Faces of Free Speech

The controversy over comments by Phil Robertson in GQ has become a public (although jumbled) debate about free speech.

Matt Bruenig has done a valuable job highlighting how that public discourse has ignored a much more complicated admission, by comparing how the Right has responded to Robertson as that contrasts with the Right’s reaction to the 2003 Dixie Chicks controversy:

It is not mysterious why conservatives think the Phil Robertson disciplining is rights-infringing but think the Dixie Chicks disciplining was not. They support what Phil Robertson had to say, but oppose what the Dixie Chicks had to say. Despite their pretensions to the contrary, conservatives, and most people in general for that matter, do not care about content-neutral procedural fairness. They care about winning their stuff and beating the other’s side stuff.

Bruenig is right; the Robertson controversy so far in the U.S. is about many things, but it isn’t about free speech (and it hasn’t confronted the danger of masking at least hateful if not hate-speech behind calls for religious tolerance and free speech—an act repeated in U.S. history when the Bible served as a defense of slavery and keeping women second-class citizens).

The whole thing could, however, lead to a valuable discussion of free speech—placing what Robertson said and what consequences he faced against free speech and its consequences in contemporary Russia.

In the summer of 2013, I watch a documentary on the Russian musical act Pussy Riot and then examined their political acts and imprisonment in the context of the Dixie Chicks’ controversy.

While Robertson and his controversy dominate the U.S. pop media, Pussy Riot members were released from prison in Russia.

In the U.S., this is the face of free speech:

Phil Robertson

In Russia, this is the face of free speech:

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

In the U.S., a reality-TV star making millions of dollars freely offered his ideas in a magazine people are free to buy or not. The business for whom the reality-TV star works freely made decisions and viewers in the U.S. were free to respond as they wished.

Free speech in the U.S. is about the freedom of expression, not the freedom from the consequences of that expression. We have freedom of speech (freedom comes with consequences), not license.

In Russia, young women used their art to make political statements calling for freedom and equity among all people in their home country. They were imprisoned for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

There are lessons here about freedom of speech, but I have seen little evidence we are taking the opportunity to examine much less learn them.

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