The Freedom To Speak

There’s a not so subtle difference in meaning when the function word “to” is substituted for “of” and the intransitive verb “speak” is substituted in place of the noun “speech”. We Americans know that freedom of speech, of the press, and freedom of assembly are included in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

“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.”

There are social factors that imply prohibition of speech. While the freedom of speech is guaranteed, it is often the case that there is not the freedom to speak. For instance, a person might be in a small town where the opinion of eating meat is held in highest esteem because a slaughterhouse is the primary employer of the town’s residents. One resident may hold the contrary opinion that eating meat is unwise. That resident may feel intimidated because she fears retribution and perhaps violence from the majority of the town’s residents. She may legally have the freedom of speech, but she does not feel free to fully exercise it.

Freedom of speech is perhaps the single most important freedom we have. When we are guaranteed the freedom of speech, we can voice our opinions in favor of or against the other aspects in our lives. Without the guarantee of speech freedom, individuals and groups wishing to advocate for or against other freedoms can be suppressed and oppressed. The freedom of speech is the primary fuel that powers a democratic republic and democratic governance.

In a similar vein, the freedom to speak is implied. When a person feels free to speak, she can express herself as she deems necessary or according to her individual wishes. If the freedom to speak is perceived as non-existent or if the freedom to speak her mind would expose her to public intimidation or violence, then her freedom of speech is de facto restricted. She must shut up and put up or leave the town. In effect, she becomes a victim of the tyranny of the majority.

“Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom–and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.”–Benjamin Franklin

Even though our hypothetical vegan who lives in the slaughterhouse town may privately think about not eating and wearing animal-based products, the tyranny of the majority implies that she cannot fully enjoy her freedom of speech. The fact that she feels intimidated by the majority means that she does not feel able to participate freely in public discussions.

We cannot overlook the fact that the town’s majority is also guaranteed the freedom of speech. They have the constitutional freedom to disparage and ridicule the vegan for her belief in veganism. Furthermore, they have the implied freedom to speak because of their community endorsed opinions regarding meat-eating.

A similar conundrum occurs when a high public executive holds a particular opinion. He also has the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. By virtue of his political power, he has carte blanche freedom to speak. Furthermore, he has the real power to enforce his opinions–at least while he remains in office.

The power of the executive’s freedom to speak can influence and reinforce the tyranny of the majority. Perhaps the executive believes that meat-eating is virtuous and that everyone must consume meat as a way to express their loyalty and patriotism. His freedom to speak towers mightily over the vegan’s freedom to speak, even though both the executive and the vegan are constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. One of the perks of high office is an enhanced freedom to speak. This imbalance can be used to advocate in favor of everyone’s liberty or to advocate against minority liberty. The First Amendment does not supply any apparent remedy to this imbalance.

The obvious solution for the vegan is that of owning the risks of intimidation and violence and proclaiming her freedom to speak regardless of consequences. Even though the majority could violently react to suppress her unpopular opinion, she could still legally express them. Her freedom to speak is conditional. She has more personal cost than individuals who share the opinion of the majority.

She is free to gamble her personal safety and life on the freedom to speak. Although her freedom of speech might not be protected by statutes, her freedom of speech is constitutionally legal. The freedom to speak is not a given. To use the freedom to speak sometimes entails great risk.

During these days of national turmoil, it is important to think about the bedrock freedoms of speech and to speak.

The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. “How absurd men are! They never use the liberties they have, they demand those they do not have. They have freedom of thought, they demand freedom of speech.”

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
This entry was posted in Controversy, cultural highlights, philosophy, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Freedom To Speak

  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Well said.

    Speaking up and speaking out is essential for living an engaged life.. Even if it seems sometimes so very hard to do.

    Regards Thom

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