Free Speech Week
GNAT-TV News Project
What is Free Speech Week?
Free Speech Week (FSW) is a yearly event to raise public awareness of the importance of free speech in our democracy- and to celebrate that freedom. As freedom of speech is a right all Americans share, this non-partisan, non-ideological event is intended to be a unifying celebration.
Free Speech Week is one of those moments to celebrate our history of protected political dialogue and warn about creeping or subtle threats to it. Sometimes those threats aren’t subtle at all, as this chilling story in Monday’s (Oct. 17) New York Times illustrates.
But the low comedy that has come to sadly be one way to describe the quality of the issues dialogue in our current presidential election raises a question of how much of a good thing untrammelled free speech might be. Where are the limits? What role do ordinary citizens and other watchdogs — which used to be the established mainline news media — play in ensuring the free speech is also fair speech? Or are they mutually at permanent odds?
Freedom of speech is one of those foundational, fundamental rights that define us as a nation and a political democracy. We’re not unique in that regard — other nations also enshrine freedom of speech, some with slightly different nuances. But we were the first nation in modern political history to make it a centerpiece in how we view the way in which citizens engage in civic and political discourse.
The freedom to critique the government, short of calling for armed insurrection or treasonable acts, goes alongside the freedoms of press and assembly set forth in the Bill of Rights which make our democracy dynamic and vibrant. Does it sometime get a little too vibrant?
Right now, with one of the most lamentable presidential elections in recent memory grinding to a merciful (we hope) conclusion, is one of those moments to ponder what are the responsibilities that need to accompany freedom of speech, before a good thing goes bad because of wretched excess or irresponsibility.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes set one memorable parameter to free speech when he wrote in an opinion handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Schenk vs. United States in 1919 that it wasn’t within the protection of the First Amendment’s free speech clause to shout “Fire!” In a crowded theater. You couldn’t knowingly say something that would encourage a public panic. That metaphor covers a lot of other ground but the basic principle is that free speech is not absolute and unlimited. It may be broadly exercised, and used to advocate all kinds of causes through statements, acts and expressions of varying kinds, but there is a line that can be crossed. You can’t just say and do anything and everything.
At this point I need to be clear that of course, freedom of speech must be protected from all the obvious threats, both from within and outside of the formal, official government. It’s a supreme irony that one of the biggest threats to free speech comes from the very government that purports to cherish it. Muzzling the press, discouraging the open flow of information and suppressing facts are only a few of the ways this can occur. Hillary Clinton’s penchant for secrecy and control are troubling examples of this. Anyone who can go 275 in between press conferences when you’re running for President rates a raised eyebrow or two.
But those pale in comparison to the outrageous lies, mis-truths, partial truths and deliberate distortions made by the other presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump. Which raises the question, in another ironic twist — can a candidate running for public office, especially the highest one of them all — have the right under our free speech doctrines to make statements without any factual foundation, or twist earlier comments out of context and knowingly use them to make a point or justify an election bid? Just how far does or should free speech extend in that case?
I would argue that free speech is an incalculably enormous gift handed down to us from earlier generations, but not an unalloyed one. As citizens, we too have a responsibility to scrutinize statements which raise question marks or red flags and determine if they hold up under that scrutiny. Politicians who say a wall should be constructed between country A and country B and that country B, the target of country A, will pay for it, need to be challenged to explain how that will happen. And throwing out little word bombs like calling into question an opponent’s health and well-being are irresponsible and those saying such things need to be challenged at every turn.
Citizen responsibility is the necessary corollary to free speech, and it’s a quality that seems to be in retreat here, although that may be simply a reaction to the vile campaign of Trump vs. Clinton. Just when the country needs a serious discussion about issues like national security, the economy, climate change, and a host of other questions, we get a tawdry discussion of unwanted sexual advances. That may be a good discussion to have, but does it have to bump the economy and national security off the front page? Just as you can’t advocate the overthrow of the government, or cause a public panic for the fun of it, citizens need to turn a skeptical eye towards virtually everything coming out of opposing political camps.
Free speech, when it is intentionally inaccurate speech, is just as dangerous as tightly circumscribed speech, of the kind practiced in authoritative dictatorships.
It’s worthwhile to be vigilant and sensitive to threats to free speech, whether from inside or outside the government. But along with freedom comes some modicum of responsibility to weigh candidate’s and other political statements up for scrutiny and factual analysis. If a candidate can get away with saying anything that he or she thinks will resonate with the voters, our democracy, and our right to free speech is degraded. It could open the door to not just a de facto diminishing of our rights to free speech, but eventually a de jure one. If all your information about politics comes from your Facebook feed or through other unvetted social media platforms, it may be worth pondering the reliability of those sources and that information.
For more information about Free Speech Week, visit http://www.freespeechweek.org/about-fsw/