The Freedom of Speech: A Q&A with Rights Advocate David Shipler

Freedom of Speech - David Shipler

Trigger warnings. Portraits of prophets. Obscenity, offense, and omission. Free speech gives us the right to speak our minds, and the limits of free speech is ironically one of our favorite topics to discuss. David K. Shipler’s new book Freedom of Speech takes readers to the frontlines of America's battle for free speech, from small town school libraries to the top secret bunkers of our nation’s clandestine intelligence services. In this interview, Shipler discusses his book and some of the contemporary issues regarding free speech.

Signature: One of the things that struck me as I was reading your book is that the terms "censored", "challenged", and "banned" are often used interchangeably, but they're very different things. Do people or groups engaged in public debates choose these terms based more on shock value and political expediency than accuracy?

David Shipler: Yes. The words are often used too casually. I suppose if you’re on the wrong end of an effort to prevent your reading a book in a class, for example, you will feel that the book has been "banned" and the curriculum has been "censored." But of course in our free society you can get the book and read it yourself, so there is no banning as in the Soviet Union, where certain books were not only unavailable, but their possession was criminal. That said, it’s not a small matter when a high school AP English course can’t teach certain fine literature, or when the only theater in the nation’s capital that stages plays about the Middle East is then prevented from doing so. The results are that students won’t get a teacher’s guidance through challenging readings, and that Washington audiences won’t get to see plays illuminating the Arab-Israeli conflict. Theatergoers might reasonably feel they’ve been subject to a kind of cultural censorship. To assess the importance of moves to silence certain expression in one venue or another, we need to look closely at the impact.

SIG: It seems that every time there's a new public outrage we begin a new conversation about "the limits of free speech." Should there be limits, and if so, are these best left up to the community at large to police or should we expect or desire the government to set these limits?

DS: I’m as close to being an absolutist on free speech as you can be. Countries that have enacted limits on hate speech, Holocaust denial, and the like still have hateful speech, Holocaust denial, and rampant bigotry. Look at the surge of right-wing anti-Semitism in Western European countries that have such prohibitions. Look at the disintegration into ethnic warfare by Yugoslavia after the collapse of its communist regime, which prohibited the expression of ethnic hatred. The best way to cure bigotry is to keep it out in the sunlight where it can be rebutted or met with opprobrium. I strongly believe that the best answer to offensive speech is more speech, not suppression, either by the community or the government.

SIG: Regarding laws used to limit free speech for purposes of national security, how has the government’s track record been? Am I wrong in perceiving laws have been utilized to punish and silence journalists and whistleblowers?

DS: The Obama Administration has seriously damaged journalists’ ability to cover the war on terrorism and other aspects of national security, particularly when the press is trying to report on government misdeeds or embarrassments. More than any other administration, this one has made widespread use of the 1917 Espionage Act to target officials who disclose wrongdoing. This has sent a chill through government and forced reporters in Washington to adopt stealthy techniques and some of the mindset that we acquired as Moscow correspondents in the 1970s. The result is that Americans know much less than they should -- or could without jeopardizing security -- and that in itself harms national security, which ultimately relies on an informed public and an accountable government.

SIG: This might be an odd thing to ask you to look at from the perspective of free speech, but what, if any, was the difference between Edward Snowden's disclosure of the NSA's massive, illegal domestic spying program, and David Petraeus's disclosure of top secret documents to his mistress/biographer? I found myself thinking of both of these men as I read the chapter on Thomas Tamm.

DS: In strictly legal terms, no difference. Both violated the law. In practical terms, a huge difference, both in motive and effect. Snowden, motivated by a faith that disclosure would provoke corrective measures to rein in the NSA, judiciously publicized his documents through responsible journalists. Petraeus appears to have had no interest in correcting or publicizing anything, and the classified information he shared has not reached the public. Cynics would say that Petraeus got a light sentence -- probation and a fine -- because of his high positions and connections. That may be, but the real problem in my view isn’t his light punishment; it’s the harsh punishments against lower-level officials who try to do their country good by exposing wrongdoing. Part of the problem is the overclassification of information, which goes far beyond what’s legitimately needed to protect, say, sources of intelligence gathering or genuine military secrets.

SIG: Do we do enough to protect whistleblowers? Sometimes it seems to me that there's a rush to judgment -- and punishment -- whenever someone tells us something we don't want to hear.

DS: Government whistleblowers are supposed to be protected by law, but there’s a national security exception, so the protection is useless in the area of most significance. Since so much information is improperly classified, the government can go after anyone who discloses practically anything. Private whistleblowers are protected by law only insofar as their disclosures involve certain topics of financial malfeasance specified by statute and court decision. If a New York Times reporter complained publicly about politicized editing, he or she might be protected by the union contract with the Newspaper Guild, but not by law. Therefore, the society is a labyrinth of silences; people know a lot more about what happens on their jobs than they’re willing to say. So, in the interest of free speech, I’d say a resounding “No” to your question of whether we do enough to protect them.

SIG: There's been a lot of talk in some areas of academia of labeling texts and other course materials with "Trigger Warnings": advisories that the labeled works contain specific elements that could provoke people who have experienced abuse or trauma of some sort. What do you think of this?

DS: I have contradictory thoughts about this. On the one hand, putting warning labels on books seems Orwellian -- who is to decide? Isn’t it a slippery slope from trauma to sex to politics to religion? If you look at the issues driving conservatives’ objections to schoolbooks: profanity, poverty, sexual topics, religious irreverence, sympathy for gays and lesbians, etc., you can see how far this can go. Even the society’s widely accepted methods of birth control are now deemed by our Supreme Court to offend the religious sensibilities of any employer who says they do. On the other hand, students who have some traumatic experience in their background -- having been sexually abused as children, for example -- should know beforehand that a course or a book will deal with the issue. I don’t see anything wrong with a syllabus or a notice on a course website making clear what difficult topics will be discussed. More and more high schools now do this after parental complaints that they didn’t know what their kids were getting into when they signed up for a certain course.

SIG: I used to think of censorship (government or otherwise) as something impacting individual works of art, but in Freedom of Speech, you made the observation that it spreads very quickly in that, for example, librarians will stop ordering anything that might have a chance of provoking outrage. Is this kind of preemptive tongue-biting something that we see when it comes to other problems related to free speech?

DS: I have heard from some teachers that it happens in schools, especially where there has been controversy. In Highland Park High School, in a wealthy suburb of Dallas, my earlier book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, was challenged by a parent, briefly removed from an AP English course with six other books, then returned to the curriculum. But the school then created an elaborate, bureaucratic vetting procedure for all books, requiring teachers to write a long rationale for using each volume, instituting a parents’ review committee for each one, etc. This is going on right now for next year’s books. At the same time, teachers were vilified by right-wing community residents. It is not an atmosphere conducive to serious education, and I know of two English teachers who have resigned from Highland Park to look for jobs elsewhere, with more rumored to be on the way. In another state, I know a teacher who decided to stop teaching AP courses after an uproar over books used in class. The teacher couldn’t sleep during the controversy and had to be treated for depression. And these are two cases in which the teachers won! So it’s not hard to speculate that teachers in many districts will take the safe path and avoid using great novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which are frequently challenged.

SIG: Some people have described the internet as "the last bastion of free speech." Do you think that it will stay this way, or will the net eventually become subject to the same kinds of restrictions that we see with network television?

DS: Only because the government formally owns the broadcast frequencies can it regulate content (only lightly, these days) when it licenses their use. It’s hard to imagine a comparable regime covering the Internet, at least in our constitutional system. A more likely threat is from private companies that operate the servers and networks, if they choose to impose some agenda. We’ve seen YouTube and Twitter and others close accounts and take down postings, usually for reasons of taste, stalking, threats, calls for violence, etc. Now that the FCC has deemed the Internet a utility that can be regulated like a phone company, an opening has been created for more government involvement, but I don’t think that existing law allows regulation of content. It’s also worth noting that as unfriendly as the current Supreme Court has been to many liberal positions on civil rights, it has usually been strong in protecting free-speech rights under the First Amendment, with only a few exceptions. So, at least for now, I don’t worry much about government curtailing speech rights on the Internet.

SIG: What is our biggest threat to free speech now? Is it corporatization? Government intrusion? Religious fundamentalism? Something else?

DS: I have an unorthodox view of this. I don’t think the main threat to free speech is about speech, but about listening. People can say just about anything they want, but the American audience has been balkanized, and we rarely take the trouble to travel across the boundaries of our own predilections to listen to messages with which we disagree. The Internet has contributed to this problem, creating a kind of egg carton of comfortable compartments where we can hang out easily and absorb information and opinion tailored to what we want to hear or to what we think we already know. Those colorful, slick websites have an illusion of authority, and it takes effort to drill into them far enough to excavate their distortions. In Freedom of Speech I have a chapter on the cottage industry of anti-Islam activists, who have made clever use of the Internet to spread the fantasy that the Muslim Brotherhood has plans to take over America. People who want to believe this read these sites, quote them to each other, and generally exist in an alternate universe from those who think it’s a lot of bunk. We’ve seen this in cable TV too, of course: e.g. Fox News and MSNBC.

SIG: What can we do to protect our freedom of speech?

DS: Use it. A constitutional right is like a muscle; it atrophies without use. If you don’t fight every attempt to curtail it, various authorities -- whether governmental, corporate, or societal -- will chip away at it until you get used to having less of it. In a previous book, Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America, I wrote stories about public school students who either defended their speech rights or didn’t, and how those who did -- against school principals who tried to silence or censor them -- usually won. The Supreme Court has made this harder in several rulings that increase school officials’ power over students’ newspapers, speeches on school grounds, and demonstrations. Students still have wide latitude nonetheless, yet many school officials prefer order and conformity, and so teach students the wrong lessons about the First Amendment. American schools should be teaching about American freedoms -- not just through the abstract words of a textbook, but by example.