No other democratic society in the world permits personal freedoms tothe degree of the United States of America.
Within the last sixty years,American courts, especially the Supreme Court, have developed a set oflegal doctrines that thoroughly protect all forms of the freedom ofexpression. When it comes to evaluating the degree to which we takeadvantage of the opportunity to express our opinions, some members ofsociety may be guilty of violating the bounds of the First Amendment bypublicly offending others through obscenity or racism. Americans havedeveloped a distinct disposition toward the freedom of expressionthroughout history.The First Amendment clearly voices a great American respect toward thefreedom of religion. It also prevents the government from “abridging thefreedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably toassemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”Since the early history of our country, the protection of basic freedomshas been of the utmost importance to Americans.
In Langston Hughes’ poem, “Freedom,” he emphasizes the struggle toenjoy the freedoms that he knows are rightfully his. He reflects theAmerican desire for freedom now when he says, “I do not need my freedomwhen I’m dead. I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
” He recognizes the needfor freedom in its entirety without compromise or fear.I think Langston Hughes captures the essence of the Americanimmigrants’ quest for freedom in his poem, “Freedom’s Plow.” He accuratelydescribes American’s as arriving with nothing but dreams and buildingAmerica with the hopes of finding greater freedom or freedom for the firsttime. He depicts how people of all backgrounds worked together for onecause: freedom.
I selected Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a fictitious example ofthe evils of censorship in a world that is becoming illiterate. In thisbook, the government convinces the public that book reading is evil becauseit spreads harmful opinions and agitates people against the government.The vast majority of people accept this censorship of expression withoutquestion and are content to see and hear only the government’s propaganda.I found this disturbing yet realistic. Bradbury’s hidden opposition tothis form of censorship was apparent throughout the book and finallyprevailed in the end when his main character rebelled against the practiceof burning books.Among the many forms of protests are pickets, strikes, public speechesand rallies.
Recently in New Jersey, more than a thousand communityactivists rallied to draft a “human” budget that puts the needs of the poorand handicapped as a top priority. Rallies are an effective means forpeople to use their freedoms effectively to bring about change from thegovernment.Freedom of speech is constantly being challenged as is evidenced in arecent court case where a Gloucester County school district censoredreviews of two R-rated movies from a school newspaper. Superior CourtJudge, Robert E. Francis ruled that the student’s rights were violatedunder the state Constitution. I feel this is a major break through forstudents’ rights because it limits editorial control of school newspapersby educators and allows students to print what they feel is important.A newly proposed bill (A-557) would prevent school officials fromcontrolling the content of student publications.
Critics of the bill feelthat “student journalists may be too young to understand theresponsibilities that come with free speech.” This is a valid point;however, it would provide an excellent opportunity for them to learn abouttheir First Amendment rights that guarantees free speech and freedom of thepress.In his commencement address to Monmouth College graduates, ProfessorAlan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School defended the broad right to freespeech. He stated, “My message to you graduates is to assert your rights,to use them responsibly and boldly, to oppose racism, to oppose sexism, tooppose homophobia and bigotry of all kinds and to do so within the spiritof the First Amendment, not by creating an exception to it.” I agree thatone should feel free to speak openly as long as it does not directly orindirectly lead to the harm of others.One of the more controversial issues was the recent 2 Live Crewincident involving obscenity in rap music.
Their record, “As Nasty as TheyWanna Be,” was ruled obscene in federal court. They were acquitted of thecharges and quickly became a free speech martyr. Although many storespulled 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 abusedbecause young children can purchase and listen to this obscene music.The American flag, symbol of our country’s history and patriotism, hasalso become a topic of controversy. The controversy was over the right toburn the flag without punishment.
Supreme Court Justice William Brennanoffered the response that “if there is a bedrock principle underlying theFirst Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expressionof an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive ordisagreeable.” Burning the flag is considered a form of symbolic speechand therefore is protected under the First Amendment. As in the 2 LiveCrew 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 ofspeech and censorship. I chose to put this collection of essays into mybook because they represent the strong central theme of freedom ofexpression as the cornerstone of American government, culture and life.Each essay strongly defends a case for free commercial speech. Each wasgenerally in favor of fewer limitations on freedom of expression.
The American voice on freedom has been shaped throughout the course ofhistory by the initial democratic notions of the immigrants to the samedesire for greater freedom that we have today. The freedom of speech hasconstantly been challenged and will continue to be challenged in thefuture. It is important that we learn from the precedented cases of thepast of our constitutionally protected rights so that in the futureauthority will not violate our freedoms or oppress our liberty.Ever since colonial times, the protection of personal freedoms in theUnited States has been significantly important. Even in the early stagesof American history there was an urge to put legally protected freedomsinto written government documents. The result was the drafting of the firstten 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 inAmerican courts of law and elsewhere. These incidents and challenges ofauthority reflect the defensive American attitude toward the ever importantfreedom of expression and the growing significance of personal rightsthroughout American history.In Colonial America, members of diverse nationalities had opposingviews on government, religion, and other subjects of interest. Seriousconfrontations were prevented because of the vast lands that separatedgroups of varying opinions. A person could easily settle in with otherlike 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 Islandwhile Catholics were mainly concentrated in Maryland. As the United Statesgrew larger and larger, these diverse groups were forced to live together.
This may have caused individual liberties to be violated because of thedistrust and hostile feelings between ethnic and religious groups.Most of the initial assemblies among the colonies consideredthemselves immune from criticism. They actually issued warrants of arrest,interrogated, fined, and imprisoned anyone accused of libeling the assemblyas a whole or any of its members. Many people were tracked down forwriting or speaking works of offense.The first assembly to meet in America, the Virginia House ofBurgesses, stripped Captain Henry Spellman of his rank when he was foundguilty of “treasonable words.” Even in the most tolerant colonies,printing was strictly regulated. The press of William Bradford was seizedby the government when he printed up a copy of the colony’s charter.
Hewas charged with seditious libel and spent more than a year in prison.A more famous incident was the trial of John Peter Zenger whichestablished the principle of a free press. In his newspaper he publishedsatirical ballads regarding William Cosby, the unpopular governor, and hiscouncil. His media was described “as having in them many things tending toraise seditions and tumults among the people of this province, and to filltheir minds with a contempt for his majesty’s government.” The grand jurydid not indict Zenger and the General Assembly refused to take action. Thedefendant was acquitted on the basis that in cases of libel the jury shouldjudge both law and the facts.James Alexander was the first colonial writer to develop a philosophyon the freedom of speech. He founded the American Philosophical Societyand masterminded the Zenger defense.
Alexander’s chief conviction was”Freedom of speech is a principal pillar in a free government: when thissupport is taken away, the constitution is dissolved and tyranny is erectedon its ruins.”The original Constitution did not contain a bill of rights because theconvention delegates felt that individual rights were in no danger andwould be protected by the states. However, the lack of a bill of rightswas the strongest objection to the ratification of the Constitution.Less than a decade after the Bill of Rights had been adopted it metits first serious challenge. In 1798, there was a threat of war withFrance and thousands of French refugees were living in the United States.Many radicals supported the French cause and were considered “incompatiblewith social order.
” This hysteria led Congress to enact several alien andsedition laws. One law forbade the publication of false, scandalous ormalicious writing against the government, Congress or the President. Thepenalty for this crime was a $2,000 fine and two years in prison.The public was enraged at these laws. Thomas Jefferson and JamesMadison pleaded for freedom of speech and the press. The alien andsedition laws became a prime issue in the presidential election of 1800.Soon after Jefferson was elected, the Sedition Act expired and those whohad been convicted under it were immediately pardoned.The next attack on the First Amendment occurred in 1835.
PresidentAndrew 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 theproposal on grounds that it conflicted with the First Amendment. Theproposal was defeated because it was a form of censorship.The next violation of the principles contained in the First Amendmentcame on January 2, 1920. Under the direction of A. Mitchell Palmer,Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General, about 500 FBI agents and police raided3,000 Russians and other European immigrants, looking for Communists todeport.
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 incidentin the 1950’s when Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin proclaimed thatthe federal government had been thoroughly infiltrated by Communist agents.His attacks on United States information libraries abroad led to theburning of some books accused of being Communist propaganda. Reducedcongressional support caused many librarians to resign and the closing oflibraries. On the morning of December 16, 1965, thirteen year old Mary BethTinker went to school in Des Moines, Iowa. She and her fifteen year oldbrother, John, had decided to wear black armbands as a protest to theVietnam War.
In advance to their arrival, the principal had decided thatany student wearing an arm- band would be told to remove it, stating that,”The schools are no place for demonstrations.” If the student refused, hewould be suspended until the armband was permanently removed. On December16, the Tinkers refused to remove their armbands. They were suspended anddid not return to school until after January 1, when by a previous decisionthe protest had ended.The students brought suit in federal court to confirm their FirstAmendment right to wear the black armbands.
They lost in The FederalDistrict Court on grounds that this type of symbolic expression mightdisturb school discipline. The United States Court of Appeals for theEighth Circuit was divided equally (4-4) so the decision remainedunchanged.On February 24, 1969, the United States Supreme Court decided in thestudents’ favor by a vote of 7 to 2. The Tinker v. Des Moines IndependentSchool District decision was a landmark case for students’ rights andliberties.
Speaking for the majority of the Court, Justice Abe Fortaswrote, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed theirconstitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhousegate.”During the sixties and early seventies a new wave of court battles forFirst Amendment freedoms emerged. The freedom of speech was recognized as avital element in a democratic society. Censorship and the infringement ofFirst Amendment rights, especially among students and their newspapers,could not and would not be tolerated.
American citizens took a firm standagainst the government and authority at important times when they couldhave yielded to the oppressive violations of their rights.ENDNOTES”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.,1981), 291-293.Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973).Donna Leusner, “Social Services Advocates Rally for ‘Human’ Touch inState Budget,” The Star Ledger, 9 April 1991: A-3.
“Student Wins Freedom of Speech Case,” Daily Record, 24 April 1991:A-2.Bob McHugh, “‘Free Speech’ Moves for School Newspapers,” The StarLedger, 4 May 1991: A-3.Cathy Bugman, “Monmouth Grads Hear Top Lawyer Defend Broad Right toFree Speech,” The Star Ledger, 27 May 1991: A-9.David Gates, “The Importance of Being Nasty,” Newsweek, 2 July 1990:52.Walter Isaacson, “O’er the Land of the Free,” Time, 3 July 1989:14-15.
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.
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