiate his situation from Mr. McGovern’s speech and the Taser guy’s rudeness? Are Free Speech zones actually an infringement of our Free Speech? 

I think Justice William O. Douglas said it best when he described the First Amendment and its intended impact on society in the 1949 Terminello v. Chicago decision. “A function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purposes when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.” Terminello

 Provocative speech is supposed to be protected under the First Amendment according to Justice Douglas.  Was Mr. Meyer and Mr. McGovern just being too provocative for some people’s tastes or were they actually properly exercising their right to free speech?

Submitted by Lawrence Rafferty, (rafflaw) Guest Blogger

56 thoughts on “Is Free Speech Really Free?”

  1. Rafflaw

    I would think that showing ones back to any dangerous and nasty critter would be regarded as a foolish act and was asking for trouble, although one would normally expect a neatly placed dagger from the likes of Clinton

  2. Your “free speech” is a privilege granted to you by the people who truly know what is best for you. If you should get out of line it will be revoked. Dont worry they are only doing what is in your best interest, like a mom or dad. The censoring, tasering, harrassment, and incarceration, of dissenting opinions is just what needs to be done so we can all get on with our lives and not have to think too hard about things. Thinking hurts, and they just want to protect you from it.

  3. Gyges,
    You are correct. You can burn a flag without getting arrested, but you can’t turn your back on Hillary Clinton!

  4. Maryana,
    Democracy is going to be messy when it is done correctly. You should try for discussions and debates that are calm and organized. The quote from Justice Douglas that I cited above tells us a different view of the First Amendment right. When your ideas stir some people to anger, the volume is bound to go up. That should not discount the importance of the views being expressed.

  5. Elaine,
    Kerry was a disappointment during his campaign as well as a bystander at the “Don’t Tase me Bro” incident. When any of us sit on the sidelines when an injustice is being carried out in front of us, it is a double tragedy. Many on the Right just scoff and say he or she deserved what they got. I am waiting for the cries for help from the Right when they realize their rights are also being denigrated by their own elected officials.
    Well said. I am not quite sure that I agree with Buckeye”s claime that the “sky is falling” rhetoric is prevalent on this site. I have seen an occasional use of hperbole, but for the most part I have witnessed people just expressing their concern of their rights being restricted or reduced.

  6. With regard to the issue posed by the title of the original posting, while it is important to ensure that everybody has a voice, allowing people to drown out others is not necessary to achieve that goal. Permitting people to monopolize public events and disrupt a planned political speech or conference runs the risk of negatively impacting constructive and respectful political discourse. Ideas are best shared when a proper space is created for the exchange of ideas without interruption.

    Extreme tactics on either side (i.e. police brutalization and inappropritate interruption of public events) are unnecessary to protect a minimal level of free speech.

  7. Ooops!

    My father told me of [the dangers of] growing up in the 1920′s when a someone of one ethnicity passed through the territory of another ethnicity

  8. “This, of course, is your position – that things aren’t as bad as we’ve been led to believe.”


    I believe that the state of freedom in this country is as bad as it has ever been. I remember my paternal Grandfather telling me about NYC in the late 1890’s when he arrived as an orphan 11 year old. The dangers that lurked everywhere for a young pushcart vendor and other residents working in the Jewish Ghetto of “Lower East Side” Manhattan. My father told me of growing up in the 1920’s when a someone of one ethnicity passed through the territory of another ethnicity. These tales spurred my interest in history and I saw an America, quite different that the one being taught in my Social Studies classes.

    Pertinent to this thread is the violent response of elected officials and corporations to the Union Movement. The famous labor strikes and the reactive repression by politicians adds yet another stain to our history. While the abolition of slavery was a great cause; the repression of Black people still being fought; the emancipation of Native Americans an ongoing process;
    there still remains the battle of what is really “indentured servitude” by the people who get paychecks.

    We live, as I’ve stated in a corporate oligarchy, or plutocracy, to be more exact. It has always been the nature in this country that prides itself in its’ freedoms and democratic institutions.
    So yes things are about as bad as they’ve ever been.

    However, heretofore the populace was faced with not only the oppression of bought politicians supporting the plutocracy, but also the control of media by that plutocracy. The internet changes the game. The young, as you pointed out, are just as idealistic, but perhaps wiser than my generation because the see beyond the ideological memes that hamper dialog.

    “The problem is who and why have we been so discouraged. I think hyperbole at this site and just in the atmosphere is partly to blame. It sure turns me off.”

    I agree with your sentiments when it comes to hyperbole that dampens enthusiasm by being consistently pessimistic about the situation we find ourselves in. To surrender to the belief that bad things can’t be changed, or to be constantly espousing that
    “THE SKY IS FALLING!” and viewing our environment with a total cynic’s view, does nothing to help matters change.

    Where we may possibly disagree is that I believe that the chief tool of those who would continue to fight a class war against the overwhelming majority of us, beyond their Big Lies technique
    is the use of hyperbole. In a tactical sense I strongly feel that strategically we must answer in kind in order to set the record straight in the minds of the people.

    Tactically, i believe in a “war of words” and non-violent deeds
    (as we are seeing)is the best road to change. Violence in fomenting revolution is self defeating. This is because the political spectrum is like a bell curve. On either side the curve produces about 5% of people who are sociopathic. From those 5% comes many of the leaders, especially if violence is the “modus operandi.” The history of revolutions is such that usually in those that are won by violence, only empowers the sociopaths to be in charge.

    In places where revolutions were reactions to thoroughly horrible
    conditions: France, Russia China and Cuba(to name but a few)the
    new system remained in the main as bad as the old one. Wholesale slaughter of the losers prevailed and the new regimes evolved to the level of those displaced. Revolutions accomplished in a non-violent manner (India for one)were in the main more successful

    “I do know that only peaceful demonstrations work really well. Public opinion changed rapidly during the Civil Rights marches. It didn’t change so fast during the anti-Vietnam marches. And was counter-productive during the Black Panther rampages.”

    I agree completely and as an active, if minor, member of the “Movement” in the 60’s, I not only saw that many of the leaders on my side (the militant ones)were just as crazy as our opponents, but also that they would be just as bad if they attained power. While I do believe that there was some CIA interference that pushed the “militants” to power and focused on their hyperbole to scare off many, the fact remains as you state it that violence destroys rather than furthers needed change.

  9. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that what’s happening in Wisconsin–which has spread to other parts of the country–is a sign that many Americans are finally waking up to what is really going on in this country…and to how the “big money” people have been running the show.

    What troubles me is individuals like a couple of men I’ve known for many years–both of whom are intelligent and well-educated, both of whom were public school educators, both of whom were once liberals–who have become right-wing conservatives. One of them watches FOX to get his news now.


    John Kerry was a big disappointment as a Democratic presidential candidate. That Florida incident you wrote about is a good example as how much he has forgotten about the days when he was a war protester.

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