It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 50 years since the student-led protests at the University of California, Berkeley — known today as the “Free Speech Movement” — demanded that university officials respect their First Amendment rights and allow them to participate in political activities on campus.
What’s even harder to believe is that on many college campuses today students want to stifle free speech, rather than protect it.
The answer is: The American education system failed today’s students. They haven’t been taught to appreciate the unique gift they were given when America’s Founders drafted the Bill of Rights, the Constitution’s first ten amendments.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1941, declared December 15 “Bill of Rights Day” to commemorate the day in 1791 when Virginia became the eleventh state to ratify the ten amendments. It’s supposed to be a day to remember how fortunate we are to be governed by a charter that guarantees “freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the free right to petition the Government for redress of grievances.”
These freedoms are essential to self-government and the American way of life. But many Americans today don’t seem to understand or appreciate that fact.
To the Founders, free speech was indispensable. How could the people choose among candidates or public policies if debate were not free? As Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”
Today, this view no longer holds for many. Students silence those with views they deem unacceptable, often encouraged by a complicit faculty and a craven administration.
This opposition to free debate is criticized as the whining of pampered students not wanting to confront views that disturb them. But the cause is deeper and more troubling than that.
Those who deny others the right to speak do so because they have been taught that speech cannot be free. They have been taught that people are divided most fundamentally by gender, race, and class. They have been taught that speech is a tool used by the powerful and “privileged” gender, race, or class to subjugate and oppress others.
Speech is not free, therefore, but a weapon. And, as such, it must be controlled. So it is proper, even necessary, to ban certain speakers, topics, words, and expressions.
Such a warped view of free speech has grave consequences. If all speech is merely a tool of power, then all talk is merely part of the struggle for power. What that leads to is endless conflict. We see the results of this attitude not only on college campuses but also in Washington.
Fortunately, we are not stuck with these terrible consequences.
Those who deny others the right to speak do so because they have been taught that speech cannot be free.
Those who drafted the Bill of Rights understood that all mankind shares a common humanity more fundamental than gender, race, or class. What principally constitutes our common humanity is, as Jefferson put it, “that almighty God hath created the mind free.” And because our minds are free, our speech must be free.
Citizens can reason together and share in common self-government. When speech is free, we can know the truth and the difference between justice and injustice.
This understanding was the basis for Martin Luther King Jr.’s work in the Civil Rights movement, a movement contemporary with the Free Speech movement at Berkeley. In his last speech, King reminded his audience that full enjoyment of civil rights requires unwavering devotion to the fundamental rights of the First Amendment, the rights to speak, assemble, and petition.
On this anniversary of the Bill of Rights, we should recall the truths known to those who drafted it: These truths are supremely powerful because they are irrefutably true.