A Primer To Free Speech in America


Allia Calkins

“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, sheep to the slaughter” – George Washington

The United States Bill of Rights lays out the protections American citizens have from the government. First and foremost is the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or 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.

 The first amendment, and most notably the freedom of speech, has always been important to Americans. It represents one of the most vital aspects of a democracy, and an important characteristic of a free society. Through the Supreme Court, the definition of what constitutes free speech has constantly been changing since the colonial era. A plethora of court cases over the course of a hundred years has expanded and contracted the definition to include the right to silence (West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 1943), student expression (Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969), and symbolic speech, such as the burning of the American flag (Texas v. Johnson, 1989). The court has also determined that the right to free speech does not allow individuals to abuse that right to incite actions that might harm others (Schenck v. United States, 1919), or to make and distribute obscene materials (Roth v. United States, 1957). Additionally, the court has limited the free speech of students in school regarding obscene language at school-sponsored events (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988), and the printing of articles in school papers that the administration might object to (Bethel School District #43 v. Fraser, 1986).

Americans have always recognized and taken advantage of their right to free speech. The United States is notoriously a nation of protest and individuals who speak their minds. No one thinks twice about a man who insults the president or Congress on his twitter feed. Likewise, the U.S. government is built on the assumption that citizens will use their freedom of speech to communicate with their representatives, who in turn will voice their opinions to Congress through legislation. It is important to remember, however, that it has not always been this way. In the early years of the nation, John Adams signed The Alien and Sedition Acts into law. Among other things, these acts restricted speech that was critical of the government. Under this law, many citizens, most of whom were Republican opponents of the Federalists, were fined, or even jailed.

Since the Sedition Act was repealed, the U.S. has mostly taken steps to expand free speech to the point it is at today. Now the United States and its citizens have the advantage of being able to judge other citizens and countries’ stance on free speech. Americans tend to see everything through a very patriotic lens; anything that is done like Americans do it is good, and anything that is done in any different way is bad. And while it is a universally accepted fact that citizens of their respective nations should not be suppressed or abused by their governments, different countries have different views on free speech and what it entails. Circumstances vary around the globe, as do the platforms available for the expression of free speech. There are many nations that are just forming, or are at the point the U.S. was in 1789 when it passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Because of this, citizens may be lacking certain rights that America has recognized for centuries.

There are many reasons a government might choose to limit free speech by its citizens. Like in the nations involved in the Arab Spring, it might be fearful of revolution. It might be a totalitarian state, like North Korea, whose continued success relies on the suppression of its citizens. Free speech may even be limited just because the government is unsure of how to handle new technology and platforms of expression, such as Facebook and Twitter. Even in countries that have established free speech laws, they might be more liberal or more constrictive than those in the United States; it is, again, important to remember that circumstances vary from country to country.

The purpose of this column will be to examine encroachments and limitations on the right to free speech of citizens in different countries under different forms of government. I will be looking at the reasons behind certain limitations, or even expansions of free speech, and how the citizens react or take advantage of this freedom. I will take into account the media of individual countries, and how the international community and Untied States view the freedoms afforded to the citizens living there. I will also consider how the citizens themselves view their rights, and if they have the ability to express their opinions on their rights in the way I am luckily enough to have by being a citizen of the United States.

[Image credit: http://constitutioncenter.org/images/uploads/heros/bill-of-rights-hero-lg.jpg]