United States of American: Personal Freedom Essay
No other democratic society in the world permits personal freedoms tothe degree of the United States of America. Within the last sixty years,American courts, especially the Supreme Court, have developed a set of legaldoctrines that thoroughly protect all forms of the freedom of expression. Whenit comes to evaluating the degree to which we take advantage of the opportunityto express our opinions, some members of society may be guilty of violating thebounds of the First Amendment by publicly offending others through obscenity orracism. Americans have developed a distinct disposition toward the freedom ofexpression throughout history.
The First Amendment clearly voices a great American respect toward thefreedom of religion. It also prevents the government from “abridging thefreedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably toassemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”Sincethe early history of our country, the protection of basic freedoms has been ofthe utmost importance to Americans.
In Langston Hughes’ poem, “Freedom,” he emphasizes the struggle to enjoythe freedoms that he knows are rightfully his. He reflects the American desirefor freedom now when he says, “I do not need my freedom when I’m dead. I cannotlive on tomorrow’s bread.”He recognizes the need for freedom in its entiretywithout 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 describesAmerican’s as arriving with nothing but dreams and building America with thehopes of finding greater freedom or freedom for the first time. He depicts howpeople of all backgrounds worked together for one cause: freedom.
I selected Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a fictitious example of theevils of censorship in a world that is becoming illiterate. In this book, thegovernment convinces the public that book reading is evil because it spreadsharmful opinions and agitates people against the government. The vast majorityof people accept this censorship of expression without question and are contentto see and hear only the government’s propaganda.I found this disturbing yetrealistic. Bradbury’s hidden opposition to this form of censorship was apparentthroughout the book and finally prevailed in the end when his main characterrebelled against the practice of burning books.
Among the many forms of protests are pickets, strikes, public speechesand rallies. Recently in New Jersey, more than a thousand community activistsrallied to draft a “human” budget that puts the needs of the poor andhandicapped as a top priority.Rallies are an effective means for people touse their freedoms effectively to bring about change from the government.
Freedom of speech is constantly being challenged as is evidenced in arecent court case where a Gloucester County school district censored reviews oftwo R-rated movies from a school newspaper. Superior Court Judge, Robert E.
Francis ruled that the student’s rights were violated under the stateConstitution.I feel this is a major break through for students’ rightsbecause it limits editorial control of school newspapers by educators and allowsstudents to print what they feel is important.
A newly proposed bill (A-557) would prevent school officials fromcontrolling the content of student publications. Critics of the bill feel that”student journalists may be too young to understand the responsibilities thatcome with free speech.”This is a valid point; however, it would provide anexcellent opportunity for them to learn about their First Amendment rights thatguarantees free speech and freedom of the press.
In his commencement address to Monmouth College graduates, ProfessorAlan 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 themresponsibly and boldly, to oppose racism, to oppose sexism, to oppose homophobiaand 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 tospeak openly as long as it does not directly or indirectly lead to the harm ofothers.
One of the more controversial issues was the recent 2 Live Crew incidentinvolving obscenity in rap music. Their record, “As Nasty as They Wanna Be,”was ruled obscene in federal court. They were acquitted of the charges andquickly 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 thiscase the principles of free speech have been abused because young children canpurchase and listen to this obscene music.
The American flag, symbol of our country’s history and patriotism, hasalso become a topic of controversy. The controversy was over the right to burnthe flag without punishment. Supreme CourtJustice William Brennan offeredthe response that “if there is a bedrock principle underlying the FirstAmendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an ideasimply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”Burning the flag is considered a form of symbolic speech and therefore isprotected under the First Amendment. As in the 2 Live Crew case, I feel that weare protecting the wrong people in this case. The minority is given precedenceat the sacrifice of the majority.
The book, American Voices, is a collection of essays on the freedom ofspeech and censorship. I chose to put this collection of essays into my bookbecause they represent the strong central theme of freedom of expression as thecornerstone of American government, culture and life.Each essay stronglydefends a case for free commercial speech. Each was generally in favor of fewerlimitations on freedom of expression.
The American voice on freedom has been shaped throughout the course ofhistory by the initial democratic notions of the immigrants to the same desirefor greater freedom that we have today. The freedom of speech has constantlybeen challenged and will continue to be challenged in the future. It isimportant that we learn from the precedented cases of the past of ourconstitutionally protected rights so that in the future authority will notviolate our freedoms or oppress our liberty.
Ever since colonial times, the protection of personal freedoms in theUnited States has been significantly important. Even in the early stages ofAmerican history there was an urge to put legally protected freedoms intowritten government documents. The result was the drafting of the first tenamendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, by James Madison. Theapplications of the personal freedoms described in the Bill of Rights,particularly the freedom of speech, have been challenged repeatedly in Americancourts of law and elsewhere. These incidents and challenges of authorityreflect the defensive American attitude toward the ever important freedom ofexpression and the growing significance of personal rights throughout Americanhistory.
In Colonial America, members of diverse nationalities had opposing viewson government, religion, and other subjects of interest. Serious confrontationswere prevented because of the vast lands that separated groups of varyingopinions. A person could easily settle in with other like believers and beuntouched by the prejudices and oppression of others. For this reason,Unitarians avoided Anglican or Puritan communities. Quakers and Anabaptistswere confined to Pennsylvania and Rhode Island while Catholics were mainlyconcentrated in Maryland.As the United States grew larger and larger, thesediverse groups were forced to live together. This may have caused individualliberties to be violated because of the distrust and hostile feelings betweenethnic and religious groups.
Most of the initial assemblies among the colonies considered themselvesimmune from criticism. They actually issued warrants of arrest, interrogated,fined, and imprisoned anyone accused of libeling the assembly as a whole or anyof its members. Many people were tracked down for writing or speaking works ofoffense.
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 strictlyregulated. The press of William Bradford was seized by the government when heprinted up a copy of the colony’s charter. He was charged with seditious libeland spent more than a year in prison.
A more famous incident was the trial of John Peter Zenger whichestablished the principle of a free press. In his newspaper he publishedsatirical ballads regarding William Cosby, the unpopular governor, and hiscouncil. His media was described “as having in them many things tending toraise seditions and tumults among the people of this province, and to fill theirminds with a contempt for his majesty’s government.”The grand jury did notindict Zenger and the General Assembly refused to take action. The defendantwas acquitted on the basis that in cases of libel the jury should judge both lawand the facts.
James Alexander was the first colonial writer to develop a philosophy onthe freedom of speech. He founded the American Philosophical Society andmasterminded the Zenger defense. Alexander’s chief conviction was “Freedom ofspeech is a principal pillar in a free government: when this support is takenaway, the constitution is dissolved and tyranny is erected on its ruins.”The original Constitution did not contain a bill of rights because theconvention delegates felt that individual rights were in no danger and would beprotected by the states. However, the lack of a bill of rights was thestrongest objection to the ratification of the Constitution.
Less than a decade after the Bill of Rights had been adopted it met itsfirst serious challenge. In 1798, there was a threat of war with France andthousands of French refugees were living in the United States. Many radicalssupported the French cause and were considered “incompatible with social order.”This hysteria led Congress to enact several alien and sedition laws. One lawforbade the publication of false, scandalous or malicious writing against thegovernment, Congress or the President. The penalty for this crime was a $2,000fine and two years in prison.
The public was enraged at these laws. Thomas Jefferson and JamesMadison pleaded for freedom of speech and the press. The alien and seditionlaws became a prime issue in the presidential election of 1800. Soon afterJefferson was elected, the Sedition Act expired and those who had been convictedunder it were immediately pardoned.
The next attack on the First Amendment occurred in 1835. PresidentAndrew 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 theproposal on grounds that it conflicted with the First Amendment. The proposalwas defeated because it was a form of censorship.
The next violation of the principles contained in the First Amendmentcame on January 2, 1920. Under the direction of A. Mitchell Palmer, WoodrowWilson’s Attorney General, about 500 FBI agents and police raided 3,000 Russiansand other European immigrants, looking for Communists to deport. The victimswere arrested without warrants, homes were ransacked, personal property wasseized, and they were hauled off to jail.
An even more vicious episode was known as “McCarthyism,” an incident inthe 1950’s when Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin proclaimed that thefederal government had been thoroughly infiltrated by Communist agents. Hisattacks on United States information libraries abroad led to the burning of somebooks accused of being Communist propaganda. Reduced congressional supportcaused many librarians to resign and the closing of libraries.
On the morning of December 16, 1965, thirteen year old Mary Beth Tinkerwent 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 advanceto 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 fordemonstrations.”If the student refused, he would be suspended until thearmband was permanently removed. On December 16, the Tinkers refused to removetheir armbands. They were suspended and did not return to school until afterJanuary 1, when by a previous decision the protest had ended.
The students brought suit in federal court to confirm their FirstAmendment right to wear the black armbands. They lost in The Federal DistrictCourt on grounds that this type of symbolic expression might disturb schooldiscipline. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit wasdivided equally(4-4) so the decision remained unchanged.
On February 24, 1969, the United States Supreme Court decided in thestudents’ favor by a vote of 7 to 2. The Tinker v. Des Moines IndependentSchool District decision was a landmark case for students’ rights and liberties.
Speaking for the majority of the Court, Justice Abe Fortas wrote, “It can hardlybe argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights tofreedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”During the sixties and early seventies a new wave of court battles forFirst Amendment freedoms emerged. The freedom of speech was recognized as avital element in a democratic society. Censorship and the infringement of FirstAmendment rights, especially among students and their newspapers, could not andwould not be tolerated. American citizens took a firm stand against thegovernment and authority at important times when they could have yielded to theoppressive violations of their rights.
ENDNOTES”Amendments to the Constitution.” Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1965 ed.
Langston Hughes, The Panther and the Lash (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,Inc., 1967), 55.
Langston Hughes, Selected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.,1981), 291-293.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973).
Donna Leusner, “Social Services Advocates Rally for ‘Human’ Touch inState Budget,” The Star Ledger,9 April 1991: A-3.
“Student Wins Freedom of Speech Case,” Daily Record, 24 April 1991: A-2.
Bob McHugh, “‘Free Speech’ Moves for School Newspapers,” The StarLedger, 4 May 1991: A-3.
Cathy Bugman, “Monmouth Grads Hear Top Lawyer Defend Broad Right toFree Speech,” The Star Ledger, 27 May 1991: A-9.
David Gates, “The Importance of Being Nasty,” Newsweek, 2 July 1990:52.
Walter Isaacson, “O’er the Land of the Free,” Time, 3 July 1989: 14-15.
American Voices (New York: Phillip Morris, 1987).
The First Freedom Today (Chicago: American Library, 1984), 3.
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),4.
BIBLIOGRAPHY”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 University Press, 1986.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.
Bugman, Cathy. “Monmouth Grads Hear Top Lawyer Defend Broad Right toFree 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 StateBudget.” The Star Ledger,9 April 1991: A-3.
McHugh, Bob. “‘Free Speech’ Moves for School Newspapers.” The Star Ledger, 4May 1991: A-3.
“Student Wins Freedom of Speech Case.” Daily Record,24 April 1991: A-2.
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