Freedom of Speech and Art: 3 Things to Know

I think it’s a good time to reexamine the concept of Freedom of Speech. You know, that ballyhooed concept that the United States was founded on. And for all you illustrators / graphic designers / writers / photographers out there with a single political thought in your head, this would be a nice explanation. And if you have been at any of the Occupy rallies, you should know some of your simple rights. I’ll try to keep this as neutral and objective as I can.

1: You are entitled to a great right, one few countries give
The First Amendment affords you not only Freedom of Speech but Free Exercise of Religion, Freedom of Association, Freedom to Congregate, and Freedom to Lobby. Basically, outside the most vile and ugly words / images, you can do whatever you want. Famously, a young man wearing a “F**K the Draft” jacket in front of Los Angeles City Hall was protected by this right.

When it comes to protest, traditionally the government has held time / place / manner restrictions. Public parks (such as Zucchoni Park and City Hall Park) are common, accepted places for the assembly of citizens. While the government can’t express viewpoints in these public spaces, YOU can. It can be almost anything. I think this is why so much art in the streets takes place on publicly owned grounds – they are the perfect display for free expression.

2: Except when you aren’t
Ten years ago, the Patriot Act enabled all law enforcement agencies to search any document / conversation in your life in the name of defense. This includes voicemails, texts, doctors prescriptions and blog posts all the same. The FBI has already admitted to more than 1000 instancse of abuse involving the Act. If that’s not scary enough, last week the National Defense Authorization Act was overwhelmingly passed by the U.S. Senate. This Act allows the military to arrest U.S. citizens on U.S. soil and hold them in military prisons without the right to legal counsel or a trial.

That’s right. Your elected representative has chosen to pass an Act that could strip you of your Constitutional rights to freedom of speech, adequate representation, and a fair trial. Glenn Greenwald hit the nail on the head, pointing to the exact provision in the Constitution that gets overturned. Even in the height of the Cold War (read: the possible nuclear extinction of the human race), the government never found it mandatory to place such an invasive ordinance. Senator Joseph McCarthy never had the guts to do such a thing because, back then, it would be un-American. Apparently it takes some nutcases with dookie and lighter fluid to make the Congress want to arrest the very people who gave them a job: the American Citizen.

3: It isn’t getting any better – so use your voice responsibly
In the face of these two acts, both of which severely infringe on your Constitutional rights, it is a prudent time to be responsible with your protest. Any police action taken against the Occupy movement specifically opposing the content of the speech is an abuse of power. A trademark of the occupy movement has been not stating goals even though most of the protesters (the ones I know range from photographers to tax attorneys) have clear objectives. The First Amendment doesn’t say you need a defined reason anyways.

There are other ways to watch what you are doing. If you want to read up on all varities of art law, you couldn’t do much better than Starving Artists Law. Or, if you are interested in learning more about the right to assemble and protest, this link is a great resource. If your voice is strongest online, it couldn’t hurt to check the Legal Guide for Bloggers.

And above all, don’t stop doing what you do best.


December 13, 2011 / By