Filibustering – has free speech become a threat to democracy?

Some call them necessary political tools, while others describe them as a threat to the legitimacy of democracy. But of one thing we can be certain – filibusters are a big deal, and a weapon of considerate power when allowed.

But what is a filibuster? Filibustering has been defined as “an effort to prevent action in a legislature by making a long speech or a series of speeches”. It is an attempt to stop a decision from being taken on a specific matter within a set time limit. One of the longest spoken filibusters was an impressive 24 hours and 18 minutes, and was held by Senator Storm Thurmond of South Carolina, filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Though Senator Thurmond didn’t speak for the full 24 hours (taking breaks to eat or answer questions), it was nevertheless a remarkable feat.

Washington DC – Capitol Hill. Photo: Flickr.

The original purpose of the filibuster in the United States was to ensure that minority opinions were heard, and thereby ensuring a better democratic process. Since 1917 there have been 1,300 filibusters in the American Senate, but, prior to the 1970s, they were relatively uncommon. However, by 1990 a total of 413 senate filibusters had taken place, and the usage of filibustering continues to reach new levels.

Protest sign “Filibusters Waste Time”. Photo: Flickr.

Filibustering is clearly on the rise, but only by a minority in the Senate. Senators representing only 11% of the United States have stopped the Senate from discussing important legislation. According to critics of the practice this allows a minority to control the majority, and individuals to impose their personal political agendas on the work of the American government.

The criticism mentioned above seems to be having some effect, and in 2013 the Senate voted in favour of changing the rules that enabled Republicans to block Barack Obama’s nominees for various administration posts. The change was partly a result of the controversial decision by Republican senators to block a Georgetown law professor, Nina Pillard’s, nomination. This nomination was to sit on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit (which would have made her the 6th woman to do so during the court’s 120 years of existence).

Alltinget – The Icelandic Parliament. Photo: Flickr.

Filibustering is not only an American issue, however, and has been causing controversy and headlines all over the world. The Icelandic prime minister recently publicly complained of the oppositions filibustering, which, he stated, seemed to encompass all issues, including seemingly non-controversial ones. In Britain, filibustering became popular among Irish nationalists in the 1880s, in an attempt to force the Parliament to take home rule seriously. The tradition has continued, and in 1983 the Labour MP John Golding spoke for 11 hours and 15 minutes about the British Telecom privatisation bill.

In Italy, filibustering has recently been taken to a whole new level, combining the old practice with new technology. In September of 2015, the opposition party Northern League used a computer-generated filibuster, which created a mind-boggling 510, 294 amendments to a governmental reform of the Senate, in an attempt to block it.

It seems clear to most that using exaggerated speeches to delay or prevent the democratic process, goes against the core values that are the building blocks of modern democracies. Though the purpose of filibusters was so that minorities would be heard, they have resulted in something completely different. Minorities now have the power to set the agenda, and are thereby holding many political assemblies hostage. Obviously, this constitutes a democratic problem, and is something that governments worldwide need to address.

Ebba Coghlan

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