Brief History on Freedom of Speech

The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution guarantees four freedoms: freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly. The Bill of Rights was ratified on December 15, 1791. Since that time, those freedoms have been discussed, debated, fought and died for. Since that time, millions of immigrants have come to America to secure those freedoms. The Founding Fathers knew what they were doing. They believed in the power of ideas and debate, not censorship.

The freedom of speech concept came from England. During the Glorious Revolution of 1688, King James II was overthrown, then William and Mary were installed as joint monarchs. The following year, the English Parliament secured a Bill of Rights from William and Mary that granted "freedom of speech in Parliament." One hundred years later our founding fathers were wise enough to expand that principle to everyone, not just members of Parliament.

In his 1801 inaugural address, President Thomas Jefferson reaffirmed the principle of free speech saying, "If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." Reason is the tool to use to change opinions—not censorship.

During World War II, addressing Congress, FDR expressed the hope that the four freedoms would be embraced the world over. He said, "We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world." Clearly we are not there yet. Freedom of speech is not a right in every country in the world. Yet, just as clearly, it is a freedom desired in every corner of the world.

Most students recognize Voltaire’s defense of free speech…

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

The underlying premise is, if the government censors you today, I could be next tomorrow, perhaps for an entirely different reason. That’s why it is so important to uphold the principle, even when in practice it is difficult to do so. There’s no challenge involved in defending someone you agree with; the stretch is standing up for your opponent—so that everyone’s rights are preserved.

For as long as the First Amendment has protected our right to free speech and expression, elements have tried to undermine that right. Censorship often raises its ugly head during trying times when our nation faces difficult, seemingly insoluble problems. That is why Justice Louis Brandeis opined in Whitney v. California in 1927, "Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burned women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears." Brandeis knew what Jefferson knew—reason and free speech, not fear and censorship, should prevail.

The Supreme Court reaffirmed this position in its 1997 decision on the Communications Decency Act (CDA) that sought to limit material placed on the Internet. RIAA was active in a broad coalition of industry and civil liberties groups that opposed the CDA. The high court struck down the law. In an opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the high court decided, "Notwithstanding the legitimacy and importance of the congressional goal of protecting children from harmful materials, we agree with the three-judge district court that the statute abridges the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment."

Rebel With A Stereo

In the world of music, the censorship effort repeats itself virtually every generation. Music is an especially easy target when legislators are looking for cultural scapegoats. In the tempest of the times, it’s easy to condemn that which shocks.

In 1956, Ed Sullivan called this singer "unfit for a family audience." In 1970 this star met with the President of the United States in the oval office. Today, Elvis Presley is on a postage stamp. It wasn't that long ago when The Rolling Stones were considered dangerous. Today, they're in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, winners of the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and on the cover of TIME magazine with the headline, "Rock Rolls On." At one time, David Bowie and Alice Cooper were shocking. Now they're mainstream.

Inevitably, with the passage of time, that which once shocked loses its power. Take one timely example: The recording industry's trade magazine, Billboard, publishes an editorial criticizing sexually explicit records by black artists and urges the music industry to control itself--before someone else does. Record industry distributors say they will stop carrying suggestive albums and have in fact already started screening records. A major New York radio station criticizes record labels for supporting "Filth passing under the guise of pop lyrics." All an over reaction to rap music? No. The year was 1954 and the subject was rhythm and blues.

There's nothing new about pop and rock music finding its roots in the anger and rebellion of young people. And there's nothing new in older people expressing unrealistic fears about that music. The history of our nation's music is also a history of those who would censor that creative expression, afraid of what it explores and exposes. Our challenge, then and now, is to recognize that music is a reflection, not a cause; it doesn't create the problems our society faces, it forces us to confront them.

For more information on the history of censorship:

"Green Book of Songs By Subject," Jeff Green, Professional Desk References, 1995.

"Anatomy of Censorship: Why the Censors Have it Wrong," Harry White, University Press of America, 1997.

"50 Ways To Fight Censorship: And Important Facts To Know About the Censors," Dave Marsh, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991.

"Anti-Rock: The Opposition To Rock'N'Roll," Linda Martin, Da Capo Press, 1993.

"Giving Offense: Essays On Censorship," J.M. Coetzee, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996.

"It's Not About A Salary...Rap, Race and Resistance in Los Angeles," Brian Cross, Verso 1993.

"United States Vs. Hip-Hop the Historical and Political Significance of Rap Music," Julian Shabazz, Untd Bros, 1992.

"Hip Hop America: Hip Hop & the Molding of Black Generation X," Nelson George, Viking Press, 1998.

"Between God & Gangsta Rap," Michael Eric Dyson, Oxford University Press, 1995.