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… if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”: George Orwell, 1945


George Orwell is best known as the author of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, published in 1948.

The quote is used in an article in the Guardian, published on December 3, 2020. The article is labelled a book review, but it prefaces the review with a history of free speech that begins with this statement: “[F]ree speech is impossible. Merely to be intelligible, all communication depends on shared rules.” This paragraph follows shortly thereafter:

None of this is new: what free speech means has been controversial for about 400 years. Our modern concept of it began as a radical Protestant argument – that it was pointless to punish Christians for arguing about dogma and worship, because these were questions to which ultimately only God knew the answers. It was this freedom of speaking and printing that John Milton famously extolled in his Areopagitica (1644): the liberty of speculating about God’s hidden truths. It was never meant to extend to debates about public affairs, politics or morality.

The article makes the proposition that speech is fundamentally not “free” but depends on the power of the individual or groups that want to be heard. To begin, one person’s speech can be drowned out, except at the level of one-to-one communication, unless one has access to at least a loudspeaker. Further dissemination of one’s speech across miles depends on a medium such as radio or television. The more people you want to reach, the more money (and power) you need. A loudspeaker requires electric power to function; a radio or television program requires the use of a radio station’s apparatus, usually supported by advertising or a wealthy person’s monetary resources. Even a program without advertising requires a sponsor, which requires money and power to harness. The power or the advertising shapes the content of the speech in sometimes subtle ways.

Until the Reagan Administration (from 1949-1987), the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) enforced a Fairness Doctrine which required broadcast television stations to provide time for “contrasting opinions” (although it did not require “equal time”…) The Doctrine was finally removed from the books by the FCC in 2011 in response to years of pressure and attempted lawmaking by conservatives and libertarians who claimed that the Doctrine infringed on First Amendment rights of “free speech.” From Wikipedia:

The fairness doctrine had two basic elements: It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows, or editorials. The doctrine did not require equal time for opposing views but required that contrasting viewpoints be presented. The demise of this FCC rule has been considered by some to be a contributing factor for the rising level of party polarization in the United States.

(Wikipedia gives two sources for this statement: first, on paper, E. Patterson, Thomas. “The News Media: Communicating Political Images.” We the People. 10th ed. McGraw-Hill Education, 2013, page 336. Second, on line, Rendall, Steve (January 1, 2005). “The Fairness Doctrine: How We Lost it, and Why We Need it Back”. Extra!. Retrieved October 2, 2017.)

Pulling back our camera to a wide shot, we see that George Orwell’s statement implying that “free speech” is not free actually agrees with the general concept that freedom is an illusion. Nothing is free. Everything has a cost, whether you notice it or not. As the wit said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Coming back to a tight closeup, we see a cell-phone video featuring the last moments of George Floyd, who repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe” only to be told, “If you can talk, you can breathe.” As the police officer pressed down harder and harder on his windpipe, Mr. Floyd was reduced finally to calling for his mother, and then to silence. For eight minutes and forty-six seconds, a police officer (whose name I will not give because that name is presumed innocent until he is proven guilty of murder) pressed down with their knee on George Floyd’s neck until he was dead.

So, you see, speech is not free. It depends on not having someone with their knee on your neck cutting off your ability to breathe and to live. For the offense of passing a counterfeit twenty dollar bill, George Floyd was summarily executed by a Milwaukee police officer.

Returning to our wide shot, we see riots, burning businesses and police stations, and tear gassing of peaceful demonstrators in front of the White House for an impeached, one-term president so he can raise an upside-down Bible for a photo opportunity. His “free speech” right to hold up an upside-down Bible depends on his being the most powerful person in the world for a short time, thankfully soon to be finished.

The cost to the United States of that moment of “free speech” is enormous. Nothing is free. We will be paying for that moment (and that eight minutes and forty-six seconds) for decades to come.

(photo of George Orwell by Gordon Johnson via

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