“Talk is cheap – free speech isn’t.” That’s on a bumper sticker stuck to my long-disused guitar case. Despite the fact that the case is getting dusty in our basement, that phrase rang loudly in my head this Wednesday. I originally got the sticker at my first trip to the Newseum, after being in the middle of a heated schoolwide discussion as co-editor-in-chief about what is appropriate to print in a high school newspaper. I won’t bore anyone with the details, but it involved a column by my friend who signed himself “Angry Mofo,” an angry adviser, a rather disingenuous co-editor-in-chief, and a surprising amount of support from my English teacher. When I bought the sticker, I felt like I had put my own credibility on the line for defending free speech in my limited, suburban high school way. This Wednesday, I took that small, yet important opportunity again to take action by participating in the WordPress portion of the Internet blackout against the SOPA/PIPA laws. Although I haven’t put a lot of effort specifically into fighting for free speech since I was in high school, Wednesday reminded me of how it underlies everything I do. Although the blackout was against a specific set of laws – check out this video for a great explanation – it is the responsibility of all of us to protect free speech in whatever way we can.
The first, and most important, aspect of preserving free speech is the ability to speak out against those abusing power, whether it’s the government, corporations, or other institutions. Whether through online petitions, calling or meeting with one’s elected representatives, attending protests, or writing political commentaries, this function serves an essential check on power. (It also supports other related rights, like the Right to Assembly and the Right to Petition.) It’s a way for the less powerful, the minorities, and their allies to tell those in power, “You cannot do this to us. This must stop.” Often, the sacrifices made to maintain this form are etched on the very bodies of the protestors, from the Indian independence movement to the American civil rights movement. Although using the Internet to collect signatures for petitions is sometimes mocked as “slacktivism” (slacker activism), the Internet also serves as an essential organizing tool. It’s arguable that the Occupy movement could have never grown the way it did without the Internet. Similarly, the Internet can be used to amplify the messages from the protests and bring them to people who might never hear them otherwise, as we saw with the use of Twitter in the Arab Spring.
Yet, despite their importance, these outright protests are far from the only use of free speech worth protecting. A free flow of information is essential to maintaining a realistic view of the world. In my opinion, this is the biggest problem with Fox News – they pretend they are offering a free flow of information, but that no other source is to be trusted. (This tactic is incredibly effective, as this poll shows.) Similarly, China’s government has an acute understanding of this concept. The Great Firewall of China blocks not only speech against the government, but speech about concepts as basic as democracy and the history of revolutions for independence. The Chinese populace is so ignorant of the real events of Tiananmen Square that a provincial newspaper innocently ran a one-line ad about “Paying tribute to the strong mothers of the June 4 victims” because the newspaper editor literally had no idea what happened on June 4. This warped view of reality, the Newspeak of 1984, completely prevents the ability to protest. The free flow of information is the foundation of all free thought.
While these uses underlie the very pillars of freedom, there’s also another very important use when it comes to increasing global sustainability – the ability to share information and lessons learned. One major part of the Transition movement away from reliance on fossil fuels and towards environmental, economic, and social justice is reskilling. It’s basically the idea that we need to re-learn many of the skills our parents and grandparents had like growing our own food, saving seeds, collecting rainwater, and repairing household items. It also includes some relatively new skills, like restoring bicycles, planning food forests, creating graywater recycling systems, and installing renewable energy. Fortunately, unlike in the past, we’re no longer limited to tapping into the creativity and knowledge of our immediate community. The Internet allows us to learn these skills from others and in turn, share tips we’ve learned. One of my favorite things about this blog is that I can have others benefit from my triumphs and mistakes instead of just telling some nice stories. Likewise, when I and some other volunteers organized workshops for Ecolocity, we posted our materials online afterwards so that anyone else could use them who wanted to put on a similar workshop.
I’m clearly singing to the choir here. Nonetheless, it’s so easy to stop caring, to let these threats to our rights pass us by. Although SOPA/PIPA would have directly affected only the U.S., it would have helped set a dangerous precedent for similar efforts around the world. Despite these laws’ current state of failure, there are still so many places where a free flow of information is stifled. The Slacktiverse has a good thread on the various threats to these rights worldwide and the Newseum has a Press Freedom Map, although it seems a bit out of date. Considering how free speech touches our lives on a daily basis in ways that we in (mostly) free countries don’t even recognize, we need to be vigilant to protect it. Because without it, we have nothing.