Freedom of speech under new attacks

Published 9:00 am Tuesday, October 10, 2017

By Chuck Witt

“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…”

Noble and sacrosanct words from the first Amendment to the Constitution.

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And, after more than 200 years, this admonition has remained a cornerstone commandment which has provided protection to the free exercise of expression.

Except, of course, during those times when sedition laws were imposed and individuals were routinely jailed for speaking out, specifically against the government.

You know, sort of like the conditions in North Korea and a few other nations right now.

The Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, established by John Adams, our second president, was ostensibly passed to maintain secrecy during the undeclared naval war against France, but was really an attempt to silence opposition to the Federalist party.

The Sedition Act of 1918 was instituted to quell continuing outrage over the involvement of the U.S. in World War I, and more than 200 people were convicted and sent to jail under its auspices.

And though the freedom of speech, along with the other freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights, is a powerful thing, it is also fragile and requires eternal diligence for its maintenance.

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Sedition Act of 1918 in 1919 and the act was repealed by Congress in 1920, but another Court ruling in 1969 finally made it unlikely that such an act would be found constitutional today.

Following the 1919 Court ruling, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated, “… the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market …”

In other words, only when untruths are tested by discussion and the exposure of contrary ideas will truth be established.

Another old saying which reflects the same premise is: The strongest steel is tempered in the hottest fire.

Today, this country is seeing more and more efforts to stifle free speech and the worst offenders seem to reside on college and university campuses, where controversial speakers are often denied an opportunity to speak by cliques — sometimes including outside agitators — who resent their appearance and their views.

In fact, recently, the most blatant examples of scheduled speakers being hounded to silence have occurred on the campus of the university which, in previous years, was the strongest advocate of free speech: the University of California at Berkeley.

Students at Berkeley have traditionally been the most liberal in the country in supporting the advocacy of opposing views, but maybe that only applied to liberal views, since recent protests have been aimed at preventing right-wing speakers from appearing.

This is unacceptable, and university administrations must not acquiesce to demands to silence unpopular speech. College days are the times when people of that age are beginning to formulate their ideals. Those ideals must be exposed to the most vigorous tests, something that can only be accomplished through the heady exchange of ideas and argument.

Now is definitely not the time to regress to days when speech was easily curtailed because it might have been offensive to someone or some group or the government.

If freedom of speech can be so readily abrogated, which of the freedoms will fall next?

Chuck Witt is a retired architect and a lifelong resident of Winchester. He can be reached at