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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 throughout history.
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
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 cause: freedom.
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 government.
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 press.
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 unchanged.
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 gate."
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
Knopf, Inc., 1967), 55.
Langston Hughes, Selected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
1981), 291-293.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (New York: Ballantine Books,
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
American Voices (New York: Phillip Morris, 1987).
The First Freedom Today (Chicago: American Library, 1984),
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.
Nat Hentoff, The First Freedom (New York: Dell Publishing
Co., 1980),
Hentoff, 5.
"Amendments to the Constitution." Collier's Encyclopedia.
1965 ed.
American Voices. New York: Phillip Morris, 1987.
Bollinger, Lee. C. The Tolerant Society. New York: Oxford
Press, 1986.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books,
Bugman, Cathy. "Monmouth Grads Hear Top Lawyer Defend Broad
Right to Free
Speech." The Star Ledger, 27 May 1991: A-9.
First Freedom Today, The. Chicago: American Library
Association, 1984.
Gates, David. "The Importance of Being Nasty." Newsweek, 2
July 1990: 52.
Hentoff, Nat. The First Freedom. New York: Dell Publishing
Co., 1980.
Hughes, Langston. The Panther and the Lash. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf,
Inc., 1967.
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.


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