Dec 072011

By Jack Stevenson

“Congress shall make no law. . .abridging the freedom of speech. . .or the right of people to peaceably assemble. ”

The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States has been in existence for 220 years. Yet, the definition of freedom of speech is still being refined. We would probably agree that it fundamentally means advocacy of or opposition to political policy or process or the right to judge the conduct of government officials.

The United States Supreme Court released a ruling on January 21, 2010, that set off alarm bells throughout the country. The Supreme Court decided that corporations could spend money, directly, to influence the outcome of elections by financing political parties and political candidates. The Court ruled that to deny corporations the privilege of financial involvement in politics would be an abridgement of their right of “free speech.” That decision leaves most Americans speechless. It defines money as freedom of speech. It gives corporate executives who control vast sums of money a “boom box” capability while everyone else’s voice is nearly inaudible. Is money a legitimate form of political speech for a corporation that can send your job to China?

The United States Constitution was adopted in 1787. The first amendment was adopted four years later. Seven years after the first amendment was adopted, the U.S. Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798, which prohibited criticism of the president and congress. There have been many other attempts to restrict freedom of speech.

Democracy cannot exist unless the right to criticize government (freedom of speech) exists. Yet, the Supreme Court has never treated freedom of speech as an absolute right. Perhaps the most vexing issue has been freedom of speech during wartime. President Woodrow Wilson was staunchly opposed to U.S. entry into the war in Europe (WW 1)—until he changed his mind. In 1917, at the outset of American involvement in the war, congress gave us the Espionage Act that allowed prison sentences of twenty years for violators. A dictionary would indicate a difference between sedition and espionage, but the 1917 Espionage Act was used to suppress free speech. Eugene V. Debs, a socialist and presidential candidate, was convicted for making a public speech opposing the war. He received a million votes while incarcerated in a Federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia. The 1917 Espionage Act also gave the U.S. Postmaster General the license to withhold mail that he deemed seditious, the equivalent of blocking electronic communication today.

Since WW 1, several court challenges have attempted to refine the definition of free speech. But new issues have arisen. Peaceful assembly is also undefined. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t specify where citizens may assemble or how long they may remain or whether their presence may invoke inconvenience for other people. Across the land, various governments are grappling with these issues as they confront the “Occupy” protests.

There is a third unresolved issue. What constitutes appropriate non-deadly police force? When, for any reason, valid or not, a government orders removal of civil protesters, any force applied by police should ordinarily be non-deadly. The list of non-deadly tools includes water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, tasers (sometimes lethal), and batons. Unfortunately, these non-deadly tools are all violent.

Another tactic used to discourage civil protest is arrest for miscellaneous petty misdemeanors.

Free speech, a fundamental requirement for successful democracy, remains undefined in the United States, and its permanence is not guaranteed. Passing through an airport, you may hear this recording: “Any inappropriate remarks or jokes may result in your arrest.”

The struggle for freedom of speech is continuous.

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