The very idea of freedom of speech is central to the existence of the United States of America. This idea, rejected throughout so much of history became the foundation of the nation created by Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and the rest of the American revolutionaries. The great Enlightenment thinker, Voltaire (Jean-Marie Arouet) was reportedly to have written, “I don’t agree with a word you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” There is dispute as to whether or not he said it, but the point is moot as that thought has permeated not only the American way of life, but the Western way of life as well. Protest, pickets, popular unrest without fear of imprisonment are as much a western ideal now as hamburgers, lane splitting motorcyle riding, heavy metal and strip joints! As most people know, the idea of free speech was throughout much of western history, and history in general, rejected. In fact, imprisonment was more likely the result should one choose to air their thoughts publicly either by the spoken word or the written one. The primary reason for this is the fact that most governments were monarchies, and many kings and petty rulers had a tenuous hold on power at best. In order to make sure that there was no one rousing the populace against them, kings and princes stifled free speech as much as they could. One such example was the imprisonment of the great mind of the Enlightenment (late 17th-18th Century) Voltaire. He was imprisoned in 1717 in the famous (or infamous) Bastille prison in France for writing satirical pieces about the French government, and so infuriated them that he wound up there for nearly a year. This event certainly didn’t dry up his pen, but one could argue that it made him more rabid in his denounciation of the French monarchy. Even in the United States, the supposed home for free speech, there have been killings in an attempt to crush free speech. Elijah Lovejoy, the American abolishonist, was killed by a pro slavery mob in Alton, Illinois in 1837 for his journalistic writings against slavery. Lovejoy had many defenders as well as critics, but the idea of free speech is one in which the theory seems to be much less dangerous than the reality. The most famous case may have been the death of Jean-Paul Marat during the French Revolution. Marat, who was penning revolutionary pieces daily through his newspaper L’ Ami du Peuple was stabbed to death in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday who was a royalist sympathizer. There are literally thousands of cases in which those that were practicing free speech were either imprisoned or killed if their speech didn’t match with ether the view of the government or the populace at large.
In the United States, the doctrine of free speech has been defined by the Supreme Court to have three “prongs”. Speech, which is defined by simply speaking, speech plus, which is defined by speech with an action, such as marching with a placard or some such thing, and finally symbolic speech, which consists of having some kind of symbol in place of regular speech. The defining court case for this type of speech was Tinker vs. Des Moines in 1969. There are numerouse websites and books devoted to this particular case, but suffice it to say that the wearing of an armband to protest the Vietnam war in a high school was protected by the First Amendment’s right to free speech as it was not deemed disruptive to the learning environment. It should also be noted here that there are limits to free speech as well as deemed by the United States Supreme Court. One such type of speech is seditious speech, the threatening of the existance of the United States government. Notice that the words used here are ” threatening the existance of”, meaning that a person cannot actively threaten to wipe out the goverment. Do not confuse this with criticizing the government as they are two separate things. Being critical of the government is acceptable, but threatening is not. One other item of note is on a person level. One cannot “knowingly speak or publish something false in an attempt to discredit or demean” another. Both types of speech are referred to as slander and libel respectively. There are degrees and limitations on this as for example you are a public figure. There is much more leeway as to what is acceptable or not. You are not as protected as a public figure, say, if you are a private one.
Any attorney that reads this will certainly take exception to what I’ve written here as there is so much detail missing from this post on free speech and its acceptanace or limitations. The point is that what I’ve mentioned are simply trying to establish a baseline for a reader that may not be fully aware of some of the rights and exception of free speech or its history. The real point of this post is the following: In our current state of affairs worldwide, those being the fear of terrorism, the fear of the rise of opposing viewpoints (conservative movements throughout Europe and the United States) dampening our willingness to accept free speech? Are we so uncomfortable with opposing viewpoints, whatever those viewpoints may be, that we are willing to allow for the interruption of messages, the stifling of speeches by interruptions by those that don’t agree, and are willing to allow the censorship of opposing views to willingly drown out opposition to a point of view or message?
If we are going to be a civilization that wishes to have free speech as part if its mantra, there must be an understanding that such speech is not only going to be uncomfortable for some, but downright angering. This is the price that we pay for a doctrine of free speech. The problem arises when said speech is uncomfortable for some and the reaction is to shut that speech down through protests, marches, or an interruption of an even to express THEIR OWN views via free speech. This is not at all free speech but rather, I would argue, a form of censorship. Using force, either by strong interruption or downright phyisical activisim to silence “the other side” is just as disruptive to free speech as any other method. Free speech must apply to all, especially if that speech is uncomfortable. That is the only way that free speech is protected and the only way to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of ideas, theories, arguments, and politics. To engage in a program of “silencing” or infringin upon the rights of others to hear what is being said simply because a group finds said speech offensive is tantamount to censorship, one of the most repugnant words in the western lexicon. Hear them and let those that would hear them make up their minds. Speak against them, debate them, but do not silence them. All must be heard if we are to say we espouse the doctrine of free speech.
I’m going to bet no one reading this article has heard of the classic book The Nazi Seizure of Power. If you’ve not, I