Unfree Speech

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   May 16, 2023

Freedom of Speech – and of the Press – are in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But of course, they are not defined in detail. That has been a task for the following two centuries – and the debating goes on. A major complication has been the development of new media, which are much harder than “the Press” to control.

One traditional place for free speech is a certain part of London’s Hyde Park known as “Speakers Corner.” (In case you have always wondered, the name of the park goes back about a thousand years, and derives, not from any person’s name, but from the word “hide,” meaning an animal skin, which was a unit of measuring land.) To this day, it has become an area where informal speakers, often bringing their own “soapboxes,” regale the public, which is also free to heckle. I myself have on two occasions taken advantage of this freedom at that spot. The first time, I was still at school, but would soon be of an age to be drafted, under the system of conscription which then still existed in Britain – as it did in the U.S. – I had decided to register as a “conscientious objector,” since I had no desire to be placed in a position where I might legally kill or be killed.

We were having a “mock election” at school, and I was running as the Pacifist candidate. To warm up for this role, I announced that I would be speaking in Hyde Park on the subject of Peace. A good number of my schoolmates showed up to watch me make a fool of myself, which was how many of them already thought of me anyway. This was in the early years of the “Cold War,” when anybody publicly advocating Peace was liable to be considered a Communist sympathizer. But at least I was able to deliver my opinion without incurring too much hooting and jeering – and I did survive the occasion.

Just a few years later, when I was a student at the University of London, I again (for what turned out to be the last time) felt the need to very publicly express my opinions – and again, the obvious forum was Hyde Park. I had only recently returned from a summer in Israel – which had been a “State” for not more than half a decade, after winning a war against Arab invaders coming from all sides. After travelling around the whole country, and talking with people who had been on either side of that conflict, I remained firmly attached to my pacifistic point of view, convinced that the whole crisis had been the result of mutual

There was no such thing as a free speech area in Israel – and, conditions being as they are, I doubt if there will be, any time soon – but, once I was back home in England, my feelings again directed me to Hyde Park. This time, however, I discovered that, even at that shrine of vocal freedom, you had to be careful what you said, and to whom. On this occasion, I soon gathered an audience, but I hadn’t been talking for very long about the situation in Israel before it developed that there were in the crowd strong sympathizers with both Israelis and Arabs. 

Before I knew it, they had forgotten about me, and were arguing heatedly with each other. In fact, the confrontation became so heated that I feared they might come to blows. I decided that the only way to avoid causing a riot was to stop speaking. So I stepped down from my little platform, and walked away from the scene.

Thus did I learn that there can be limits to free speech, even where it is most hallowed.

It was some years before I again stirred up that potent brew. This time it was in the small town of Bend, Ore., where I was a professor at the local college, and insisted on my right to publicly present the Ginsberg poem “HOWL,” with its notorious contents of words considered by many to be obscene. The college and its censoring president did not survive this fracas unscathed – but neither did the defiant professor’s job. What else could he then do except write epigrams
like these:

What good is freedom of speech, unless there are people who will listen?
You have a right to express your opinion, but often it’s wiser to keep it to yourself.  


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