By Gene Policinski
From The Freelance Star
Is there a more "American" trait than a citizen's voice speaking freely, either in words or in print?
Be it in the public square, a courtroom, or a classroom, through a newspaper editorial or in a blog on the World Wide Web; be it from a philosopher, leader, journalist, critic, concerned citizen, entertainer, or charlatan, free expression is the sound and the handbook of Liberty.
Democracy depends on many things, but principal among them are a citizenry that is both informed and involved in public debate on matters of public interest. Today's protesters for and against military involvement in Iraq, advocates and opponents on the abortion issue, those who see a need to increase taxes for education and those who see no need of a tax increase for any reason - all these Americans are both the purveyors and the products of freedoms that guarantee their right to freely express themselves.
Still, as much as Americans revere their freedoms, there are times when we collectively forget their ongoing value and succumb to the temptation to ban or punish opinions freely expressed that are repellent to the majority.
The role and right of Americans to speak freely, in words and in print, have many times faced challenges. In the early days of the republic, government laws such as the Alien and Sedition Act of 1797, powerful officials, and even rioting mobs would attempt to limit free voices and intimidate editors and reporters.
In the 1893 book "The Making of a Newspaper," author Melville Phillips penned a plainspoken-yet-eloquent description of newspapers and free expression of his time:
"It looks so cheap and - when one has gleaned the news from it - so worthless; certainly the making of it does not seem to have cost much in time, labor, brains, or money [but] the influence of American journalism reaches into every American home. A popular newspaper is in a sense, the voice of the people."
The First Amendment Center's "State of the First Amendment" national surveys track America's reverence for free expression. More than 90 percent of Americans say it is "essential" or "important" to be informed by a free press. And 98 percent say it is essential or important to "be able to speak freely about whatever you want."
... BUT NOT 'TOO' FREE
But those same surveys show annually that in any given year, about 40 percent of Americans don't want the free expression they see and hear. They would restrict music that might offend "anyone" and block speech that might offend certain people or groups. About that same number say the press "has too much freedom."
Those citizens are free to express their views without the fear that government officials will punish them for those opinions. Also, in many cases, their view springs from good intentions: They would ban lyrics that denigrate women and words that insult or carry messages of hate. Perhaps they are motivated by the regular reports in the press of journalists who plagiarize material or invent sources or facts in the hope of glory, career advancement, or ratings.
But they need to be reminded that music carries many messages, that the antidote to hate speech is more speech in opposition - that banning a tune, a tome, or a tirade has never worked in the long run. They also need to be reminded that for most journalists, getting it right is far more important than getting it "first."
The town square may be too traffic-ridden in most cities for speakers to be heard today, but diverse voices still reach us each day in the virtual town square that is the editorial pages of American newspapers. There, we converse, challenge, and opine on topics as diverse as taxes and prescription drugs, baseball rules and stadium construction, women's suffrage and civil rights, immigration and education, religion and ethics, freedom and fishing licenses.
We also need to remember that through our nation's history, even those who have come to the United States with voices of a different language find expression through the freedoms of the First Amendment.
Specialized newspapers and journals have met the needs of many ethnic, religious, and racial groups. Examples are the anti-slavery "North Star," created in 1847 by Frederick Douglass; "El Clamor Publico," published by Francisco Ramirez beginning in 1855; and the "Jewish Daily Forward" begun in 1897 by Russian emigre Abraham Cahan. In Spanish, Russian, Croat, and many more languages, such publications share the common characteristic of a free people speaking freely on issues of interest and substance.
'THE BASIS OF GOVERNMENT'
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787 that "the good sense of the American people is always going to be the greatest asset of the American government. Sometimes they might go astray, but they have the ability to right themselves. The people should always have the media to express opinions through. The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
Jefferson's "good sense" of the people can sometimes be subverted. Those who would censor in the name of their self-determined morality and those who would act on the basis of political correctness can find success in the short term through fear, intimidation, or demagogy. But try as they might - and some have tried mightily - those forces have been unable to take away our most basic freedom: to speak and write and express ourselves as we will.
As we enter the 21st century, it seems unlikely that the forces against free expression will make a frontal attack. Rather, the threat is the creeping call to correctness, the quiet voice of comfort, and the bluster of the false patriot who decries dissent as "un-American."
Those should not be the only voices in what Jefferson called "the marketplace of ideas." Citizens who believe in liberty must freely express themselves in support of freedom.
Recall what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1938, as totalitarian governments were on the rise:
"If the fires of freedom and civil liberties burn low in other lands, they must be made brighter in our own. If in other lands the press and books and literature of all kinds are censored, we must redouble our efforts here to keep them free. If in other lands the eternal truths of the past are threatened by intolerance, we must provide a safe place for their perpetuation."
By speaking out and writing freely, we keep the fire of freedom burning.
Policinski is executive director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.