It’s a sad irony of modern history that the free speech movement was birthed and then murdered by the left. In fact, the slow killing of free speech started when the movement had scarcely seen out its first decade. If you could pinpoint the moment the left turned against free speech, I would nominate the opening scenes of The Blues Brothers.
Don’t get me wrong, The Blues Brothers is a classic comedy, but it says everything you need to know about the cultural left’s attitudes to free speech. The film opens with the “Illinois Nazis” scene. This is a reference to the previous year’s Supreme Court decision in favour of actual Illinois Nazis, and their right to free speech. The First Amendment won again.
The Blues Brothers are having none of that. Instead, the titular characters attempt to run down the offending Nazis. Thus the template for leftists’ violent suppression of free speech is set .
In the 80s, though, the narrative was that it was the wicked right who were clamping down on free speech. This is only partially correct. Movements such as the Moral Majority certainly attacked popular entertainment, but the most insidious assault on free speech came from the political left.
The “Parents Music Research Center” was a Democrat initiative aimed at curbing the free speech of musicians. Like the censorious parents of Footloose, the PMRC dubbed modern music as “porn rock”, and vigorously sought to censor it. Probably realising that outright censorship was (at that time) a bridge too far, the PMRC instead tried to impose an insidious regime of mandatory labelling.
But, as Twisted Sister singer Dee Snider correctly saw, the labelling was a thin-edge-of-the-wedge for outright censorship, which would have a “chilling” effect, designed to cow artists and labels into self-censorship.
“The fans did not recognize what was happening,” Snider says. “They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s just a sticker’…That was the moron’s take on it. It was frustrating that people, the fans, were so apathetic and not smart enough to understand the significance of what was happening.”
“It wasn’t about helping parents to choose for their kids. It was used to sequester certain records; certain chains wouldn’t carry certain albums. The major chains were demanding record companies make alternate, censored printings of albums. That is another level of censorship.”
So, in 1984, Snider joined what must surely be one of the weirdest collaborations in the history of music: Dee Snider, Frank Zappa and John Denver, testifying together in Congress against the mandatory labelling initiative. As Snider recalls, he and Zappa, who met for the first time shortly before they testified, were nervous that clean-cut American boy John Denver was not going to be on their side. They needn’t have worried.
“His testimony was the most damaging,” Snider says. “’cause it was so unexpected. He made such powerful statements, likening the censorship movement to the Nazi book burnings. My God, you shouldn’t have seen the back-pedaling. He was righteous.”
Not only was the censorship movement deeply un-American, running counter to everything that had ever been ruled about the First Amendment, but many of its arguments were based on stupidity, if not outright lies.
“Ms Gore claimed that one of my songs, ‘Under the Blade’, had lyrics encouraging sadomasochism, bondage and rape,” Snider says. In fact, the song was inspired by guitarist Eddie Ojeda’s recent surgery. “The words in question are about surgery and the fear that it instils in people […] I can say categorically that the only sadomasochism, bondage and rape in this song is in the mind of Ms Gore.”
So, did what did Snider, Zappa and Denver’s testimony achieve? In the long run, not much, it would seem. The modern turn to ever-more stringent censorship has snowballed. Especially the censorship of material that upsets the left. For all the conventional wisdom that the religious right was the Great Satan of censorship, the reality is that the left was – and are – the greatest threat to free speech.
“It was the Reagan era […] but it should be noted, this was a Democrat-driven cause”, as Snider says. And it’s got worse. “All my concerns were justified and everything I was worried about played out just the way that I feared. There’s still a desire to censor and shut us up.”
And so we have arrived at the time when Berkeley, the birth place of the Free Speech Movement, is besieged by violent leftist mobs determined to stamp out “wrongthink”. The political left around the world are leading the charge to censor, silence, deplatform, and, by law and by violence, eradicate ideas they disagree with.
The left marshals the hand of law and the jackboot of the vigilante to stamp out, not just conservatives, but even centre-leftists who dare stray from the left-establishment narrative. Left-wing governments summarily Memory Hole subversive material, using the very same arguments of the PMRC: they’re “protecting” us from ourselves.
If only we’d listened to the freak, the country boy and the metalhead, all those years ago.