Freedom of the Press, Speech and Liberty

Independence Day, for me, is symbolic of the ability to freely express opinions; the hallmark of a free society. It was Thomas Jefferson who wrote, in 1791, that, “Government being founded on opinion, the opinion of the public, even when it is wrong, ought to be respected to a certain degree.”

In the United States, it is commonplace to hear partisans and pundits on both sides of the political spectrum accuse one another of intellectual laziness and moral laxity. I maintain that it is impossible to prove such charges because they are dependent upon the perception and cultural lens of the individual leveling the charge.

The issues raised by the debates over the intrinsic value of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight, and the Golden Compass series provide examples of this tendency. The current legal challenges have expressed a wide array of viewpoints that represent the opposing ends of the sociopolitical spectrum and the many shades of grey in between. These debates have resulted in many intensely heated exchanges and debates between conservatives and liberals.

Social conservatives argue that these series promote religious systems and beliefs that are contrary to the religious traditions of the United States by advocating intellectual principles that denigrate traditional forms of education. They favor school libraries limiting access or completely barring students from accessing the aforementioned series by either restricting the ability of students to checkout their books, or by banning them from collections outright.

Conversely, social liberals maintain that interest in these series encourages students to read and serve to develop literacy skills and provide opportunities to nurture critical thinking. Liberals assert that by limiting the right of students to read series in the vein of The Lord of the Rings promotes a culture which embraces censorship and inhibits the intellectual development of students. Being too restrictive in allowing students access to this literature would be inimical to the freedoms of press and speech as enshrined in the First Amendment.

Despite their differences, there exists at least one point upon which both parties can agree as a matter of principle. Any attempt to mandate or make compulsory a single opinion is anathema to each. Every conservative, liberal, moderate or independent regardless of social, economic or political leanings would concur with Voltaire’s long-held maxim — “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The fact that a dispute over a series of books that began its life as an issue at school board meeting has evolved into a court case and made its way into a legal setting is deeply disturbing.

It seems to me the continued endurance and health of the republic requires that individuals take great care and remain wary of utilizing the legal system to impose through force of law an individual viewpoint as Robert Jackson eloquently pointed out in 1943.

Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.

Officials face the dilemma of censorship on a daily basis and must tread carefully because the freedoms of speech and the press are among the most treasured by Americans. Yet of all the rights endowed to the American people, the freedoms of speech and press are the most difficult to wield. The power to use speech freely grants to an individual the ability to influence others as President Woodrow Wilson once pointed out.

I have always been among those who believed that the greatest freedom of speech was the greatest safety, because if a man is a fool, the best thing to do is to encourage him to advertise the fact by speaking. It cannot be so easily discovered if you allow him to remain silent and look wise, but if you let him speak, the secret is out and the world knows that he is a fool. So it is by the exposure of folly that it is defeated; not by the seclusion of folly, and in this free air of free speech men get into that sort of communication with one another which constitutes the basis of all common achievement.

Considering the current social, political, and economic ongoing within the nation we as Americans possess a duty to exert the rights, privileges, and duties under the Constitution of the United States and to maintain the vitality of our republic. The continued freedom of the nation lies within their respect for the liberties of the individual as Learned Hand asserted in 1944.

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near 2,000 years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.

It is only with the preservation of liberties that justice and freedom can endure, continue to grow and flourish in the face of all challenges.

One comment

  1. Private schools and universities are entitled, of course, to have whatever books they want in their libraries, but banning The Lord of the Rings because they “promote religious systems and beliefs that are contrary to the religious traditions of the United States”? Seriously?

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