Our Founding Fathers, Free Speech, and the Permission to Appear Stupid

Our founding fathers certainly knew what they were doing.  Indeed, the United States is a great nation because of them.  And thanks to James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, we have the First Amendment, which mandates all citizens have the right to free speech.  Madison originated the amendment in 1789, addressing the need for free speech with these words:  “. . . nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, nor on any pretext infringed.”  The transition from “rights of conscience” to “freedom of speech” demonstrates a strong movement to the principles of democracy, making the First Amendment truly the soul of our democratic government.

When Madison and eventually Jefferson composed the First Amendment their true intent was to protect fellow Americans from persecution for expressing opinions about politics and religion.  Madison and Jefferson certainly could not have predicted pornographic magazines, the Confederate flag, or Internet blogs, but they did advocate for free speech, which the British monarch George III unfortunately saw as treasonous speech.  Madison, in fact, asserted, “A man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.”

Today, our democracy and our free speech are as strong as ever.  Our country is great because it allows Donald Trump to campaign for President and say in a speech that Mexicans are criminals.  Phil Robertson from “Duck Dynasty” can make crude comments about gay men and women in a GQ Magazine interview and remain a popular television personality.  After a Los Angeles substitute teacher Patricia McCallister said that “Zionist Jews . . . need to be run out of the country,” she lost her job but was not prosecuted.  To be sure, the First Amendment clearly does not protect us from appearing stupid.

What remains understated by the first amendment is our right not to listen. Comedian Tom Smothers said, “Freedom of expression and freedom of speech aren’t really important unless they’re heard.  The freedom of hearing is as important as the freedom of speaking.”  This is an essential part of free speech:  We also have the right to ignore words that are hateful or that emerge from those who are ignorant.

Even though we may confront offensive and hurtful statements, we still enjoy the benefits of free speech:  Protesters can criticize the government, television commentators can editorialize on current events, and politicians can speak against their opponents – all without fear of persecution or imprisonment.  Not only has America survived, it has also prospered thanks to free speech, even after all the speeches from illiterate politicians and quotes from uneducated celebrities.  Because of this, our democracy is envied around the world.

In America, citizens can speak with confidence what is on their minds and assert their opinions, even if they face disagreement and criticism themselves.   Indeed, free speech is closely connected to the liberty we enjoy as citizens.  George Orwell stated, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”




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