The Bill of Rights including the First Amendment, protecting freedom of speech and press, was written to protect us against the wrongs that might otherwise be done against citizens, by an oppressive government or by a willful majority against a weaker minority or individual.
The U.S. Constitution replaced the colonies’ Articles of Confederation, declaring the Articles ineffective, making it necessary, the Federalists insisted, to re-create our government, so that we might survive as an independent nation.
We formed a government divided into three departments, each with specified powers and responsibilities, separated one from the other, a federal government.
But the Constitution, created in Philadelphia, said nothing about the individual rights reserved to the people.
Some called the Constitution a “gilded trap” created by the aristocratic elements and charged it was anti-democratic.
An anti-federalist from Massachusetts wrote under the assumed name, John DeWitt, “[t]hat the want of a Bill of Rights to accompany this proposed system [of federalism], is a solid objection to it ….”
A right can protect press and persons from what DeWitt called “that insatiable thirst [by the governors] for unconditional control over … fellow creatures, and [over] the facility of sounds [speech] to convey essentially different ideas …”
Patrick Henry found the Constitution “horridly frightful: among other deformities, it has an awful squinting; it squints toward monarchy.”
The First Amendment, once added to the Constitution, prohibited any interference with speech or press, assembly or petition, and any effort to compromise the free exercise of these freedoms or to abridge the freedom of speech or of the press.
Thomas Jefferson said that between “a government without newspapers” and “newspapers without a government,” he would choose the latter.
In 1798, only seven years after the First Amendment was created, President John Adams favored the creation of Sedition Laws that made it a crime to say or write anything “false, scandalous and malicious” against the government, calculated to shackle and muzzle his Jeffersonian adversaries.
Accordingly, Adam’s “enemies’ list” of editors were indicted, ten were tried and convicted by packed juries.
In our history, freedom of speech has too often been a “prepositional freedom,” meaning, you might enjoy freedom OF speech, but not freedom AFTER speech.
Jeffersonians compared Adams’ abridgment of speech and press, by the Sedition Laws, with the British tyranny of 1774 and Jefferson defeated Adams in the next election.
In modern times, we sometimes refer to these freedoms as “freedom of expression” or “freedom of opinion.” John Stuart Mill in his essay, “On Liberty,” insisted these freedoms contributed to the well-being of humanity.
Justice Charles Black once wrote that if free speech was in some way penalized that there should be a shift to presume that abridgment was unconstitutional.
To quote Justice Clarence Thomas, in Morse v. Frederick, citizens have a right “to speak their minds.”
The right encompasses the right to dissent and the right to disagree.
The right guarantees personal safety “after” one’s statement, after one’s expression, a correlative right, not to be harmed, and not even bothered.
The European Court of Human Rights. in Handyside v. United Kingdom, explained that a democratic society welcomes all ideas, including “those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population,” and added, “[s]uch are the demands of… pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness.”
Robust speech, however, invites that “insatiable thirst” for “unconditional control” and censorship.
In a morality play, created by Henrik Ibsen, Dr. Stockmann investigates the water in the local baths, critical to the town’s success, and finds contamination.
When he seeks to publish his findings in the local paper, publication of his report is blocked, the powers that be quench their “insatiable thirst” and censure Dr. Stockman.
Finally, Dr. Stockmann calls a public meeting to inform the community, but he is silenced, attacked, and threatened as an “enemy of the people.”
Dr. Stockman was, in truth and fact, a friend of the people.