Different Freedoms in the past 150 years of US history: Free Speech
The history of free speech in United States is long and full of events. In facts it can be traced back in the years of struggle for independence. In the years of British occupation, the colony exerted restrictive measures common among them being the seditious libel contained in the English criminal common law that contained dissident voices against the government. After the American revolutionary war in the 1780s, the founders of the American constitution entrenched the bill of rights and launched the First Amendment in 1791. Since then, free speech has remained one of the most debated issues. The difference in understanding and the need to protect free speech has seen some of the most spirited campaigns and court battles in U.S history. The history of American free speech is long and cannot be covered in a short essay like this. AS result this essay concentrates the history of free speech in the past 150 years. From the analysis of the history, the trend shows that free speech will still be an emotive issue in American political liberty for unforeseeable future. More often, the differences in understanding of free speech will be settled in court.
The First Amendment of the U.S Bill of rights guarantees five freedoms: the right to assemble, speech, religion, the press, right to assemble and the right to petition the government fro a redress of the grievances. There has been protracted battle to safeguard these rights. The battles has not been whether to tolerate free speech but on drawing the boundaries of free speech. What should be considered as a free speech and what should not be considered as a free speech has always been the intriguing question. The interpretation of courts and the enactment of legislation are the important events that have shaped this struggle. The interpretation of the court sometimes has been interpreted in the light of the support or suppression of the free speech. In 1929 for instance, Supreme Court judge, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. stated that “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins” (Hargreaves 202). Hose in support of free speech have often felt that free speech is an embodiment of the American ideal and they think that it goes hand in hand with democratization.
In American history there has been a protracted battle to control the government censorship. In the early 20th century there emerged an umbrella body under the name Free Speech League with an aim of advocating space for freedom of expression (Rabban 48). The main objective of the league was to oppose any form of government censorship over any method of communication, expression or transmission of ideas and also push for enactment of legislation and policies that would achieve these ends. One of their main concern was the Comstock laws that sought to outlaw certain issues that were considered as vices by protestant churches especially obscenity, birth control, and prostitution. Out of this law, several books were hounded and destroyed on ground of obscenity. Free Speech League thought that these actions were intruding into personal liberty.
The court has been an important institution in the history of the free speech. In mid 20th century, United States court began enforcing free speech in a broad spectrum of areas. The courts restricted state and local restriction to free speech and expanded the meaning of free speech.Different Freedoms in the past 150 years of US history: Free Speech However, the court has never held that Americans have an “absolute” right and by extension it has also established that Americans do not have the right to say anything at anytime. In 1928, for example, Justice Oliver Holmes in United States v. Schwimmer observed that “”If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate”( Rabban 93).
Some of the free speech issues that landed in court mostly involved minorities group like the Jehovah witness, communist, Ku Klux Klan, American Nazis and radical anti-Semites. The court moved to enlarge the domain of the protected speech (Finam 35). The court has continued with this protection of free speech up to date. In 2011, for example, in Snyder v. Phelps the court delivered a controversial ruling in an aim to protect freedom of expression. In this case, the court ruled that the members of the Westboro parishioners have a right to picket in funerals ceremonies including those of the departed American soldiers. Nonetheless, the court has stated that it is not in all cases that individuals have the right to absolute free speech. In interpretation has been based on the facts provided.
Perhaps one of the periods that will never be forgotten in the history of free speech is the period extending from World War I & II. In 1917, congress passed the espionage act which was meant to deal with those who were suspected to be collaborating with the enemy, especially the Communist.Different Freedoms in the past 150 years of US history: Free Speech Several people were taken in court to answer charges of threatening the security of the United States. Most of the ruling that were made in court upheld the decision that the government had the constitutional right to restrict freedom of expression in protection of the interest of the states (Rabban 254).
After the end of World War II, the US faced one of its scaring moment commonly known as the red scare. In this period, the U.S was concerned the growing expansion of communism and more so it feared that communist ideas had infiltrated right to the government circles. While the security concern of the United States warranted a close monitoring, the pro- free speech felt that it went too far. Although it was initially meant to deal with the collaborators, advocates of free speech claim that it went as far as to suppress freedom of expression.Different Freedoms in the past 150 years of US history: Free Speech They argue that any critic of the war was seen as a collaborator and at the end the act had seen over 2000 Americans convicted (Rabban, 249). The protest staged by pro-free speech has the act amended several times. The courts also have of late expressed dissatisfaction with the restriction entrenched in the act but the act has made an indelible mark in freedom of expression history.
The 9/11 is another unfortunate event that turned the history of freedom of expression (Finam 269). The U.S government responded to the attack by passing the patriot act, a federal law that aims at combating terrorism. Proponents of free speech argue that the act infringes on their right to free speech. Advocates of free speech have cited three sections that they claim cold alter the direction of free speech. The act outlaws any material support to organization blacklisted as terrorist groups. the definition of the material support according to free speech advocate is against free speech since it does not only include weapon or financial support but also any lawful support liking helping the group make a human right claim before the United Nations. Non-profit Human rights organizations that were providing their support were rendered unlawful. Even presenting a case about these groups in United States is a crime.
Overall, the history of free speech in United States has been history of protracted debate between pro free speech and the government restriction. Many acts and courts ruling have affected freedom of expression in one way or another but to see the least, the space to air ones argument in 21st century compared to the late 19th century and the 20 the century is much broader. Beside the government, there has been also controversy regarding the freedom of expression. Where are the boundaries or which are the limits have been some of the intriguing question. There are those who think that freedom of expression has gone further to invade individual privacy while other thinks it is their right to air their thoughts. Although the courts have expanded the freedom of expression, it has also maintained that free speech is not absolute. There is no doubt that the free speech will remain an emotive issue for an unforeseeable future.
Finam, Cristopher. From the palmer raids to the patriotic act: a history of the fight for free speech. Michigan: Beacon Press. 2007. Print.
Hargreaves, Robert. The first freedom: a history of free speech. Michigan: Sutton. 2002. p202. Print
Rabban, David . Free speech in its forgotten years. Cambridge: Cambridge University press. 1999. Print.
Rabban, David. “The free speech league, the ACLU, and changing conceptions of free speech in American history” Stanford Law Review. Vol. 45 (1), Nov. 1992. Pp47-114. Print