In December 1860, Frederick Douglass spoke to a group of fellow abolitionists in Boston, Massachusetts about the need for free speech in the project to abolish slavery—and more broadly, the support of human rights.
“No right was deemed by the fathers of the Government more sacred than the right of speech. It was in their eyes, as in the eyes of all thoughtful men, the great moral renovator of society and government,” he said. “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”
Just a few days earlier, Douglass and other abolitionists had gathered at a public meeting hall in Boston to address the question: “How Can American Slavery Be Abolished?” But their message was never delivered; protestors drowned out Douglass and his friends and caused the meeting to descend into chaos. Police were forced to intervene, and the event was shut down.
Douglass believed that the right to speak one’s views freely in the public square without fear of repression was the first and foremost human right, without which freedom from slavery could never be achieved. Douglass valued free speech so much so that he said it was key to the abolition: “Five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South.”
Last year, MSNBC political analyst Richard Stengel called for restrictions on free speech in the Washington Post, claiming that “the First Amendment was engineered for a simpler era,” and that the idea that a free marketplace of ideas will allow truth to stand the test of open debate—and win—is false. “[N]o one ever quite explained how good ideas drive out bad ones, how truth triumphs over falsehood,” he wrote.
But history shows us exactly how.
Published in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe stirred the hearts of the country, causing many to view slavery as the abomination it was. President Lincoln even credited Stowe with having lit the spark of the Civil War. Later, it was the writings and speeches of Susan B. Anthony in the late 1800s that helped pave the way for women to gain the right to vote in 1920. In 1963, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech propped up the fight against de facto racism in the law and is now synonymous with civil rights.
History has shown us that when a nation’s leaders want to seize extraordinary power from the people, they first place restrictions around the marketplace of ideas so that they aren’t competing with views that differ from their own. Free speech is always one of the first things to go in a dictatorship.
Through rigorous debate and education, minds are changed, and good ideas win in the court of public opinion. This can’t happen unless ideas, even (and perhaps especially) unpopular or counter-cultural ones, are first allowed to compete in the marketplace of ideas.
America’s great tradition of free expression allows us to defend our beliefs, learn from others, and seek truth without fear of punishment. Unfortunately, this freedom is now taken for granted. We once again need to realize the great blessing that free expression is and recommit ourselves to it, trusting that corruption and bad ideas are not driven out with censorship but rather with the introduction of truth.
As Douglass said in Boston, “Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to come in their presence.”
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