In today’s world, it can be easy to say whatever one wants to say about whom ever. This holds especially true with social media at our fingertips. In reality though, the freedom of speech and expression have not always been easily accessible to the American public. The freedom of speech is that which allows for the American individual to speak up and to preserve justice, not just live in a peaceful state of oppressive order. The freedom of expression on the other hand, is what allows the American Individual to live the American Dream and to demonstrate a state of being that is of a free person, an individual. A lot of times throughout history these freedoms were more of privileges than they were rights. Events ranging from the changing of government parties to the red scare have came along to challenge the freedom of speech and expression of the American people.
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Protection of the freedom of speech is not explicitly stated in the U.S constitution. During the drafting of the United States constitution, the founding fathers did not include the freedom of speech as a fundamental right. It was not until 4 years later in 1791, that the Bill of Rights was passed through and integrated into American law. The first amendment, part of the Bill of Rights, was the first document to advocate for freedom of speech as it was seen as a necessity to keep the government in some form of a check by the people. The first amendment states that “ Congress shall make no law respecting . . . or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or the press”(The United States Bill of Rights). As multiple different cases were encountered by the supreme court, the United States further shaped what is reasonable and what is not for the right of free speech. For example, commercials and similar content that are intended for a T.V audience have set limitations on what messages or wording they are allowed to use.
Freedom of speech was part of American law from an early point in American history but, society always had its own standards that influenced what people were able to say and do, “ speech in the United States has not always been as free or robust as it seems in the beginning of this new millennium“ (Magee 1). The freedom of speech was in fact challenged as a concept from the very beginning of its initiation after the addition of the first amendment. Not too long ago people have been imprisoned just for handing out pamphlets against the WWI draft during the espionage act of 1917. Not too long after the espionage act, in 1963 Dr. King was imprisoned after he protested against the maltreatment of African Americans in Alabama, there he wrote the famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. In Fact the African American community generally faced a great opposition against its right to freedom of the press and free speech. For example, civil rights leader Robert Moses was arrested for handing out leaflets that served to encourage voters. Also, apart from public figures, regular African Americans faced an opposition to their free speech rights in their Daily lives. Richard Wright in his famous autobiography Black boy mentioned an experience where he received threats from the principle warning him against stating his opinions in his valedictorian speech. He was told to “Go to the principal, talk to him, take his speech and say it. I’m saying the one he wrote. So why can’t you? What the hell? What can you lose? No” (Wright). But he did not give in and held on to his freedom to state his beliefs and opinion and he went forward to give the speech that he wrote.
Apart from the freedom of speech and opinion, the freedom of expression has also been an integral part of the American narrative. The freedom of expression is not just the freedom to convey one’s thoughts and feels, it is the freedom to be unique, it is more than what a person says. American has been that side that advocated for capitalism and free enterprise during the cold war. Individuality and owning one’s own land on the new frontiers and owning one’s own house in the suburbs were the biggest part of the American dream. Therefore it has been evident since the beginning that individualism and uniqueness have always been a big part of the American life. This uniqueness and individualism are a big reflection of the first Amendment and a citizen’s right to freedom of expression. American works of literature throughout the centuries have also been advocating for uniqueness and going against the crowd. For example in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” he talks about a state were “Everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else . . .the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General”(Vonnegut). In this work of literature, Vonnegut is warning America against its drift from individualism and from its added obstacles to one’s freedom of expression such as demonstrated through the usage of handicaps that restrain unique features.
Challenges to the freedoms of speech and expression have also in a sense been an important part of the development of the nation over time. Dr. King while in Birmingham’s jail wrote his famous letter where he argued that it is ok to be imprisoned so long as he know that he was speaking up for what he thought is true. He said that he does not fear those who oppose him but in fact he fears those who refuse to exercise their first amendment rights. Those who are “the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension . . . ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’”(Dr. King). In the above method Dr. King is advertising for the doing of that which is right. He is advertising for those who are silent to speak up and share their opinion even if it may seem unpopular in their surrounding environment. A Similar message was also carried out by General George C. Marshall during his speech to congress. “I want to go right straight down the road, to do what is best, and do it frankly and without evasion.’ George Marshall voiced these words in the midst of a heated . . . draft in the summer of 1941”(Uldrich). He argued that the United States Armed forces should stay a while longer and not get released back into civilian life as congress wanted. At the time this was the unpopular opinion, but General Marshall spoke his mind according to his rights of free Speech and expression. He was not afraid to advocate for what he thought was right even though it was unpopular. His decision changed the course of history for the United States as only three months later Pearl harbor happened and the Armed forces were need to fight the 2nd World War and give rise to America’s legacy as a world power.
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The United States of America is built on a fundamental concept that will cease to exist only when a nation by the people for the people of the people ceases to exist. This concept is the freedom of speech and of expression, a truly integral part of the American Identity. American law was concieved early on to include the freedom of speech and expression. Overtime these freedoms were challanged in American society but as it is seen today, these freedoms still exist and work to shape our lives and communities. But how would things be if we take this freedom for granted? The outcome would inevitably be the fading away of a nation that is built upon the values defined by freedom, especially that of speech and individual expression.
- United states constitution U.S. Constitution. Art./Amend. I.
- Harrison Bergeron Vonnegut, Kurt. Harrison Bergeron. Mercury Press, 1961.
- Black Boy by Richard Wright edited by William L. Andrews, Douglas Taylor. Richard Wright’s Black Boy (American Hunger) : a Casebook. Oxford ; New York :Oxford University Press, 2003.
- History channel Editors, History.com. “Freedom of Speech.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 4 Dec. 2017, www.history.com/topics/united-states-constitution/freedom-of-speech.
- UScourts.gov “What Does Free Speech Mean?” United States Courts, www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/educational-resources/about-educational-outreach/activity-resources/what-does.
- Freedom of Expression by James J. Magee Magee, James J. Freedom of Expression. Greenwood Press, 2002. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=r8RBAsrPi7QC&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=freedom+of+expression+timeline&ots=08LyRRvYyG&sig=n74p5jwNpQTIgvB4dhPxQBjcIvI#v=onepage&q=freedom%20of%20expression%20timeline&f=false
- Soldier, Statesman, Peacemaker by Jack Uldrich Uldrich, Jack. Maxie’er De Ling Dao Tong Yu Jing Yan / Soldier, Statesman, Peacemaker: Leadership Lessons from George C. Marshall / Jack Uldrich. Shi Zheng Bian Yi Shi, 2010.
- Letter from Birmingham’s Jail Digital History, www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=3&psid=3904.
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