Gregory W. O’Reilly
Recently many Americans have debated rights to speech and to protest. Many, fond of tossing off the phrase the “First Amendment” to justify their rights protest and to communicate their opinions, or to limit these rights for others, have likely never read it. If true, how many fail to understand why we have it? It reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Today, we are also protected from having any part of our government – the police, the Congress, the military, or even the President, trample on these rights.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies provided a roadmap to understanding why we have a First Amendment, and explained its centrality to a free and open democracy. He did it with style – a style traceable to the oratory of classical Greece. In 1927 he wrote his justification for these rights in what was then a minority view of the Supreme Court. It soon became the prevailing view. Brandies wrote:
“Those who won our independence… believed . . . that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile . . . that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government . . . . ” Whitney v. California.
He looked back to the nation’s founding, and reminded us First Amendment rights are crucial in the search for truth – specifically in the political arena, that heated sphere where often we want our views heard, do not want to listen to opposing views, and sometimes would even like our opponent’s views silenced. Brandies recognized this human tendency, and recognized it as destructive of democracy. Without these First Amendment rights, attempts to maintain freedom and democracy would be futile. He wisely warned of the dangers of straying from the path of freedom by giving in to the urge to limit free speech, for that path that leads to fear, repression, and hate, imperiling our society. Free speech and free society demand courage and tolerance; you may have to hear what you hate to hear, summon the courage to tolerate hearing it, and to speak your own truth against the views you hate. It is no coincidence Brandies’ style tracked that of the ancient Greek leader Pericles, who marshaled speech to rouse Athens to withstand invasion and the extinction of its system of democracy. In considering the temptation to ignore First Amendment rights, we would do well to heed Pericles, who counseled, “esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness . . . . ”