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Americans And Our “Wonky Ideas” About Free Speech

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“You’re American!” the Englishwoman gasped accusingly after I’d introduced myself.

The last time I’d had an English person make a similar exclamation upon hearing my American accent, we ended up going down a rabbit hole that involved dinner knives, Jews, and the 1980s television night-time soap opera “Dallas.”

It was . . . quite a conversation, one I chalked up to us being not too far from where Lewis Carroll had written “Alice in Wonderland.”

So, with some trepidation, I replied proudly, “Why, yes, I am.”

“You’re the ones with the wonky ideas about free speech,” the woman exclaimed as accusingly as if I’d just stolen her silver dinner knives or worse. I was stunned. So stunned, I couldn’t think of what to say, so I just muttered, “Well, we are certainly different from you all.”

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I didn’t add, but certainly thought, “And we’re different precisely because of you all.”

Americans do have different ideas about freedom of speech than most of the rest of the world. My theory is that’s because our nation is a product of the Enlightenment. We were founded by men who believed in reason over emotion, liberty over tyranny.

Yes, I know many of those same men are stigmatized for their contradictory notions regarding freedom for white men and slavery for black men. Not being one to throw the baby out with the bath water, I recognize that our founders were by no means perfect. I would also argue, though, that they gave us a strong foundation upon which to build a country, and they pointed us toward ideals that we are still striving to reach.

One of the reasons Americans have “wonky ideas” about free speech is that a lot of immigrants, particularly our earliest days, came to America as refugees from prosecution for their critiques of government back home. Certainly, many of our earliest journalists fled here to avoid sedition charges back home in England or Ireland or elsewhere. They brought with them fairly strong notions of why freedom of expression mattered.

The result was a people who developed different ideas about freedom than most of the world held – maybe even still holds. Thirty years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, an American jury for the first time ever decided that truth should be a defense to a seditious libel charge—seditious libel being defined as criticism of the government. Yes, criticizing our political leaders has, periodically through our national history, been illegal.

Two years before that trial, the newspaper that would be at its heart published one of this country’s early opinion pieces on freedom of expression. That was the New York Journal. New York colony was a factious place in the 1730s, and New Yorkers were not very happy when they perceived abuses of their liberties by the royal government or the monarchy.

To supplement the story about David Hudson’s recent presentation at Augusta University, I wanted to share with you an editorial from the New York Journal, one of the earliest published in America that show evidence of our willingness to think differently about free speech. The article below ran in the Journal on Feb. 18, 1733. Mr. Zenger is the editor and printer of the paper. Don’t let the language of that day put you off. It’s the ideas that are important – “wonky” though they may be, true they are.

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Mr. Zenger, I beg you will give the following Sentiments of CATO, a Place in your weekly Journal, and you’ll oblige one of your Subscribers.

Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom, and no such Thing as public Liberty, without Freedom of Speech, which is the Right of every Man, as far as by it he does not hurt or controul the Right of another. And this is the only Check it ought to suffer, and the only Bounds it ought to know.

This sacred Priviledge is so essential to free Governments, that the Security of Property, and the Freedom of Speech always go together, and in those wretched Countries where a Man cannot call his Tongue his own he can scarce call any Thing else his own. Whoever would overthrow the Liberty of a Nation must begin by subduing the Freedom of Speech, a Thing terrible to publick Traytors.

This secret was so well known, to the court of King Charles the First, that his wicked Ministry procured a Proclamation to forbid the People to talk of Parliaments, which those Traytors had laid aside. 

To assert the undoubted Right of the Subject, and defend his Majesty’s legal Prerogative, was called Disaffection, and punished as Sedition. 

That Men ought to speak well of their Governours, is true, while their Governours deserve to be well Spoken of, but to do publick Mischief without Hearing of it is only the Prerogative and Felicity of Tyranny a free People will be showing that the are so, but their Freedom of Speech.

The Administration of Government is nothing else but the Attendance of the Trustees of the People upon the Interest and Affairs of the People. And it is the Part and Business of the People, for whole Sake alone all publick Matters are or ought to be transacted, so it is the Interest, and ought to be the Ambition of all honest Magistrates, to have their Deeds openly examined and publickly scanned.

Freedom of Speech is ever the Symptom as well as the Effect of good Government. In old Rome all was left to the Judgement and Pleasure of the People, who examined the public Proceedings with such Discretion, and censured those who administered them with such Equity and Mildness, that in the Space of three Hundred Years, not five public Ministers suffered unjustly. Indeed, whenever the Commons proceeded to Violence, the great ones had been Aggressors.

Guilt only dreads Liberty of Speech, which drags it out of its Lurking Holes and exposes its Deformity and horror to the Day light, the best Princes have ever encouraged and promoted freedom of Speech they know that upright Measures would defend themselves and all upright Men would defend them. Tacitus speaking of the Reign of good Princes says with extasy “A blessed Time, when you might think what you would, and Speak what you Thought.”

Debbie Reddin van Tuyll is Editor-in-chief of The Augusta Press. Reach her at [email protected]

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