Freedom in the United States
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 (44) 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 A. Knopf,
Inc., 1967), 55.
Langston Hughes, Selected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.,
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973).
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:
52. Walter Isaacson, "O'er the Land of the Free," Time, 3 July 1989:
American Voices (New York: Phillip Morris, 1987).
The First Freedom Today (Chicago: American Library, 1984), 3-7
Nat Hentoff, The First Freedom (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1980),
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Kalven, Harry, Jr. A Worthy Tradition. New York: Harper and Row,
Leusner, Donna. "Social Services Advocates Rally for 'Human' Touch in
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