Recently we celebrated free speech week in the United States. This supreme value should not be a controversial issue in our country; after all, James Madison enshrined this principle in the Bill of Rights, and the courts have time and time again upheld it against all kinds of politically-motivated challenges.
As Hispanics in the U.S., we all have different backgrounds with different histories, nonetheless a feature all too common in the societies we or our family left behind is the little protection that governments and institutions provide to this basic freedom. Whether this be in the form of repression and outright banning of newspapers in places such as Cuba or Venezuela, or the harassment and intimidation in Ecuador or Nicaragua, or even worse the killing of journalists in Mexico for denouncing corruption, we can see all too clearly the insufficient guarantees for freedom of expression.
This being the case, it is chilling to see limits on free expression here in the United States. Sadly, many colleges, universities and state governments have created regulations and laws with the ultimate purpose to stifle discourse and pressure people to self-censor, in order to avoid harassment and the so-called “heckler’s veto.”
There are many reason why the United States is the leader in education in the world, but perhaps none is more decisive in this area that academic freedom. The banning of books, movies, or speakers simply because you disagree with their ideas has a totalitarian scent that should be anathema in America.
As Hispanics, we tend to look on with a degree of confusion to the national discussion on speech restrictions. Why is this the case in a country with such a rich tradition protecting this right? What are the motives of its antagonists? What are they traying to accomplish?
One thing is certain, where the marketplace of ideas is heavily regulated, people are not exposed to ideas that challenge their own, and the whole country suffers missed opportunities as a result.
In Cuba, 57 years of socialism have impoverished the island, but even more than the physical effects, the totalitarian Castro rule has had deep-rooted psychological effects in the Cuban people. Today Cubans are afraid to speak their mind, in some cases, even to their own spouse or friends. The repression of the regime has instilled the notion that the “policia esta en la cabeza” (the policeman is in your head), so in a very real sense, people police their own thoughts out of fear they may be “counterrevolutionary.”
If the opponents of free speech in the U.S. get their way, their main accomplishment will be to destroy American society as we know it, killing the dynamic marketplace of ideas that has made America unique. Just as in too many places around the world, the “policeman in your head,” will stifle open debate about ideas, even before law and regulation do.
For U.S. Hispanics, the prospect of transforming American from the land where we achieve our American Dream to one that looks like the country ourselves or parents or grandparents left behind is not something we can be indifferent too. There is no American Dream if one cannot formulate and freely express what that dream looks like for each of us.