It is a curious and disturbing situation when one reads in the news some of the activities about protests and assembled groups. Whether it is the Occupy crowds that filled several cities across the country or the gathering protestors in Chicago during the NATO meetings, these events have me wondering about the very heart of our right to free speech and how it can quickly be turned against us by those with the power.
I believe that the freedom of speech is one of the many rights gained over time that has truly allowed us to take back some of the power that leaders have claimed. Power of the leader rests on the fact that the followers have given this person power. Once it is given, the leader, for ill or good, must keep the followers believing in that leadership. Free speech is a vehicle for the followers to reclaim their place in this process. If something needed to be brought to the attention of the followers, anyone could speak without fear of retaliation. I wonder if perhaps we are losing this taproot to the finely honed axe of those in power.
As I was sitting down to write this, I had a curious thought about my own right of free speech. I had promised to complete this little run about the First Amendment and its different parts. It was my intent to relate some our current political debates to this amendment. However, during my quick research of free speech, I came across some points on the decisions of SCOTUS and their view of matters.
There are few items that I discovered on the history of this Amendment. It was left virtual idle for a centuries before it gained further definition and it was not until the twentieth century that this began in the Court. For example, in the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 were enacted in order to define acts against the government in the form of insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States; or in the form of disloyal, scurrilous or abusive language against the government. For the Espionage Act, the phrase “clear and present danger” has been the center of the challenges against this law. While it is stated that no case has tested the Sedition Act, so I ponder if we should be concerned.
Over the past century, several different events have tested the free speech rights. These may include a single individual to the political side and associated groups. The rights to let your opinion be heard have become slowly sliced and defined. The idea that one can speak their mind in the manner of burning the Flag comes to mind as a test. Does this act represent a protest against the government and its affiliates? Does this act find protection under the rights of free speech? So far this idea has been protected by these rights, but an amendment has been proposed to give the Flag protection from such acts.
Another area that has become a turning point in this debate is the decision from the Court to give an expansion of political speech rights to corporations and unions, as noted in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010. Essentially, this case supported the continuation of recognizing corporations as people, but it extended the political influence beyond the normal rights for a citizen to donate to a particular campaign. The part that relates to freedom of speech is that this case confirms that a corporation or union has the right to use its money to voice support for a political campaign. It has been this case which led to the formations of these entities known as super PACs. Privacy and anonymity for the donors has give these groups a path to donate limitless funds into a treasury that is separate of the campaign, but used to speak for the candidate.
With all of this and some of the other things that I didn’t mention that includes private actions and freedom of the press, we all need to take a moment to consider a few of these things so we are informed. As informed citizens, we can avoid stepping into situations that the rights are not protected or where it can be tested. For me, this has become a point of great concern as with any blog, the author is putting out an opinion that someone might construe as a private act of libel. In addition, a recent law passed in one state has concluded that online speech against another may be punishable. It is labeled as an anti-bully law, but the language is broad enough that it can include any words written in an online format.
Personally, I am not concerned that I will say anything so inflammatory, but in the event that I do, I want to know that my rights are not being regulated to a vote from a small group that has claimed power. I have a right to say what I need to as one of the followers. Many have sacrificed their lives to protect my rights and I owe them everything to make sure that sacrifice was not in vain.
A few posts back I stated that I would be delving into the matters of the First Amendment. I promised to perform this task in three separate post to help explain a little more of my opinion on this Amendment in addition to relating it to current topics such as gay rights, women’s rights, and the SCOTUS’s new stance on corporation and their own freedom of speech. It has been a very troubling debate on both sides and it will continue to be the heart of the debate for a long time. For this particular posting, I will be turning our eyes back to the historical context of the First Amendment. This will include a brief overview of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who both played a role in the interpretation of the First Amendment.
In the late 1700s, the colonies had come to understand the struggles of their own forefathers who had brought them to the New World. To these colonists, there was some distant authority claiming the power to tax and to direct the lives of the colonies without a single chance to represent their voice. The separation of the colonies from England formed the basis of the coming Revolution and the establishment of a new kind of democracy that would change the world. At the roots of this coming conflict were the ideas on the freedoms of speech and of religion.
This notion had brought the first colonists across the ocean to settle as pilgrims or Calvinists from England. They were looking for a land that would allow them to escape the persecution from the Church of England. We often looked to this group as the seed of the revolution that the colonists would fight one day. Their desire to have liberty to choose a life where they could worship as they wanted was essential. They wanted a freedom to speak their voice without fear of prosecution. That spirit continued to grow until 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was finally signed and presented to the King of England.
The idea of free speech has a very long history, but for this reflection, I will narrow it down to the context that we are addressing. Speech had been regulated and censored by the governors appointed for the colonies by the King. The suppression of the press and the right to speak out against injustice allowed the thought that the colonists were suffering from ‘taxation without representation.’ The stir to have a voice set the spark that all should have the right to free speech. The friction was building. It would have to be dealt with in a defining moment.
Along with this, the powers across the sea also held great sway over the established churches in the colonies. Not all of the colonies had arrived with the freedom to choose. The Puritans were still linked to the Church of England. In Maryland, the establishment of a Catholic colony was granted by England’s throne, but later, it was revoked. The colony was reestablished as under the authority of the Church of England. This authority barred Catholics from office and disenfranchised them. It was not always enforced, but the practice was in place. In Massachusetts, the church of the state was a combination of Puritans, Calvinists, and Protestants.
It is clear that these colonists were seeking to be free so they could practice their own religions without some government or large organization ruling over them. The Reformation, a few centuries before, had set a precedence that supported the spirit resting in the hearts of these colonists. They wanted to be free to worship as they believed.
This is the context within which Jefferson and Madison had come to the table. Each brought several wordings of the First Amendment, but most were rejected by the others as being too narrow when it came to the clause pertaining to the religion. With the wording that set the establishment of free speech, the authors of the First Amendment wanted to guarantee that the government being created would not be allowed to set one religion above the others or prohibit any religion. This was the simple phrase that would become the source of great debate in the centuries that followed.
Now, that the context of the First Amendment is understood and the players in our little country’s history are in place, we can explore how all this applies to our current policy debates. It is obvious to me that while we may have come from that rebel’s cry for a government that was meant to serve the people; some in the government have decided that they will only serve a few people. It is time that we all use our free speech to remind the lawmakers that they serve the majority rather than the minority.
So, I will leave this topic for now. The next part will allow us to drive right into the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment. We will not explore the beginnings of the ideal, but we will allow the context that I have established here to support the matters of our current policy debates.