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America: Land of Free Speech -- Sometimes


We're proud that America is the land of free speech. That right is recognized in the First Amendment, and we usually take it seriously. It wasn't always the case.

In John Adams' administration, the Sedition Act made it a crime, punishable by fine and imprisonment, "to write, print, utter or publish ... any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government ... or to excite against (it) the hatred of the people ..."

Thankfully, Thomas Jefferson and other libertarians got rid of that law.

Under Woodrow Wilson, Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for calling for draft resistance during World War I. His conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court, led by that alleged civil libertarian Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Today, fortunately, no one goes to jail for criticizing the draft, or the U.S. government's wars.

So we've made progress — in some areas. But in others, we've regressed.

I once interviewed someone who said words are like bullets because words can wound; this justified some censorship in his eyes.

Ugly words in a workplace can indeed make it hard for someone to succeed at work, and racism in school can make it hard to learn. But I say words are words and bullets are bullets.

Speech is special. We should counter hateful speech with more words — not government force.

I discussed this issue with lawyer Harvey Silverglate, who has devoted his career to defending speech. These days, he sees new threats.

"The old threats we managed to beat mostly in court and also in the court of public opinion," Silverglate said. "So the censors have simply come up with new terms for speech they don't like. They call it 'harassment' or ... 'bullying.'"

The "harassment" attack on speech came from feminists who said sex talk in the workplace must be forbidden because certain statements harass women.

"They tried to restrict speech on the theory that harassment may make it impossible for somebody in a historically disadvantaged group to get their work done, to study and get an education."

I pointed out that sexist speech might in fact do that — if you have a bunch of guys making cracks constantly about women.

"You've got a right to respond with horrible speech if you are attacked with horrible speech.

As long as that's a two-way street, the First Amendment has worked."

Silverglate was once hired by faculty members at the University of Wisconsin who objected to a speech code intended to protect minorities, women and gays from offensive expression.

"I didn't actually win that battle. You know who won it? A gay student got up and said, 'If you're looking to have a speech code to protect me, don't do it, because I actually like knowing who hates me. It's useful. It tells me when I should watch my back.'"

Silverglate started a group to protect speech on college campuses, FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. His co-founder was Alan Charles Kors, with whom he wrote "The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on American Campuses."

FIRE lawyers defended students at Northern Arizona University who wanted to hand out small American flags to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11. They planned to distribute the flags outdoors, but it rained. So they went inside the student union, where four different university officials told them to stop.

The students refused, and two were charged with violating the student code. FIRE helped the students get media coverage that pointed out that the First Amendment protects students at public institutions. The school dropped its case against the students.

Several colleges used to have rules requiring that all student protest be held in a small, out-of-the-way "free speech zone" on campus. FIRE mocked these as "censorship zones," and colleges have gotten rid of most of these restrictive rules.

FIRE often strikes blows for free speech simply by bringing unfavorable publicity to a heavy-handed school. As Justice Louis Brandeis said, "Sometimes sunlight is the best disinfectant."

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "Give Me a Break" and of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at <a href="" <>></a>. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at




7 Comments | Post Comment
Speech is free, consequences not.
Results vary in time and place.
Humans communicate a lot,
Part of charm of the human race.
Shooting off one's mouth may cause hurt,
Not the same as shooting a gun.
Apology might mend a blurt.
Bullet holes cannot be undone.
The Golden Rule with speech is good.
Speak unto others in a way
That others speaking to you would,
And you would think such speak okay.

Is what's said true, needed or kind?
Before it's said, keep that in mind.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Ima Ryma
Thu Nov 24, 2011 4:38 AM
When is Stossel going to do something on the myth that saturated fat is bad for you? Also, his belief that drinking a coke and taking a multivitamin is equatable to drinking fruit juice is entirely misinformed. Nutrients found in food are always absorbed better and yield better results than those found in artifically isolated vitamins. Multivitamins are helpful but they mean little without a healthy diet.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Benjamin Rosenzweig
Fri Nov 25, 2011 7:43 AM
Usually most 1st amendment problems on campus have to do with flat out censorship in the name of making a "hate free zone." That is stupid but there is such a thing as the right time and place for free speech.

For example, a math teacher should be able to restrict speech to the subject matter at hand and ask that comments about other subjects wait until class is over. In the case of college, where attendance is often not required, the teacher should be able to ask that students wishing to discuss politics to either leave the room or wait until after class so as not to waist the other student's time.

Another example is that not every place in the school is appropriate for unbridled free speech. Certainly students shouldn't be able to walk into any office of any faculty member at any time and just spout off whatever is on their mind while the faulty member is working. If a school play is going on it is appropriate to ask the audience to be silent and certainly not get up and start yelling about how the town's mayor is failing while the other people in attendance are trying to pay attention.

I don't know where the official line should be drawn. However, the principle for restricting speech on campus should be in so far as it does not disrupt the function of a space or event. Classes need to happen without continuous interruption, performances should be respected, sporting events should be able to take place and graduations ceremonies should be focused on students graduating, not the latest political issue.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Zack
Fri Nov 25, 2011 5:34 PM
I don't think "Freedom of Speech" is the subject anymore. Perhaps what we need to be discussing is freedom to choose ones audience.

As someone who doesn't believe that people should be transformed (coerced) into being public speakers... I like people the way they are as opposed to the way they were poked and prodded into being as they underwent a conversion to stage presence. Its fine for all but not for everyone...

Personally, I would agree to be on stage speaking about my area of professional interest but I would want an introduction stating "This presentation is being given before a mature studio audience". I think in the days of Lavern & Shirley the specification was "a live studio audience" as opposed to "mature". Today is different, we have growing awareness of emotional maturity. Guess who's turn it is to rise to the occasion? People do not become mature overnight they'll have to pay their dues.

Random exposure to nonsense that will set a person back is senseless. Emotional wounds take a lifetime to heal from. Those with the immaturity need to rise to the occasion and they will not know they're immature until they've been excluded.
Comment: #4
Posted by: DED (dog-eat-dog) Survivor
Sat Nov 26, 2011 3:27 PM
Freedom unbridled by common sense is a dangerous thing, indeed.
Comment: #5
Posted by: James
Sat Nov 26, 2011 7:28 PM
Freedom unbridled by common sense has a name ... Anarchy. Eliminating my voice because I don't agree with you also has a name ... Facism. It appears to me that common sense exists both between and equidistant from both.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Billy
Mon Nov 28, 2011 7:43 AM
There is no such thing as free speech, just as there is no such thing as free enterprise. All of these things are regulated in every society. The debate is to what extent they should be regulated. Your article, John, is of little worth, because it highlights egregious examples of speech suppression, but it does not describe a bright line between what should and should not be allowed.
Comment: #7
Posted by: George
Tue Nov 29, 2011 8:58 AM
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