U.S. lucky, history hinders other nations from total free speech

"The world is full of political leaders who show a façade of democracy, but allow no challenge to their rule," New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Lewis told an Emory audience on Feb. 27 as they listened to his lecture, "Free Speech to Destroy Democracy?"

"Their common tactic is to squelch disagreement by employing devices that they describe as merely reasonable regulation," Lewis said. "So says Lee Kuan Yew when he invokes some law against a tiny political opposition in Singapore and [Croation President] Franjo Tutjman when he prosecutes a Croatian newspaper for insulting him."

Even in democratic nations such as Germany, Israel and the new South Africa, free speech has its limits. The United States sets the standard for free speech, but is the standard too high? "Should Americans expect other countries-countries with a different history-to adopt our view, the view we have come to after much struggle for freedom of speech and the press?" Lewis asked.

"It is only quite recently in our history that we have accepted the idea of freedom for unpopular speech-freedom for the thought we hate," said Lewis. "That phrase, 'freedom for the thought we hate,' was written by Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr. in 1929 in dissent.

"The first important test of the First Amendment-and it was very important-occurred just seven years after it and the rest of the amendments in the Bill of Rights were added to the Constitution," said Lewis. That test, the Sedition Act of 1798, was partisan legislation designed to silence the advocates of then-Vice President Thomas Jefferson until the presidential election of 1800.

For the next 150 years, various cases that challenged the suppression of free speech were rejected by the Supreme Court-Eugene Debs, sent to prison for 10 years "for speaking a few sentences about draft resisters . . . anarchists with their pathetic leaflets thrown from the rooftops of New York, Anita Whitley, the California woman whose jailing produced [Justice] Brandeis' passionate defense of freedom, and the irrelevant mouthings of American communists," said Lewis, citing a chronology of important First Amendment cases throughout the first half of the century.

"All pretty tame," he added. "We have escaped some of the worst challenges of human evil in this century. No Nazi movement has taken over our streets as the Nazis did in Weimar, Germany, with horrifying consequences. If we had faced that, I dare say that our view of freedom might be different," said Lewis.

"In recent years, the United States has sometimes seemed to have lost some of the optimism and generosity that historically, it seems to me, characterized it," Lewis continued. "Too many of us have complained about one thing after another as if the whole idea of the constitutional system that has taken America so far had somehow gone wrong.

"If we recognize that we have been lucky as this world goes, we ought to be appropriately modest about urging our system on others who have been less lucky," he said. "But that does not mean that we should retreat from our principles for ourselves. I think we must stand by the freedom so hard won over the last 80 years."

-Stacey Jones

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