on Speech

“The framers of the constitution knew human nature as well as we do. They too had lived in dangerous days; they too knew the suffocating influence of orthodoxy and standardized thought. They weighed the compulsions for restrained speech and thought against the abuses of liberty. They chose liberty.” ~ U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Beauharnais v. Illinois, 342 U.S. 250, 287 (1952) (dissenting)

During colonial times, the idea of free speech was quite different here in America than on the British mainland. English Common law made criticizing the government, which they considered a form of sedition, a crime. The English believed that for government to survive anarchy, the people should always have a good opinion of it. It mattered not if the criticism was true; if it made the government look bad, or more correctly, embarrassed their leaders, it was prosecuted as a serious crime.

However, in the age of Enlightenment, the colonists realized the importance of dissent in the pursuit of knowledge. They had far fewer prosecutions for seditious libel than in Britain. The differences between England and the colonist’s attitudes on speech were on full display during the trial of newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger in 1735. He was being prosecuted for seditious libel due to his publication of criticisms of the Governor of New York, William Cosby. Andrew Hamilton defended Zenger, arguing that truth should be a valid defense for the crime of seditious libel. However, the court rejected this argument. Nevertheless, Hamilton, successfully convinced a jury to ignore the unjust law and they acquitted Zenger.

After the American Revolution, there was great debate between two factions on how to create a new government for our young nation. The Federalists, like Alexander Hamilton, favored a strong federal government. The Anti-Federalists, like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, favored a weaker federal government. During and after the Constitution ratification process, concern was expressed by more states and by the Anti-Federalists that the Constitution as written, put too much power in the hands of a federal government. In response to these fears, the Bill of Rights was drafted and adopted in 1791 to more clearly limit the federal government’s power.

Since revolutionary times, and despite our Constitutional protections, our government and elected officials still try to silence dissent and promote censorship. And curiously, they use the same argument Britain used to during the colonial era. Like our former King George, they believe that censorship ultimately protects a people by protecting government entities. However, as we all know, all censorship does is ultimately protect wrongdoing from being questioned, and the truth from being found out. Censorship and the silencing of dissent isn’t really about what’s good for the people. It’s more about protecting the fragile feelings and beliefs of those in power.

Our country was founded by people who fled their homelands in direct response to restrictions placed on their ability to live, speak, write, worship, and assemble freely. Americans understand that while we may disagree with each other, these basic freedoms are what unite us.  Sadly, too many of our elected leaders ignore our history and have forgotten their place. Instead of government existing to protect the freedoms of the people, it is being used to punish those who dare question their authority. And what is worse, taxpayer money – our money – is being used to do it. The Constitution does not provide for the freedom from being offended (or embarrassed). However, the misuse of the public purse to protect political – or seemingly popular – sensibilities and punish the opposition is what should be offensive to all Americans. It disregards our Constitution, the very document that our public servants swore an oath to honor and support, the very document so many fought for and died to protect.

Perhaps it’s time we remind them of their oath to support and not to abridge.

“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.” ~ 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

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