The Continuing Struggle

[F]reedom of speech is by no means a deeply entrenched tradition even in the United States, which by comparative standards is quite advanced in this regard. The same is true of other rights. […]

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As is well known, even the right to vote was achieved in the United States only through constant struggle. Women were disenfranchised for 130 years, and those whom the American Constitution designated as only three-fifths human were largely denied this right until the popular movements of the past generation changed the cultural and political climate. While the franchise has slowly been extended through popular struggle, voting continues to decline and to become a concomitant of privilege, largely as a reflection of the general depoliticization of the society and the disintegration of an independent culture challenging business dominance, along with popular groupings to sustain it. What formal participation remains is often hardly more than a gesture of ratification with only limited content, particularly at the higher levels of political power.

The same is true of freedom of speech. Though these rights appear to be granted in the First Amendment, as interpreted in practice the grant was limited. The legal doctrine remained that of Blackstone, reiterated in 1931 by Chief Justice Hughes in a decision regarded as a landmark victory for freedom of expression: “Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press; but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous or illegal, he must take the consequence of his own temerity.” Prior restraint is barred, but not punishment for unacceptable thoughts.”

Pages 345-346. Excerpt from the section The Continuing Struggle, pp. 345-357 in Noam Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (1989, Toronto: House of Anansi).

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