Free Speech Week is upon us. Or, as the headline of a story about the week written by Amy Mclean in Cablefax puts it: “What a Time for Free Speech Week.” What a time, indeed.
Just last week we saw the president raising the specter of whether the government should revoke television licenses based on the content of televised news coverage. The same president has wondered aloud (via Twitter, of course) whether the National Football League should have federal tax benefits revoked if owners continue to allow players to kneel during the National Anthem.
Speech on college campuses continues to be stifled in a variety of ways, from disinviting controversial guest speakers to relegating the expression of opinions by individuals to out-of-the-way “free speech zones.” On some campuses, students are supposed to be warned by professors before controversial topics are discussed in class, lest the students be traumatized.
Speech is under assault and make no doubt about it. In some instances (i.e., campuses) actual speech is affected. In other instances (i.e., presidential tweets) we see challenges to the basic concept of free speech and a free press in our democracy. The press is portrayed as a sinister force that should be distrusted by the public. There is an underlying assumption that the government has some legitimate role in stopping or at least discouraging speech it finds offensive. Government, of course, has no such role. Yet the bully pulpit of the presidency is a powerful one in shaping public attitudes.
Free Speech Week is meant to be a non-political, non-ideological celebration of freedom of expression in America. But given the developments noted above, it becomes all the more difficult to celebrate Free Speech Week without using it as a platform to speak out against all of the politically and ideologically motivated attacks on speech we’ve seen in just the past year.
Yet even amid current developments – and indeed because of them – we can find much to celebrate. The First Amendment is still in place and it still prohibits government censorship of speech. This constitutional guarantee renders as mere bluster presidential tweets that would invite federal intervention. Media outlets – print, television, digital – are still free to distribute whatever news and commentary they choose. Campus “speech codes” have been routinely overturned by the courts. The underlying legislative and judicial structures to protect free expression are still in place and functioning well.
Our system of free speech is intact despite the assaults upon it. This is what we celebrate during Free Speech Week. Going forward, however, we must be willing not only to meet and defeat individual attacks on free speech, but also to guard against a shift in national mood that would tolerate a looser interpretation of free-speech restrictions under the guise of promoting the public interest or perhaps a heightened sense of patriotism. That, perhaps, is the bigger challenge.
Note: For more about Free Speech Week, Oct. 16-22, 2017, go to www.freespeechweek.org.
Richard T. Kaplar is Executive Director of The Media Institute.