Censorship and the First Amendment: The American Citizen’s Right to Free Speech Are we protected from censorship under the First Amendment? In other words do individuals or groups have the right or the power to examine material and remove or prohibit anything they consider objectionable? This argument has been progressing for centuries, in fact the first notable case was against John Peter Zenger, in 1743. Zenger was an editor of a New York colonial newspaper that often published articles critical of the colonial governor.
He successfully argued that publishing the truth should be a defense and thus defied the conventional wisdom and ended colonial intrusion into freedom of the press (Harer 21). Since that case, the progression through time has expanded matters to the complicated issues we see today. The founders of the United States government tried to protect this liberty by assuring a free press, to gather and publish information without being under control or power of another, in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
So why do we need to be concerned if we, as citizens, have been properly protected under the constitution? Our concerns occur, on account of special interest groups that are fighting to change the freedom of expression, the right to freely represent individual thoughts, feelings, and views, in order to protect their families as well as others. These groups, religious or otherwise, believe that publishing unorthodox material is an abuse of free expression under the First Amendment.
As we will come to find, our Supreme Court system plays an exceedingly important role in the subject of free speech and expression. As well as, understanding that the court system is the nucleus of the construing our First Amendment rights. First we must focus on the motivation and foundations behind these individuals attempting to challenge the right to free speech. There are various reasons given for censorship: in a classroom or library they may restrict or ban a book or other learning resource because it includes 2 social, political, or religious views believed to be inappropriate or threatening. A movie or television program may be considered violent, or obscene because of nudity or indecent behavior. A song or speech may contain language thought to be vulgar, or ideas and values that some consider objectionable. Furthermore, a group may edit or withhold a newspaper story from publication because they may judge it as a threat to national security. All though these examples are valid motivations for censorship, initiating these steps would unveil a censorship disaster. It is my view that this action would cause a national uprise of interests groups, as well as the individual, demanding that every division of published information be censored. We must identify exactly who these individuals are that want these items censored. Looking at all levels of American citizens, some are legislators on a local, state, and even federal level. Others are members of boards or committees, organized to review books, films, or other forms of communication on behalf of a community. Occasionally the censors are teachers, librarians, or school administrators, who determine that a book or a classroom item may not be suitable for the students. Often censors are parents, members of religious groups, or just citizens who are concerned about the presence of indecent or improper material in their schools, libraries, theaters, book stores, television, and else where in the community. These individuals are concerned with indecent or improper material in their communities. Shifting to the opposite view on this topic, there are those individuals that oppose the power to censor. There are members of society that believe in the freedom to speak publicly and to publish. This is a basic belief in the freedom of expression and is to be protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. On the eve of the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, the first wave of a nationwide survey, comprising more than 1,500 citizens was conducted. Through this survey it was found that Americans rate free speech as their second most precious First 3 Amendment right and regard a free press highly in the abstract (Wyatt 87). This amendment states: Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there of; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and petition the government for a redress of grievances (Lowi A24). Although there are strong cases made for and against censorship, the rising trend calling for censorship can threaten our basic rights to free expression and the right to be informed. At the center of the debate is the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantee’s our right to read, speak, write, and communicate freely. This right cannot be interfered with by the government at the state or federal level. However, the First Amendment does not protect some forms of expression including libel and slander, false advertising, obscenity, and inciting a riot (Harer 13). In our age, there is an unlimited amount of information available through a diverse representation of media: television, radio, films, newspapers, telephones, computers, magazines, books, and so on. Opposed to other countries, within the world, we are advanced both politically and technically. With our ability to learn and to communicate with one another, this will only make the complex issue of censorship grow. We should consider ourselves lucky by world standards, in many countries the freedom of expression is extremely limited, or sometimes not permitted at all. In these societies, the government censors views that are not in line with their policies, controlling controversial opinions on television, in newspapers, and even in public or private meetings. Many consider the First Amendment to be our most precious constitutional freedom. These same members of society: librarians, teachers, legislators, and students believe in following the tradition of our First Amendment. This tradition allows us the freedom to read, write, speak, and therefore to learn. Our basic freedom is essential to a progressing society. It would be impossible ever to 4 agree upon what should and should not be censored, by whose standards should we set these rules? A thorough discussion of freedom of speech would begin with the question whether this freedom should be legally protected. However, let us begin where the court begins, with the proposition that the freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and is fundamental to the American political system (Canavan 2). The Supreme court has heard various cases pertaining to the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, issues of libel and slander, national security and obscenity. This started in 1787, Thomas Jefferson saw the dangers of a state supported or sanctioned religion and wanted to place a wall of separation between church and state (Hentoff 345). The chief function of the guarantee, then, in the eyes of the court, is to serve the political needs of an open and democratic society. “The core value of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment,” the court has said, is “the public interest in having free and unhindered debate on matters of public importance” (Canavan 3). Thus, it is our right to evaluate items that, as a citizen, we feel as a matter of importance and speak publicly, publish, or express these feelings in any matter we deem necessary. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Supreme Court to interpret the constitution and the Bill of Rights, to make sure that each citizen stays within the constitution and does not infringe upon the rights of others. Their interpretation will set the standards in which this nation must abide. I assert that everyone has a right to self opinion, but imposing your beliefs on others is not a solution, by any means. The following quotation, by John Carney Jr., from his speech “Theoretical Value in Teaching Freedom of Speech,” sums up his ideas on where the future of free speech stands. He brings out the concept of societies control over the fate of free speech. Carney opens our eyes to the thought of actually losing our right to free speech. He helps us understand 5 that the loss of our right to free speech and expression would be devastating. I don’t think freedom of speech is being destroyed or has been destroyed, by any well planned conspiracy by any particular segment of our society; political, governmental, economical, educational, or what have you. I think freedom of speech is rotting to death. And it has been for a long time…A lot of people, including many who should know better, don’t really even begin to understand the concept as it relates to our form of government, and therefore, have no commitment to it… Any attempt is impossible without free speech. It’s tough enough with it, but impossible without it… Perhaps the overriding need for teaching freedom of speech is because the people don’t believe it any more (Carney). In looking back at this issue, we realize that the level of complexity has escalated since the first case encountered in 1743, to todays unbelievable level. Consider the special interest groups, that challenge the right to free expression, with those that secure this right to their everyday beliefs as free citizens in America. Every item that is censored, or even not censored, affects all citizens within the collective community. Each group holds a strong conviction to their purpose, but they do not take into account the basic issue of interpretation of the First Amendment, in order to protect their position. Taking into consideration those countries that essentially have no say in their rights, we can imagine how trivial this argument might be. We must also realize that as our forefathers intended, our countries basic principles derive from this amendment. Therefore, we must settle for the judgement of the Supreme Court on this concern. Accepting the Supreme Court interpretations as our own, thus achieving a balanced society. Our countries founding documents, specifically the First Amendment, were drafted to protect the rights of all American citizens, to both question and criticize our government, if they desired to. I believe our founding fathers theorized that with so many people speaking out, the truth would always emerge, and our country would grow to be fair and free. Works Cited Carney, John Jr., “Theoretical Value in Teaching Freedom of Speech.” Speech Association of the Eastern States. New York, 10 March 1973. Harer, John B. Intellectual Freedom: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1992. 21. -. Intellectual Freedom: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1992. 13 Hentoff, Nat. Free Speech for Me – But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relent- lessly Censor Each Other. New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 1992. 345 Wyatt, Robert O. Free Expression and the American Public: A Survey Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the First Amendment. Murfreesboro: Middle Tennessee State University, 1990. 87. Free Expression and the American Public: A Survey Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the First Amendment. Murfreesboro: Middle Tennessee State University, 1990. 87. United States. Natl. Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America: Amend- ment I. Trans. Lowi, Theodore J. American Government: Incomplete Conquest. Illinois: Dryden press, 1976. A24
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