In the spring of 1975 I was attending the University of Maryland. It was during that semester that military recruiters appeared on campus for the first time since before the US invasion of Cambodia in 1970. For those readers who are unaware, that invasion sparked a massive rebellion across the United States, with most of the insurrectionary events taking place on university campuses.
By May 15th of that spring, six students were dead and numerous others wounded by gunshot, the result of military assaults on their protests by police and military. The University of Maryland campus was the scene of several days of protest by students and a military occupation. Anyhow, military recruiters had stayed away until the aforementioned spring.
The group I was with at the time decided to help organize a protest against the Marine recruiters’ presence on campus. As it turned out, the day the recruiters showed up in their dress uniforms, placed their recruitment literature on their table and waited for students to approach, over 150 students showed up to protest. Within the first hour, we had completely encircled the table several layers deep. By the afternoon of the first day, there were more than 500 people blockading the Marine recruiters and their table. This blockade continued for three or four days, each day growing in size. We were quite successful in preventing the Marines from sharing their recruitment brochures or talking with potential recruits. After we were attacked a couple times by some right wing students, the recruiters moved their table into an out of the way room in the Student Union. After two of the organizers were arrested for trespassing (they were not students at Maryland), we occupied a Dean’s office until they were released. The recruiters left the same day.
After the dust had settled, the antiwar protesters were accused of violating the Marines’ free speech. We disagreed and argued that recruitment was not speech. Furthermore, we challenged the idea that our voice was equal to that of the Marine Corps, which had the entire machinery of the Pentagon and military-industrial complex behind it to guarantee their speech would be heard. Our protest was nothing compared to the propaganda capabilities available to the Corps and its “mission.” In other words, free speech in the United States is easier to obtain for some people than it is for others. Hence, the only way those of us opposed to the military and its imperial mission could hope that our so-called free speech would be heard was by actions like the blockade. (Ron’s note: Several years later, after a group of students and allies at UMass Amherst (that included Amy Carter and Abbie Hoffman) were arrested for protesting CIA recruitment at their campus, a court ruled that recruitment was not protected by the First Amendment.)
Recently, the US mainstream press made a big deal over a freelance photographer who was told to go away from a tent city at the University of Missouri during the recent protests against racism there. Rather cynically, they made this incident out to be proof that the protest itself was some kind of authoritarian attempt to destroy American ideals. Of course, many of the same media outlets decrying this incident said (and say) nothing when antiwar protesters are prevented from protesting a presidential rally except from a site miles away.
When one is involved in protests against the capitalist system and its manifestations (esp. if those protests are organized by leftists, as is usually the case) one becomes acutely aware of the power of the mainstream media. With a minimal amount of analysis, it becomes clear that the mainstream media is neither objective or fair or necessarily interested in protesters’ freedom of speech. Instead, it sees its role to be one that upholds the system that owns it. As recent media studies have proven, those who own most of the US media–indeed, most of the world’s media–are neoliberal corporations whose executives are often extremely rightwing in their political views.
However, even when the owners are not rightwing, but tend towards what passes as liberal, the corporations they run are still invested in the neoliberal capitalist world order. This means they are invested in the same system as the rightwingers and are not that interested in toppling any apple carts. In fact, they are not really very interested in moving any of the apples around in those carts. However, if the demands from the people to change things becomes too disruptive, the so-called liberal media will support some of the apples being moved or even tossed , if that’s what it takes to keep the carts from being overturned. In other words, the media not serving the right wing supports reforms because they do not wish to see the entire system seriously threatened.
I have seen rightwingers use “free speech” as an excuse to support Nazis, the KKK, anti-LBGT groups and more. At the same time, I have seen the ability of people against imperial war, racism and other manifestations of US capitalism to exercise their free speech be limited to certain zones far away from the target of the protesters or just simply denied. I remain opposed to laws preventing racists, fascists and others I disagree with from expressing their views.
At the same time, I remain opposed to using police to protect such people from the consequences of expressing their hatred. If organizers for social justice do not want their struggle against racism, etc. diverted to an argument about free speech, then it seems to me that they should not oppose the media, but use it to their benefit. Shove your free speech in their cameras and microphones and make it heard.
Ron Jacobs, counterpunch.org