The First Amendment to the American Constitution aims to protect various freedoms, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of press, as well as the right of people’s to assemble. For this reason, the American Constitution has been cited as a revolutionary document, in so far as its concept of how politics should function is fundamentally rooted in the rights of the individual. From another perspective, however, the authenticity of the First Amendment should be brought into question. For example, the United States was a society that was on a fundamental level also constituted by a systematic racism. The genocide of the Native Americans that led to the formation of the United States as we now know it has never been addressed; furthermore, systematic racism has also appeared in the form of slavery and its descendent segregation, which the African-American community could only overturn in the 1960s through the Civil Rights movement. Furthermore, it is debatable as to whether this systematic racism in the United States has truly been overturned, as the recent demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri have demonstrated. From this perspective, I would like to address the question of freedom of speech from a perhaps unorthodox level: certainly, freedom of speech is an important value, but if this speech itself bears no effect on the structure of government, then the freedom of speech is essentially useless. Namely, freedom of speech may be granted to a certain extent, but the true value of this principle is grounded in the extent to which it may affect change.
My own personal background and family history arises from the Middle East. In this cultural milieu another set of social normativities are proposed which differ from those of the United States of America as expressed in the First Amendment. For example, in Middle Eastern countries there is a pronounced emphasis placed on various normativities that are related to tradition, be they cultural or theological in nature. This is an entirely different world-view than what is expressed in the First Amendment, especially if we consider elements of freedom of speech. For example, freedom of speech, in essence, attempts to guarantee that the individual is allowed to state whatever he or she wants. On a purely common sense level, this appears to be an admirable principle. Why should individuals not be allowed to express their feelings on various political, religious and cultural issues? Why should individuals not be allowed to express their concerns regarding fundamental issues of oppression when they see that the system fails to address oppression and resolve it, but instead promotes it? At this level, it appears that this is exactly what freedom of speech appears to endorse: the ability to promote systematic change when oppression in all its various forms are present.
However, as we know from American history, the First Amendment did not guarantee the elimination of oppression. In other words, even though individuals may be allowed to say whatever they want, this does not mean that the overall social climate will change. For example, the question of the oppression of African-Americans continued well into the 1960s and arguably continues today even though the First Amendment exists. Furthermore, the question of the genocide of and land-taking from the Native Americans has never been addressed by the United States government. It is as though the United States as a society likes to forget that its entire society is founded on the stealing of lands from an autoctonous population as well as their systematic murder and displacement. Hence, whereas the First Amendment and the right to free speech seems entirely commendable on a theoretical level, there is an outstanding question in American history as to whether this ethical commitment has been achieved in practice.
In the Middle East, from where my background originates, there was never such an explicit commitment to free speech. The culture is firmly rooted in traditional ways of living. From the perspective of the Western world and the United States specifically, this may be seem to be a shortcoming. However, from another perspective, it could be argued that the Middle East never needed such a formulation. This is not to state that in the Middle East there have not existed forms of oppression. Instead, the First Amendment seems to be an attempt by the U.S. political structure to address and at the same time ignore systematic issues of racism and oppression in its system. Namely, if oppression exists, the political structure can always say: the First Amendment exists, you are free to protest this oppression. However, the question emerges: what about fundamental change? Allowing anyone to say whatever they want to say is not enough to change a system that is oppressive. In American history, the First Amendment did not eliminate systematic racism. Rather, the First Amendment, and in particular the right to freedom of speech appears to be a mechanism that the government overuses in order to promote its own fairness: in other words, just because the First Amendment exists does not mean a freedom from oppression exists. This requires a fundamental change which perhaps is not possible in American society.
From my own Middle East background, there were also attempts to eliminate inequality and oppression. For example, the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, wrote the constitution of Medina, which aimed to provide a fair and equal system for a diverse number of ethnic groups. Arguably, the constitution of Mohammed, peach be upon him, was the first democratic constitution in the world. In other words, the First Amendment, from this perspective, and the right to freedom of speech in American culture, does not appear so new and innovative. This is further underscored by the systematic racism which, despite freedom of speech, has not been addressed in American culture. Freedom of speech, in other words, is one thing; creating a society that is truly fair and just is another. In the worst case scenario, the right to freedom to speech can even be abused by those in power, who wish to say, on the one hand, that people are free to say whatever they wish, but, on the other hand, change to the system against which people protest is impossible.