Tuesday, August 4, 2009

On Zenger Anniversary, celebrate Free Speech

Today marks the 274th anniversary of the famous Zenger trial, in which printer/publisher John Peter Zenger was acquitted of charges of libel against then-colonial governor William Cosby of New York. Zenger had published several articles (though not necessarily written by him) critical of Cosby. Despite Cosby's hand-picked panel of judges, the jury ruled in favor of Zenger, through his lawyer's insistence that, though his client was guilty, the law itself was wrong.

The case is an historic example of two important aspects of the American legal system: first, the important role that jury nullification plays; and second (what will be discussed in greater detail), of free speech rights in America, a value we have held in high regard for literally hundreds of years. To benefit a democratic society, our founders knew that, through examples like Zenger and others, we required specific freedoms and access to information without restraint. Thus, the ability to speak one's mind became paramount, essential to any functioning, free society.

This is not a right that hasn't had its share of vicious attacks in the past; countless attempts have been made since Zenger to suppress free speech, to quell dissent, and to hold those with conflicting views accountable for having dared question the authority's viewpoints. From the Alien and Sedition Acts during the time of John Adams to the "Free Speech" zones of George W. Bush's presidency, the move to suppress and even prevent free speech has lasted just as long as the value of free speech itself. We must continue to guard this treasured right, for without its constant defense, we risk losing our very freedoms.

There continue to be assaults on free speech rights to this day. Cities across the nation require permits to prevent or diminish the number of protests seen challenging the status quo. In the founders' day, a permit to protest wasn't necessary; it was downright illegal to object so openly to the king's rule. Despite the consequences they faced, they continued their efforts, setting in motion the events that led to Revolution and eventual independence.

With all rights, of course, there are limits -- speech is no different. If what I say will endanger the livelihood of another individual, then my right to speech ceases to be protected. You can't yell "FIRE!" in a crowded theater when there isn't a real emergency, for example, because doing so will cause a panic and may leave some injured in the free-for-all to get out alive.

But the limits placed on free speech are often made without any real threat to a person's livelihood. The "Free Speech" zones instituted by Bush (and copied by the DNC as well) were done to keep dissenting voices far from the cameras, to keep up the image of a president who didn't have a disagreeing public, when such a public was literally blocks away from him. The Espionage Act during World War I focused on keeping people from hiding behind free speech when aiding the enemies, but was so broad it extended to people who simply opposed the war, who just wanted to express their belief that it was an unjust intervention into the world's affairs.

Free speech is something our country requires. Things like "Free Speech" zones and permits for expressing an opinion go against our founding fathers' intentions. Whether you agree with everything someone says or not is one thing -- the fact that everyone is allowed to express their ideas is a principle we must hold onto. Our very freedoms depend on it.

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