The alternative to having constitutionally guaranteed free expression is not attractive. Centralized control of speech, press or religious expression by powerful government officials leads to oppression, and ultimately, as history has shown, societal failure. Suppression of speech ultimately leads to the loss of all individual freedoms.
Combating communicators who exploit free expression for inappropriate purposes is difficult. Society needs more voices of reason in the arena to hold the demagogues accountable. The First Amendment was created on the principle that robust debate involving many voices would ultimately lead to rational decisions in the legislative and cultural spheres. Thus, more Americans should inject their voices into the marketplace of ideas, rather than grouse about the First Amendment going too far.
The first step in engaging that robust debate, however, is a fuller understanding of how free speech works and why the First Amendment matters. Sadly, as the First Amendment Center study indicates, too few Americans have a good sense of these protected rights. Thirty-six percent of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The First Amendment Center president, Ken Paulson, reflected on the survey results by calling for more awareness, “This underscores the need for more First Amendment education. If we truly understand the essential role of these freedoms in a democracy, we’re more likely to protect them.”
That free expression education needs to happen throughout the formal education system of the country, and it also needs to be generated by that institution that was specifically protected by constitutional framers — the press.
A T-shirt for sale in the Newseum gift shop in Washington, D.C., reads, “Freedom of Speech is not a license to be stupid.” True enough, but common sense tells us that some people will, indeed, continue to disseminate stupid messages. First Amendment framer James Madison knew well that free expression rights could be abused, arguing before the other founding fathers saying, “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything.” In short, to get the benefits of a free society that come from free speech, the nation must allow and then respond to those stupid messages, and not give up on free expression by asserting that freedom “goes too far.”
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.