A Time To Celebrate Free Speech

National Freedom of Speech Week – NFSW for short – is upon us.  This week of Oct. 20-26, 2008, marks the fourth year in which freedom of speech has been remembered with a commemorative  week of its own. 

When The Media Institute launched NFSW in 2005, we knew that the success of the week would depend on the participation of many organizations that would take the free-speech message to their constituents.  In that first year we partnered with the NAB Education Foundation and four other groups.

NABEF is still a stalwart, and those four groups have grown to many times that number.  Broadcasting, cable, newspapers, movies, electronics – virtually all of the major media platforms are represented this year in addition to educational institutions and a variety of other organizations.  That has always been the point – to make NFSW an open-ended collaboration rather than a proprietary event.

What I find exciting about NFSW’s evolution is the way in which a growing number of groups are taking the First Amendment message to young people and involving them in creative  and interactive ways. 

For example: NABEF is sponsoring a competition for college students, inviting them to produce public service announcements on free speech.  The Radio and Television News Directors Foundation is conducting a similar competition for high school and middle school students.  The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression is sponsoring a poetry and songwriting contest on free-speech themes.  And the National Communication Association is encouraging the members of its college chapters to publicize and celebrate the week on their campuses.  (See the NFSW website, www.freespeechweek.org, for more details.)

It’s a well-worn cliche that today’s youth are the future of our country.  A fact far less widely touted is that they’re also the future of the First Amendment and our precious freedoms of speech and press.  But we need to do a better job of making our young people aware of these freedoms.  The activities above are good starts, and these groups are to be commended.
Ultimately the success of National Freedom of Speech Week will be secured when Americans in general and young people in particular demonstrate a heightened awareness of the importance of free speech and free press – and are willing to stand up for those freedoms even if means protecting speech that is unpopular or unpalatable.  

Even as we pause to celebrate freedom of speech this week, let’s be mindful that we still have a long way to go.