United States of American: Personal Freedom
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 Americans.
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 or fear.
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 burning books.
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
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 CourtJustice 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 American
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
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 the facts.
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 the Constitution.
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 of censorship.
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(4-4) 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: A-
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:
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.
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American Voices (New York: Phillip Morris, 1987), 292.
The First Freedom Today, 5.
The First Freedom Today, 7.
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Isaacson, Walter. “O’er the Land of the Free.” Time,
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Kalven, Harry, Jr. A Worthy Tradition. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Leusner, Donna. “Social Services Advocates Rally for ‘Human’ Touch in State
Budget.” The Star Ledger,
9 April 1991: A-3.
McHugh, Bob. “‘Free Speech’ Moves for School Newspapers.” The Star Ledger, 4
May 1991: A-3.
“Student Wins Freedom of Speech Case.” Daily Record,
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