Free speech and civil rights go hand in hand

It is the powerless who benefit most from free speech – and it is they who suffer when it is curtailed.

Kevin Yuill


In the current climate, many might assume that the civil-rights movement and free speech were mutually exclusive. That once-great organ of news, the New York Times, recently charged Facebook with allowing ‘posts spewing bigotry and lies to remain on Facebook in the name of free speech’. Discussing an audit commissioned by Facebook in the wake of complaints last year, it cited Jessica J González, co-executive officer of Free Press (!), who called for ‘a comprehensive sweep of the site of white supremacists, homophobes, anti-Semites and other hateful groups’.

Anger at Facebook for ‘promoting hate’ is not new. In a speech last year, Facebook supremo Mark Zuckerberg responded to similar criticisms, citing Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr and Black Lives Matter in his defence. Martin Luther King’s daughter, Bernice King, responded angrily to Zuckerberg’s speech. ‘I heard #MarkZuckerberg’s “free expression” speech, in which he referenced my father’, she tweeted. ‘I’d like to help Facebook better understand the challenges #MLK faced from disinformation campaigns launched by politicians. These campaigns created an atmosphere for his assassination.’

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, in an article titled ‘Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t know his civil rights history’, called Zuckerberg’s defence ‘a profound misreading of the civil-rights movement in America’. She blamed ‘the same kind of hate-fuelled disinformation campaigns’ as exist today for King’s assassination. ‘The civil-rights movement was not fought to vindicate free-speech rights under the First Amendment’, she continued.

But it is Ifill who profoundly misunderstands history and the civil-rights movement’s relationship to free speech in both letter and spirit. Both the civil-rights movement and the anti-slavery movement preceding it relied on free speech. Moreover, though the civil-rights movement was not fought to vindicate free-speech rights, by demanding civil rights it revolutionised our conception of free speech and overturned libel law in the US, revealing the dependency of free speech and campaigns for black rights on each other.

In the slavery era, anti-slavery hero Frederick Douglass told an audience in Ithaca, New York, in 1852, that the ‘right of speech is the delight of the lovers of liberty, as it is the dread and terror of tyrants’. ‘To chain the slave, these parties have said we must fetter the free! To make tyranny safe, we must endanger the liberties of the nation, by destroying the palladium of all liberty and progress – the freedom of speech.’

Douglass’s view of free speech would now be decried as ‘absolutist’. ‘It is idle and short-sighted to regard this question as merely relating to the liberties of the coloured people of this country’, he said. ‘If, today, these parties can put down the right of speech on one subject, tomorrow they may do so on another… Liberty for all, or chains for all.’

Eight years later – and one year to the day after the death of militant abolitionist John Brown – abolitionists in Boston invited Douglass to speak. In a scene repeated on campuses more recently, opponents filled the hall, shouted down the abolitionists, and mounted the stage. Douglass, outraged, declared: ‘Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.’ Against those who expressed qualified support for free speech but attacked the inflammatory message of the meeting – entitled ‘How to abolish slavery’ – Douglass retorted: ‘There can be no right of speech where any man, however lifted up, or however humble, however young, or however old, is overawed by force, and compelled to suppress his honest sentiments.’

In the late 19th century, the black paper, Memphis Free Speech, owned and edited by the formidable anti-lynching crusader Ida B Wells, exposed the various inequities faced by black Tennesseans, including the callous lynching of three of Wells’ friends. As she later recalled, the town’s white leaders felt that ‘the only way to restore “harmony between the races” would be to get rid of the Free Speech’. In an act filled with symbolism, a white mob destroyed the press, threatening to kill Wells if she returned.

Every civil-rights leader right up to Martin Luther King strongly supported free speech as a voice for the powerless. As a founding member of the NAACP, WEB DuBois championed the free expression even of his worst enemies: ‘But the hushing of the criticism of honest opponents is a dangerous thing… criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led – this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society.’

But it was in the 1950s that freedom of speech both transformed and was transformed by the civil-rights movement. As Harvard historian Michael Klarman has observed, during the 1950s and 1960s, ‘free speech became intertwined in popular and legal consciousness with another substantive cause that was beginning to prosper – that of the civil-rights movement.’ Both prospered, with African-Americans pressuring the government into passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act while a series of Supreme Court decisions transformed libel law. Harry Kalven Jr, who published The Negro and the First Amendment in 1965, wrote: ‘We may come to see the Negro as winning back for us the freedoms the Communists seemed to have lost for us.’

It is worth reminding those who call for speech to be curtailed in order to fulfil civil rights that it is always the powerful who suppress free speech. Martin Luther King, among many others, was arrested in Albany, Georgia, in 1962, for praying for an end to segregation in front of city hall. In 1961, 187 African-American students were convicted of breaching the peace because they marched to the South Carolina statehouse carrying signs with such messages as ‘Down with Segregation’. Their convictions were overturned in Edwards v South Carolina (1963). The court declared that the government could not criminalise ‘the peaceful expression of unpopular views’.

The case that forever changed US libel law concerned the New York Times. An advertisement in the paper appealed for donations for the civil-rights cause. Among other things, the ad criticised the police in Montgomery, Alabama. In response, Montgomery police commissioner LB Sullivan filed a defamation lawsuit against top civil-rights leaders, including Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth. This was part of a larger effort by Southern officials to use libel law to stop press coverage of the civil-rights movement. Sullivan was initially successful. But in 1964, the US Supreme Court finally dismissed Sullivan’s claims in a landmark case. Sullivan v New York Times shifted the burden of proof to the plaintiff, stating that ‘would-be critics of official conduct may be deterred from voicing their criticism, even though it is believed to be true and even though it is, in fact, true, because of doubt whether it can be proved in court or fear of the expense of having to do so’.

Martin Luther King’s last, poignant Mountaintop speech – given on 3 April, 1968, just before his assassination — demonstrated that he knew the risks of speaking out but would persist in any case. Attacking the injunction against demonstrations of striking sanitation workers, he said:

‘Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say we aren’t going to let any dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around.’

Today’s attempt to disassociate free speech from the pursuit of civil rights rewrites history. It is always the powerless who gain the most from the freedom to speak out against their condition. And it is always they who suffer when the right to express themselves is curtailed.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland.

Picture by: Getty.

Let’s cancel cancel culture

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Christopher Tyson

19th July 2020 at 12:09 pm

When I went to the US years ago I went to see the Statue of Liberty, a black American guy ask me if I was from England, I asked him how he knew, he said black Americans don’t go to the statue of Liberty (I don’t know why he was there). In this respect black people in America and the UK have something in common (and many white people too), a scepticism or cynicism about liberal values. In the UK in recent years we have seen a turn against democracy, a revival of the idea that some should not be trusted with the vote, and an unwillingness to accept election results and notably the Brexit referendum. Many working class people have been sceptical for years, having a vote every more or five years for parties that are similar in composition and outlook. For black people this alienation from conventional politics is deep rooted and has a long history.
There is very little defence or advocacy of liberalism from any quarters today, the elites are pre-occupied with safeguarding their position, and for working class and black people, an appeal to liberal freedoms rings hollow, sounds hypocritical. Identity politics brings together a paternalistic elite and groups appealing for their protection (the protection of the state) simultaneously chastising, guilt tripping, pleading for assistance, from a state they have already define as hostile to their interests.
So appealing to a historical legacy for the defence of liberal values, I don’t think will prove fruitful. It requires a full blown argument and defence, to convince people that free speech and other liberal values such as the right to free association and protest, are in their interests.
In a liberal democracy we have one vote each, each vote has the same value, we all have free speech, even though some own newspapers and TV stations. I would also throw in a defence of reason, because really a defence of free speech is a defence of reason, arguments can be made and challenged in good faith, as a means of moving towards truth and understanding. We accept that some will abuse free speech or even seek to undermine it, but we accept this as a price worth paying. A reasoned argument demands a response, we don’t need money, status or academic positions to make a reasoned argument, a reasoned argument justifies itself. If we are not answered, this itself can be revealing. If there is a disjuncture between the elites and the people, the position of the elites is weakened, if they are unable to make a rational defence of their rule, or are unable or unwilling to respond to reasoned criticism, at that point cynicism will be justified, I don’t believe that we are at that point, but I think that many do.

Philip Humphrey

17th July 2020 at 10:53 am

I think the difference between Martin Luther King and the BLM protesters is that King had a coherent narrative and an upfront vision of what he wanted, detailed in his famous speech. Moreover it was something that the country could (with a few exceptions) unite over. BLM and their supporters don’t seem to have any coherent narrative at all, so it’s not surprising that they don’t value free speech. As Fraser Myers pointed out in yesterday’s Spiked, the actions and demands of many “anti-racists” and liberals may well lead to segregation and treating people differently according to their race. I’m sure that’s not what Dr. King had in mind. And it can only divide a country, and no doubt actually increase racism and racist attitudes.

David Graham

17th July 2020 at 9:44 am

Hopefully the cancel culture of today will not lead on to the assassination of the past.

Mark Houghton

17th July 2020 at 1:03 pm

It already is doing or hadn’t you noticed?

Vivian Darkbloom

17th July 2020 at 1:32 am

“Our Cause we defend;
We have counted the cost;
But our fighting must end,
If our armour be lost.
From the East to the West
When our enemies reach
The weapon that’s best
Is the right of free speech.”

Poem published in the socialist weekly ‘Justice’, 1885.

Alan Wren

17th July 2020 at 1:28 am

To put free speech into some kind of perspective: I’ve seen/heard Nigel Farage’s views for over two decades now.

Mr Farage has appeared more times on my television than every man and woman in my village combined.

I know there’s a deep fear that in the future we’ll never really know Nige’s views on, say, the 16th century slave trade, the Apollo moon missions or childhood obesity because his VERY IMPORTANT voice will have been silenced for ever but I can honestly say it’s not a fear I share.

I believe that British men under the age of 40 are statistically more likely to be homeless or murdered than to appear on The Moral Maze and Any Questions and yet millions of people have been exposed to the views of the wealthy property developer Richard Tice more than 10 times.

Keep things in perspective.

Vivian Darkbloom

17th July 2020 at 1:37 am

Alan: I have heard of Nigel Farage. I have honestly never heard of Richard Tice. I’ve never heard of Alan Wren either but I’m very pleased to hear his views.

L Strange

17th July 2020 at 7:33 am

Nigel Farage, to use your example, having the right to speak is matched by your right not to listen, or to listen but disagree or ignore. What you, or anyone else, shouldn’t have is the right to prevent others from listening to him if they so choose. The same would apply to those potential speakers that you would feel had something more important to say.

It’s a fallacy to assume that concern with one particular issue precludes concern with another one.

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