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Experimental Essay: A Discussion on Freedom of Speech

meerajay's picture

Experimental Essay: A Discussion on Freedom of Speech

            A conversation on freedom of speech is central to any discussion about the regulation of individual freedoms, because of the ways that the communication of our ideas can affect society. In our book group on October 2nd at the prison on the discussion of the book Citizen by Claudia Rankine, the incarcerated women touched on an important point in the regulation of freedom. One woman, Lou*, cited freedom of speech as a source of power in the United States that makes it better than other places in the world, where people are condemned for speaking their. Rae* then spoke up, saying that maybe if people were not able to speak out their minds so easily, then maybe America would be less full of hate. Kat* then said that she would rather the hate be public, so that people could refute it and combat, possibly educating in the process.

            The three of them touched on a major idea around the regulation of speech, and its benefits and setbacks. This essay is a series of musing explorations on the extremities and boundaries of freedom of speech, taking into consideration the contexts of America, the world, and the tri-co. These three are spaces in which free speech is regulated in different ways.

            In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville discusses the freedom of the press in America at length, commenting on the need to find a middle ground on regulation: “If someone were to show me a tenable intermediate position between complete independence of thought and total servitude, I might adopt it, but can such a position be found?” (205) He accepted that if America policed the press individually, there would be a danger of certain ideas being representative of the entire country (205). Tocqueville also delves deep into a concept called mores, which he loosely defines as customs and habits of the heart, deeply ingrained in us, even less intentionally than ideology. Mores have a powerful regulatory hold on American society, determining what is a socially and politically acceptable for different groups. Tocqueville describes one specific incident that especially illustrates the level to which mores govern American society:

“I said one day to [a Pennsylvanian], ‘…explain to me how…free Negroes are not allowed to exercise their civil rights…[should they not] have the vote?’ ‘You insult us,’ he replied, ‘if you imagine that our legislators committed such a gross act of injustice and intolerance…that is not the fault of the law. It is true that Negroes have the right to participate in the elections but they voluntarily abstain…it is not that they are refusing to attend, but they are afraid of being mistreated. In this country it sometimes happens that the law lacks any force when the majority does not support it. Now, the majority is imbued with the strongest of prejudices against the blacks…” (295)

In this case, the group that has had the privilege of writing and enacting the laws also has the privilege of deciding whether or not they should be enforced. The mores of society, in this case, state that African Americans, despite being legally recognized as citizens, cannot vote. Society, and not the written law, has placed control on their freedoms.

The concept of mores can translate into American freedom of speech; if mores dictate the way individuals interpret and carry out the law, perhaps they can also control the different opinions that are dispensed by the press, and decide which are worthy of public attention. Given the fact that ordinary speech is controlled by morals and the unspoken rules of politeness that rule different social circles, free public speech should be controlled the same way. However, this did not prove to be the case in Tocqueville’s time and does not appear to be the case now, given the widespread availability of a broad spectrum of different opinions and types of journalism. As Tocqueville predicted, when a citizen individually has the power to govern society, they have a right to choose which opinion to support among a wide variety of different options (211). Mores, unlike societal manners and institutions of politeness, do not reach far enough to govern free speech, especially in the age of the Internet and the advent of blogging; broadcasting of an opinion does not even require the approval of a newspaper editor anymore.

            The Charlie Hebdo incident is one example that calls into question the validity of certain types of free speech. Charlie Hebdo is a French satire magazine known for its incendiary, antireligious images. They had, before the incident, published images of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, which is illegal within the religion of Islam (Prophet Mohammed is not supposed to be rendered in any way). In January of 2015, two armed gunmen opened fire at the Charlie Hebdo offices, killing twelve people total. Immediately, the world rallied to the magazine’s side, and protests erupted in every major city in support of the magazine, calling it a support of free speech.

            Tocqueville said “in order to enjoy the priceless advantages guaranteed by press freedom, one must submit to the unavoidable evils it produces”(213). In order to defend certain forms of free speech, you must defend them all, by definition. The violence of the antireligious imagery in Charlie Hebdo could be called a necessary evil. However, doing so overlooks the systems that marginalize certain bodies and religions; death, here, has sanitized the acts of violence committed against a marginalized religion. Islam may be considered one of the fastest-growing religions in the world but because of the racialized nature of the religion, Muslims are still targeted by racism, and Islamophobia is widespread. Satire should be used as to give the marginalized a voice, not to perpetuate their oppression. In addition, Charlie Hebdo a received an award for spreading principles of free speech, given to the magazine by the PEN American Center gala (Schleusser). The award made it even harder to condemn the magazine for the violence of the images, and the way that these images affected a group. By giving an award for free speech, the organization prized certain forms of speech over others. It treated the free speech debate as static, rather than ongoing and ever changing given the freely developing circulation of images in the media. This award proves that the term “free speech” is a misnomer. Even in a space that tries to be equalizing, in which everyone appears to have the same rights, the speech of certain groups will always overpower that of others.

            The bi-co is acclaimed as a place that encourages student expression and supposedly serves as a haven for free speech. Students and other members of the community have constant opportunities through media sources publicized in the bi-co as well as classroom and learning settings that encourage them to speak their minds. However, the bi-co does silence a certain kind of free speech: conservative. Those with conservative political and social views are often overpowered in conversation, given the fact that the majority of people in the bi-co hold highly liberal views. The BMC Conservatives club on campus, in my experience, is not highly publicized to the community or seen as very active. They do not hold events that are open to the community very often, and seem to be made up of a small circle of friends who claim their heritage as Southern United States. The BMC Conservatives are important to reference in a conversation about free speech on campus, because they are silenced in the name of equality. The bi-co community seeks to equalize the playing field by letting the liberal voices overpower the conservative ones because this directly contradicts mainstream media and its influence over American social life. However, in doing so, they are perpetuating the Bryn Mawr or bi-co bubble by not giving students an understanding of conflicting viewpoints in America.

            In our class discussion on free speech, someone brought up the concept of a brave space, where people would feel free to publish what they want to the community without being judged, but must operate within morals and respect. If they did not, then they would have to restore their trust to the community by learning. This is derived from the a “safe space” but not a “comfortable space”, where people lean into discomfort in order to learn something new about themselves or their community. Speech and communication is an ever-changing conversation and not simply a static right, and should be treated as such. The way that we discuss our own freedom to speak our minds in the bi-co directly influences how we see media on a larger scale in the United States and the world. We have yet to find the happy medium between freedom and regulation of speech that Tocqueville yearns for, mainly because of the capricious nature of the media.

Schuessler, Jennifer. "Charlie Hebdo Award at PEN Gala Sparks More Debate." The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 May 2015. Web. 06 Oct. 2015. <>.

 Tocqueville, Alexis De, and Richard D. Heffner. Democracy in America. New York: Penguin, 1984. Print.



Joel's picture

Your essay left me wondering about your opinion on brave speech: Do you think this is necessary for a free community? That is, would the Bi-Co -- or the world -- be better off if there were mores that encouraged this?

Along these lines, I'm struck by how brave speech might be enacted when we talk about victims as well as offenders. Are there certain forms of thought silenced in such discussions? If so, how might they be encouraged? I'm thinking especially about the argument for punishment as punitive, which never comes up in our discussions. But many victims and families of victims want revenge; they want to see the offender punished. Could we countenance that argument?

meerajay's picture

My rough draft was hardly a rough draft when I presented it to class; it was just a collection of bullet points. Opening up my experimental essay as a class discussion helped me to see things from a different perspective, though. I really wanted to delve deeper into the way that freedom of speech, or the silencing of it, affects the tri-co, and got a lot of different viewpoints on that. Sula and Madison brought up the concept of the brave space, which I was able to use at the end of my essay as a way of moving forward from the discussion. I was also able to understand more of why the Charlie Hebdo incident proved the fact that freedom of speech is such a misnomer, something else that I was able to incorporate into my essay.

In terms of the entire process of writing this paper: I think I need to give myself more time to do assignments that seem daunting. This may seem like an obvious point but I tend to be a procrastinator on projects that seem bigger. I think breaking them off into bite-size pieces and setting daily goals would really help me and reduce some of my stress about my work.