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Free Speech Essay

In 1996 at Bonneville High school in Ogden, Utah a young foreign exchange student from Poland sat with her friend eating lunch. As she gazed upward she could see into the window of one of the history classes. To her horror, visible to the entire student body was displayed a Nazi flag. The flag was being displayed as part of a class on World War II and was displayed next to a Japanese flag, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia to highlight certain aspects of that time period. After asking for the flag to be removed without avail, the student, Marta Daszkiewicz, wrote a letter to the local newspapers editorial section. In which she wrote “The swastika still evoked fears because the neo-Nazi movement is still alive in Germany. If you have Polish license plates, you can get beat up by neo-Nazis when you go into Germany,” (Daszkiewicz, personal communication, February 15, 2012)

A local newspaper at the time reported: [Karen] Miner said she was surprised to hear that Daszkiewicz, whose grandfather was killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, felt the Nazi flag had no place on her classroom wall. “My father was one of the first Americans to go in D-Day,” Miner said, adding that he helped liberate Paris and later some of the concentration camps where Nazis killed millions of Jews and members of other ethnic groups they deemed to be inferior.” (Associated Press 1996) At the school, teachers took sides, and because she was miles away from her parents and other means of support the young student felt ostracized. She felt like she had come to the land of the free and when she decided to speak her mind, she was shot down. (Daszkiewicz, personal communication, February 15, 2012) Karen Miner, the teacher, also felt her own freedoms had been brought under fire, and although she had been supported by her school and local school board, she certainly was not promoting Nazi ideology. (Associated Press 1996)

What the student and the teacher had experienced here was a classic clash over when and if our freedom of speech should be censored. In either position; it is hard to know how we should respond. This was a balancing act with the teacher on one side representing the government, her students, and herself and the student on the other representing the individual. Both sides would probably describe their own freedom of expression to be the one that was threatened. And both have a reasonable claim to have their rights being protected.

In the United States of America, the right to freedom of speech has been held as one of this country’s highest values, as nationally recognized by the Constitution of the United States of America. Censorship of speech is a controversial subject matter, and will probably always be debated in the U.S. as long as this country exists. Balancing individual expression against the public’s welfare and safety is one of the most significant challenges of government. The passage and enforcement of unbalanced laws lead to suppression then revolt and an eventual disintegration of that society.

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The great balancing act is that even within the first amendment itself, there are often conflicts between the specific rights. And often Freedom of Speech is paired against not only the other rights within the 1st amendment, and also against the government’s role to protect the nation. Supreme court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.” (Holmes, Abrams v. United States, 1919).

Justice Holmes did not believe free speech should never be limited however. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent” (Holmes, Schenck v. United States, 1919)

When speech is limited even for the reasons stated by Justice Holmes and Mr. Cohen, consequences can arise that are so disagreeable that they outweigh the original intent. On January 18th, 2012, only short time ago, a massive internet protest ensued. Some of the largest and most used internet sites went dark for 24 hours, including Wikipedia and Reddit, to bring attention to the movement against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), two acts designed to protect owners of copyrights from the possibility of intellectual robbery.

Wikipedia, Google, and many others stated that while they understood the need to stop piracy of intellectual property, these bills went too far and began to censor ideas and knowledge. (Pepitone, 2012) It is only through this type of public discourse that the protections of speech and expression remain intact. On September 11th, 2001, one of the worst attacks in the history of the United States was perpetrated on our own soil. This act has lead to countless, laws and actions by the United States government. Among these is a very controversial act, known as the patriot act. This act has been argued by some to sacrifice our privileges of privacy and other rights for a little more security. Yet many believed our freedom of speech remained untouched. “Unlike World War I, for example, people were free to express their opposition to the “war on terror” without fear of being sentenced to ten years in prison… In at least one significant area — speech and association deemed to provide “material support” to terrorist groups — our First Amendment rights are considerably less robust in the wake of 9/11 than they were before.

Professor David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center explained “The “material support” law gives the executive the power to designate as a “foreign terrorist organization” any group that is foreign, has used or threatened to use a weapon against person or property, and whose activities undermine our “national defense, foreign relations, or economic interests.” (Cole, 2007) Cole further explains that the Supreme Court rulings of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project uphold as constitutional the Bush and Obama administrations’ overly broad interpretation of that law and set dangerous precedents for speech rights in the future. The fear of further attacks by the enemies of the United States is not a reason to suppress our speech and expression. “Censorship,” according to Justice Holmes, “is an almost irresistible impulse when you know you are right” (Sunstein, p. 25). But letting the government swing toward suppression even in the face of adversity may at first help to protect a society but can eventually lead to much more complex and destructive problems.

History has provided many examples of societies that used tactics to suppress ideas and expression. Examples of these groups are religions, governments, schools, and corporations. History has also shown us that prolonged restriction of free speech leads to some sort of revolt. Known examples of revolts due to suppression are, the Lutheran and Calvinist Movements in Europe, the American Revolution, and Brown versus The Board of Education. (Heyman, 2010) A more modern, less dramatic, representation of the idea that censorship leads to revolt is known as “The Streisand Effect”. (Greenberg, 2007) The Phenomenon is named after singer Barbra Streisand and her failed attempt to suppress pictures of her home from being posted across the internet. In 2003 Kenneth Adelman posted aerial photos for an environmental survey.

These photos included the singer’s Malibu beach house. Streisand responded to the pictures by suing Adelman. “Until the lawsuit, few people had spotted Streisand’s house, Adelman says–but the lawsuit brought more than a million visitors to Adelman’s Web site, he estimates. Streisand’s case was dismissed, and Adelman’s photo was picked up by the Associated Press and reprinted in newspapers around the world.” (Greenberg, 2007) Yet based on history a suppressive government cannot sustain itself without making a switch to a more balanced approach to human rights, including free speech. In his book Did Plastic People of the Universe topple communism? Tom Stoppard shows the history of how suppression of Rock and Roll in Czechoslovakia eventually led to the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

In 1976, after years of suppression by the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, The Plastic People of the Universe, a psychedelic rock and roll band were put on trial after attempting to stage a music festival that was not sanction by the government. (Stoppard, 2009) A diverse group of supporters, including playwrights, writers, professors and other Czech intellectuals, had attended the trial and gathered outside in the hallway. Among the supporters was avant-garde playwright Vaclav Havel who had met band members a week earlier and had been impressed with them. Havel left the trial feeling disgusted with the world and resolved to make a difference. (Stoppard, 2009)

In the months that followed, these sympathizers gathered in solidarity with local hippies and rallied around the Plastic People. They dared to establish a human rights organization and released a statement of principles on January 1, 1977, naming their organization after the charter, Charter 77. Havel said that the Plastics were defending “life’s intrinsic desire to express itself freely, in its own authentic and sovereign way”, which is as close to a perfect definition of both democracy and rock and roll as has ever been stated. Charter 77 evolved into a world-famous human rights petition that eventually landed Havel in jail, and was a precursor to the national revolution or “Velvet Revolution” that occurred 12 years later. (Stoppard, 2009)

“The Velvet Revolution (Czech) or Gentle Revolution (Slovak) was a non-violent revolution in Czechoslovakia that took place from November 17 to December 29, 1989. Dominated by student and other popular demonstrations against the one-party government of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, it saw to the collapse of the party’s control of the country, and the subsequent conversion from Czech Stalinism to capitalism.” (Radio Prague, 1997) The Constitution of the United States extends the rights of speech as part of the first amendment. However, within the same amendment the constitution also offers religion, press, and peaceable assembly.

Within the same amendment the right can sometimes conflict with some or all of the other rights protected by the constitution. Balancing the rights of citizens with the demands of government is not a battle that will ever be won. Due to changes in the worlds ideas and cultures we must, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. suggested, be “Eternally Vigilant” (Holmes, Abrams v. United States, 1919) in protecting others free speech. Balancing individual expression against the general public’s safety is one of the most significant challenges of government. If we do not we must face the possibility of losing our own freedoms and may have to fight either through words or deeds to retain those rights.


Holmes, Oliver Wendell (1995). The Collected Works of Justice Holmes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press Radio Prague (1997) Radio Prague’s History Online Virtual Exhibit!. http://archiv.radio.cz/history/history15.html Retrieved 2-16-2012 O’Brien,
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Cole, David (2011) Free Speech After 9/11: Why Advocating for Peace is Now a Crime. American Constitution Society. Retrieved February 11, 2012 from the World Wide Web: http://www.acslaw.org/acsblog/free-speech-after-911-why-advocating-for-peace-is-now-a-crime

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Daszkiewicz, Marta (2012) Personal Interview conducted by online chat on February 15, 2012. Poland. [email protected]

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