Our freedom of speech

Saturday, October 18, 2003

By John Heisserer

Today we gather to recognize and celebrate what has been called the touchstone of individual liberty, our freedom of speech, which is guaranteed to all by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

This fundamental right is over two centuries old, but its relevance is seen in our homes every evening as we watch post-9-11 developments worldwide. It is indeed fitting that we celebrate this right at a time when millions of people in Afghanistan, Iraq and other nations -- freed from tyrannical rule with our nation's assistance -- for the first time enjoy some measure of liberty. It should not mar the pride we feel at assisting these people in gaining their freedom that at the same time we debate the merits and costs of our help.

In September of 1789, our First Congress sent to the states for ratification the first 10 amendments to the Constitution known as the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from enacting any legislation "abridging the freedom of speech." It was no accident that freedom of speech was our first amendment, because it is truly one of our most precious freedoms. It became a part of our law upon ratification by the states in 1791.

The right of free speech protects us daily from tyranny and dictatorship and serves as a vehicle for positive change.

For 212 years, the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment have been the vehicle for monumental change in our society. Many changes brought about as a result of ordinary citizens exercising their right to freedom of expression were controversial at the time but are recognized today as being fundamental to an advanced society.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955, she was exercising her freedom of expression. She was an ordinary citizen who was not seeking fame or limelight. Mrs. Parks simply was reacting to a circumstance of injustice. She had the courage to exercise her First Amendment right to challenge that injustice, and the civil rights movement was born. Few would doubt that the events this brave lady set in motion have not led to a more enlightened nation for citizens of all races, religions and political persuasions.

Our nation was born out of the failure of the English monarchy to hear, consider and react to the dissent of its subjects. Freedom of expression as guaranteed by our First Amendment was put in place because of the wise perception of our Founding Fathers that, absent this fundamental freedom, this government of, by and for the people would be just another monarchy or tinhorn dictatorship unwilling to tolerate criticism from its people.

In our country, we often take for granted our freedom to criticize our government and government officials without fear of arrest in the middle of the night. Constructive criticism often strengthens, not weakens, our government. While today we don't face a hangman's noose for public dissent against a particular governmental policy, those who express views contrary to what may now be the accepted norm sometimes face insidious threats that truly stifle the type of spirited public debate that leads to good law and good government. Attacks on free speech come from all sides.

The so-called left has given us political correctness where even respectful comments that deviate from some nebulous and ever-changing elite theory of how to think, act and feel make us outcasts in their ever-tightening circle. The so-called right questions our patriotism if we dare express disagreement with any of their leaders whom they canonize and confer infallibility upon.

The truth of the matter is that both are enemies of freedom of speech. Both are guilty of failing to accept that the true greatness of this nation comes not from blindly following a narrow and rigid philosophy, but from free and open discussion of the best ideas from all sectors of this great melting pot and forging those ideas into a healthy consensus. This is what our Forefathers intended. This is our responsibility as citizens when using our freedom of speech.

Exercising our free speech should not be done haphazardly.

That process of exercising our freedom entails giving time and respectful consideration to all points of view, including points of view that many of us may view as bizarre. It also involves a responsibility on our part when suggesting positions on the great issues of the day, to research, study, ponder and consider our own positions so that we are prepared to defend our positions in free fair and respectful debate.

The great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed in reference to our constitutional right to freedom of speech that "it is not free thought for those that agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate." Those words penned by the Justice Holmes in 1929 continue to echo today and challenge each of us to do all in our power to preserve protect and defend our Constitution and our American way of life.

John Heisserer of Cape Girardeau is a judge in the 32nd Judicial Circuit. He made these remarks last week at the Freedom of Speech Run/Walk.

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