No other democratic society in the world permits personal freedoms to
the degree of the United States of America. Within the last sixty years,
American courts, especially the Supreme Court, have developed a set of
legal doctrines that thoroughly protect all forms of the freedom of
expression. When it comes to evaluating the degree to which we take
advantage of the opportunity to express our opinions, some members of
society may be guilty of violating the bounds of the First Amendment by
publicly offending others through obscenity or racism. Americans have
developed a distinct disposition toward the freedom of expression
The First Amendment clearly voices a great American respect toward the
freedom of religion. It also prevents the government from “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.”
Since the early history of our country, the protection of basic freedoms
has been of the utmost importance to Americans.
In Langston Hughes’ poem, “Freedom,” he emphasizes the struggle to
enjoy the freedoms that he knows are rightfully his. He reflects the
American desire for freedom now when he says, “I do not need my freedom
when I’m dead. I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.” He recognizes the need
for freedom in its entirety without compromise or fear.
I think Langston Hughes captures the essence of the American
immigrants’ quest for freedom in his poem, “Freedom’s Plow.” He accurately
describes American’s as arriving with nothing but dreams and building
America with the hopes of finding greater freedom or freedom for the first
time. He depicts how people of all backgrounds worked together for one
I selected Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a fictitious example of
the evils of censorship in a world that is becoming illiterate. In this
book, the government convinces the public that book reading is evil because
it spreads harmful opinions and agitates people against the government.
The vast majority of people accept this censorship of expression without
question and are content to see and hear only the government’s propaganda.
I found this disturbing yet realistic. Bradbury’s hidden opposition to
this form of censorship was apparent throughout the book and finally
prevailed in the end when his main character rebelled against the practice
of burning books.
Among the many forms of protests are pickets, strikes, public speeches
and rallies. Recently in New Jersey, more than a thousand community
activists rallied to draft a “human” budget that puts the needs of the poor
and handicapped as a top priority. Rallies are an effective means for
people to use their freedoms effectively to bring about change from the
Freedom of speech is constantly being challenged as is evidenced in a
recent court case where a Gloucester County school district censored
reviews of two R-rated movies from a school newspaper. Superior Court
Judge, Robert E. Francis ruled that the student’s rights were violated
under the state Constitution. I feel this is a major break through for
students’ rights because it limits editorial control of school newspapers
by educators and allows students to print what they feel is important.
A newly proposed bill (A-557) would prevent school officials from
controlling the content of student publications. Critics of the bill feel
that “student journalists may be too young to understand the
responsibilities that come with free speech.” This is a valid point;
however, it would provide an excellent opportunity for them to learn about
their First Amendment rights that guarantees free speech and freedom of the
In his commencement address to Monmouth College graduates, Professor
Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School defended the broad right to free
speech. He stated, “My message to you graduates is to assert your rights,
to use them responsibly and boldly, to oppose racism, to oppose sexism, to
oppose homophobia and bigotry of all kinds and to do so within the spirit
of the First Amendment, not by creating an exception to it.” I agree that
one should feel free to speak openly as long as it does not directly or
indirectly lead to the harm of others.
One of the more controversial issues was the recent 2 Live Crew
incident involving obscenity in rap music. Their record, “As Nasty as They
Wanna Be,” was ruled obscene in federal court. They were acquitted of the
charges and quickly became a free speech martyr. Although many stores
pulled the album, over two million copies sold as a result of the incident.
I feel that in this case the principles of free speech have been abused
because young children can purchase and listen to this obscene music.
The American flag, symbol of our country’s history and patriotism, has
also become a topic of controversy. The controversy was over the right to
burn the flag without punishment. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan
offered the response that “if there is a bedrock principle underlying the
First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression
of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or
disagreeable.” Burning the flag is considered a form of symbolic speech
and therefore is protected under the First Amendment. As in the 2 Live
Crew case, I feel that we are protecting the wrong people in this case.
The minority is given precedence at the sacrifice of the majority.
The book, American Voices, is a collection of essays on the freedom of
speech and censorship. I chose to put this collection of essays into my
book because they represent the strong central theme of freedom of
expression as the cornerstone of American government, culture and life.
Each essay strongly defends a case for free commercial speech. Each was
generally in favor of fewer limitations on freedom of expression.
The American voice on freedom has been shaped throughout the course of
history by the initial democratic notions of the immigrants to the same
desire for greater freedom that we have today. The freedom of speech has
constantly been challenged and will continue to be challenged in the
future. It is important that we learn from the precedented cases of the
past of our constitutionally protected rights so that in the future
authority will not violate our freedoms or oppress our liberty.
Ever since colonial times, the protection of personal freedoms in the
United States has been significantly important. Even in the early stages
of American history there was an urge to put legally protected freedoms
into written government documents. The result was the drafting of the first
ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, by James Madison.
The applications of the personal freedoms described in the Bill of Rights,
particularly the freedom of speech, have been challenged repeatedly in
American courts of law and elsewhere. These incidents and challenges of
authority reflect the defensive American attitude toward the ever important
freedom of expression and the growing significance of personal rights
throughout American history.
In Colonial America, members of diverse nationalities had opposing
views on government, religion, and other subjects of interest. Serious
confrontations were prevented because of the vast lands that separated
groups of varying opinions. A person could easily settle in with other
like believers and be untouched by the prejudices and oppression of others.
For this reason, Unitarians avoided Anglican or Puritan communities.
Quakers and Anabaptists were confined to Pennsylvania and Rhode Island
while Catholics were mainly concentrated in Maryland. As the United States
grew larger and larger, these diverse groups were forced to live together.
This may have caused individual liberties to be violated because of the
distrust and hostile feelings between ethnic and religious groups.
Most of the initial assemblies among the colonies considered
themselves immune from criticism. They actually issued warrants of arrest,
interrogated, fined, and imprisoned anyone accused of libeling the assembly
as a whole or any of its members. Many people were tracked down for
writing or speaking works of offense.
The first assembly to meet in America, the Virginia House of
Burgesses, stripped Captain Henry Spellman of his rank when he was found
guilty of “treasonable words.” Even in the most tolerant colonies,
printing was strictly regulated. The press of William Bradford was seized
by the government when he printed up a copy of the colony’s charter. He
was charged with seditious libel and spent more than a year in prison.
A more famous incident was the trial of John Peter Zenger which
established the principle of a free press. In his newspaper he published
satirical ballads regarding William Cosby, the unpopular governor, and his
council. His media was described “as having in them many things tending to
raise seditions and tumults among the people of this province, and to fill
their minds with a contempt for his majesty’s government.” The grand jury
did not indict Zenger and the General Assembly refused to take action. The
defendant was acquitted on the basis that in cases of libel the jury should
judge both law and the facts.
James Alexander was the first colonial writer to develop a philosophy
on the freedom of speech. He founded the American Philosophical Society
and masterminded the Zenger defense. Alexander’s chief conviction was
“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar in a free government: when this
support is taken away, the constitution is dissolved and tyranny is erected
on its ruins.”
The original Constitution did not contain a bill of rights because the
convention delegates felt that individual rights were in no danger and
would be protected by the states. However, the lack of a bill of rights
was the strongest objection to the ratification of the Constitution.
Less than a decade after the Bill of Rights had been adopted it met
its first serious challenge. In 1798, there was a threat of war with
France and thousands of French refugees were living in the United States.
Many radicals supported the French cause and were considered “incompatible
with social order.” This hysteria led Congress to enact several alien and
sedition laws. One law forbade the publication of false, scandalous or
malicious writing against the government, Congress or the President. The
penalty for this crime was a $2,000 fine and two years in prison.
The public was enraged at these laws. Thomas Jefferson and James
Madison pleaded for freedom of speech and the press. The alien and
sedition laws became a prime issue in the presidential election of 1800.
Soon after Jefferson was elected, the Sedition Act expired and those who
had been convicted under it were immediately pardoned.
The next attack on the First Amendment occurred in 1835. President
Andrew Jackson proposed a law that would prohibit the use of mail for
“incendiary publications intended to instigate the slaves to insurrection.”
John C. Calhoun of South Carolina led a special committee that opposed the
proposal on grounds that it conflicted with the First Amendment. The
proposal was defeated because it was a form of censorship.
The next violation of the principles contained in the First Amendment
came on January 2, 1920. Under the direction of A. Mitchell Palmer,
Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General, about 500 FBI agents and police raided
3,000 Russians and other European immigrants, looking for Communists to
deport. The victims were arrested without warrants, homes were ransacked,
personal property was seized, and they were hauled off to jail.
An even more vicious episode was known as “McCarthyism,” an incident
in the 1950’s when Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin proclaimed that
the federal government had been thoroughly infiltrated by Communist agents.
His attacks on United States information libraries abroad led to the
burning of some books accused of being Communist propaganda. Reduced
congressional support caused many librarians to resign and the closing of
libraries. On the morning of December 16, 1965, thirteen year old Mary Beth
Tinker went to school in Des Moines, Iowa. She and her fifteen year old
brother, John, had decided to wear black armbands as a protest to the
Vietnam War. In advance to their arrival, the principal had decided that
any student wearing an arm- band would be told to remove it, stating that,
“The schools are no place for demonstrations.” If the student refused, he
would be suspended until the armband was permanently removed. On December
16, the Tinkers refused to remove their armbands. They were suspended and
did not return to school until after January 1, when by a previous decision
the protest had ended.
The students brought suit in federal court to confirm their First
Amendment right to wear the black armbands. They lost in The Federal
District Court on grounds that this type of symbolic expression might
disturb school discipline. The United States Court of Appeals for the
Eighth Circuit was divided equally (4-4) so the decision remained
On February 24, 1969, the United States Supreme Court decided in the
students’ favor by a vote of 7 to 2. The Tinker v. Des Moines Independent
School District decision was a landmark case for students’ rights and
liberties. Speaking for the majority of the Court, Justice Abe Fortas
wrote, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their
constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse
During the sixties and early seventies a new wave of court battles for
First Amendment freedoms emerged. The freedom of speech was recognized as a
vital element in a democratic society. Censorship and the infringement of
First Amendment rights, especially among students and their newspapers,
could not and would not be tolerated. American citizens took a firm stand
against the government and authority at important times when they could
have yielded to the oppressive violations of their rights.
“Amendments to the Constitution.” Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1965 ed.
Langston Hughes, The Panther and the Lash (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, Inc., 1967), 55.
Langston Hughes, Selected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.,
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973).
Donna Leusner, “Social Services Advocates Rally for ‘Human’ Touch in
State Budget,” The Star Ledger, 9 April 1991: A-3.
“Student Wins Freedom of Speech Case,” Daily Record, 24 April 1991:
Bob McHugh, “‘Free Speech’ Moves for School Newspapers,” The Star
Ledger, 4 May 1991: A-3.
Cathy Bugman, “Monmouth Grads Hear Top Lawyer Defend Broad Right to
Free Speech,” The Star Ledger, 27 May 1991: A-9.
David Gates, “The Importance of Being Nasty,” Newsweek, 2 July 1990:
Walter Isaacson, “O’er the Land of the Free,” Time, 3 July 1989:
American Voices (New York: Phillip Morris, 1987).
The First Freedom Today (Chicago: American Library, 1984), 3.
The First Freedom Today, 4.
The First Freedom Today.
The First Freedom Today, 5.
The First Freedom Today.
American Voices (New York: Phillip Morris, 1987), 292.
The First Freedom Today, 5.
The First Freedom Today, 7.
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American Voices. New York: Phillip Morris, 1987.
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Bugman, Cathy. “Monmouth Grads Hear Top Lawyer Defend Broad Right to Free
Speech.” The Star Ledger,27 May 1991: A-9.
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Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1981.
Isaacson, Walter. “O’er the Land of the Free.” Time, 3 July 1989: 14-15.
Kalven, Harry, Jr. A Worthy Tradition. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Leusner, Donna. “Social Services Advocates Rally for ‘Human’ Touch in
State Budget.” The Star Ledger, 9 April 1991: A-3.
McHugh, Bob. “‘Free Speech’ Moves for School Newspapers.” The Star
Ledger, 4 May 1991: A-3.
“Student Wins Freedom of Speech Case.” Daily Record, 24 April 1991: A-2.