Freedom of Speech, or the right to express oneself, verbally and in writing, as one chooses, and how, when, to whom, and in what manner one chooses, is a guarantee of all American citizens, protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Specifically, the First Amendment to the Constitution states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances
." It is my opinion that freedom of speech has always been, and remains, a necessary component of any open society. However, the political and social value of freedom of speech tends to become forgotten when a people feel that they are unsafe, or begin to feel threatened by their own peers (current American fear of terrorism "from within" is one such example; another was the reticence of many Americans, in the run-up to the Iraq War, to speak out against it for fear of seeming "unpatriotic." At times such as these, freedom of speech can easily give way to both censorship and self-censorship. It is my opinion, however, that freedom of speech must be protected by law, and insisted upon by individual citizens and groups, to the full extent of the U.S. Constitution, within popular, unpopular, and ambiguous national circumstances alike.
From time to time, freedom of speech also is threatened, or comes under attack, within academic, corporate, or other public circumstances or settings. For example, University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill recently came under attack for comments he made in a public speech, in which he compared victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, those who happened to be working inside New York's World Trade Center that day and perished, to cogs in Hitler's war machine. Understandably, Churchill's remarks resulted in enormous public anger, outrage, resentment, animosity, and even threats on his own life. Demands were made from everywhere for Churchill to now have his university tenure revoked, be fired, or worse. As poor in judgment; harsh; thoughtless and cruel as Churchill's remarks may have been, however, under the First Amendment, he still had the right to make them, and in my opinion, the freedom of speech of even someone like him should be protected. If not, it is just to easy for a society of ours to begin granting freedom of speech to those who have things to say we agree with and denying it to others. That is no freedom of speech at all.
The strength of the First Amendment, in fact, is that it protects everyone's free speech, not just desirable free speech According to Derechos Human Rights:
Freedom of expression is one of the most fundamental rights that individuals enjoy. It is fundamental to the existence of democracy and the respect of human dignity. It is also one of the most dangerous rights, because freedom of expression means the freedom to express one's discontent with the status quo and the desire to change it. As such, it is one of the most threatened rights, with governments - and even human rights groups - all over the world constantly trying to curtail it
The guarantee of free speech is both a sign of an open society and a protection that distinguishes the United States from other, less open societies that offer their citizens no such protections. Freedoms guaranteed United States citizens based on the First Amendment include freedoms of "speech; press; religion, assembly and petition" ("About the First Amendment"). Further, "Without the First Amendment, religious minorities could be persecuted, the government might well establish a national religion, protesters could be silenced, the press could not criticize government, and citizens could not mobilize for social change" ("About the First Amendment"). Freedom of speech also protects movies, videos, song lyrics, advertisements, and other communications that may not be to everyone's taste. The alternative to freedom of speech is government censorship. As Wikipedia points out, however: "The philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed that people may be hesitant to speak freely not because of fear of government retribution but because of social pressures.
" That is, when an individual states an opinion that is not mainstream, or is considered unpopular, he or she might be subjected to peer pressure to change or retract the opinion; community rejection; disdain or ostracism, or even threatening or violent reactions from others. As Tocqueville correctly predicted, the fear of such reaction to the exercise of free speech, on the part of many individuals, even with the free speech protections granted by the U.S. Constitution, often functions as a sort of self censorship.
This is especially true, in my own opinion, when, for one reason or another, national emotions run high, in a negative sense, due to fear, anxiety, anger, etc. A great danger at such times, and one I have seen first hand in recent years, is that of self-censorship, rather than speaking the truth as one sees it, even if others (perhaps even a majority) disagree. When the United States first declared war on Iraq, I read and heard about (and personally observed) a great many individuals in academic, professional, or other settings disagreeing vigorously, in private and among like-minded friends, with the war for all sorts of good and logical reasons (which, as it turns out in hindsight, have now almost all been confirmed), but afraid to speak up, sign petitions, send e-mails, or be seen at rallies because they thought their words and actions might be seen as "unpatriotic." Their fear at the time (within a nation that supposedly guarantees and protects free speech for all) of speaking up against the Iraq War was that it could even have serious personal or professional repercussions.
However, I wondered then, and now, if the war might not actually have happened after all, if the millions of citizens who truly opposed it, but feared saying so, would have all exercised their freedom of speech. It is at times like this, moreover, that the bedrock American idea of freedom of speech comes under greatest attack, yet must be protected all the more.
When citizens reach a point where they cannot tolerate one another's diverse opinions, and begin, then, to engage in censorship, self-censorship, or both, it is a sign that the openness that has always been a hallmark of American society is beginning to break down.
Some might still argue that free speech the Founding Fathers described has simply become too dangerous, especially in the times we live in now: too likely to incite violence by one citizen against another; one group against another, or bring about other unpleasant consequences. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) points out:
historically, at times of national stress -- real or imagined -- First Amendment rights come under enormous pressure. During the Red Scare of the early
1920s, thousands were deported for their political views. During the McCarthy period, the infamous blacklist ruined lives and careers. Today, the creators, producers and distributors of popular culture are often blamed for the nation's deep social problems. Calls for censorship threaten to erode free speech.
The First Amendment exists precisely to protect the most offensive and controversial speech from government suppression. The best way to counter obnoxious speech is with more speech. Persuasion, not coercion, is the solution
Free speech has been imperiled in the past in America, even early on. One famous example is the Sedition Act of 1789. Jedidiah Peck was arrested during this time for daring to circulate a petition critical of the sedition act: David Brown was arrested for publicly campaigning against the Stamp Act, the Sedition Act, Alien Bills, and the Land Tax