If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” (Washington)
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” (Orwell)
Our founders saw free speech as a natural right – a right that the government has a duty to secure and protect. Accordingly, our Constitution’s Bill of Rights guarantees our right to free speech, but only as it relates to government action (“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech or of the press”), and while there have been certain exceptions made to that blanket protection for forms of speech such as child pornography, our right to free speech remains as our founders intended.
Or does it? The government has no authority over the actions or attitudes of any of us regarding our willingness to let views that may oppose our own be heard, nor does it have authority over employers, universities, the media or private organizations regarding their regulation of speech. A wave of political correctness has overtaken many parts of our society in recent decades that seems inconsistent with the spirit of what our founders intended – indeed, at the beginning of their push for independence their views were far from universally held among the American colonists. American author George Orwell said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
The philosopher Voltare’s statement “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” has been often quoted in relation to our right to free speech. In a truly free society this belief must apply to any person or entity who would seek to limit, through whatever means our right to say what we believe.
Founder James Madison warned “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” Consider the degree to which in today’s important conversations many things are now are just left unsaid or perhaps worse, people are vilified merely for stating their position on a particular issue. In a democracy, “those in power” referred to by Madison are not necessarily government officials. The First Amendment doesn’t protect us from political correctness, demagoguery, demonizing political candidates based on their beliefs on controversial issues and other behaviors that now represent the clear and present threats to our right to free speech.