Free Speech Week has always been a time to celebrate freedom of expression. This year, however, perhaps there should be an element of somber reflection amid the festivities. It’s worth remembering, after all, that the exercise of free speech can have life-or-death consequences in certain parts of the world. How thankful we should be that freedom of speech and freedom of the press can be exercised in this country without fear of such extreme retaliation.
The sad case of Jamal Khashoggi brings this into sharp relief. The disappearance and murder of the Washington Post contributing columnist, which the Saudis now admit occurred at the hands of their own operatives, happened just three weeks before Free Speech Week, October 22 – 28. He joins a long list of journalists from around the world who have disappeared or been killed while working in pursuit of the truth, who spoke out too stridently or too frequently against corrupt government leaders and their abuses of power.
Thankfully, it’s a different story in this country. We have a president who dislikes the media and who talks and tweets continually about “fake news,” yet the First Amendment allows journalists to pursue their craft without fear of government reprisal even if they criticize the president.
In fact, more than 350 newspapers around the country pushed back on Aug. 16, publishing editorials and op-eds in support of freedom of the press in a coordinated reaction to President Trump’s tirades against the media. Not a single journalist went missing – or even landed in jail – as a result. Of course we take that for granted and would be shocked otherwise. But we can take that outcome for granted only because of the constitutional protection of free speech and press that we celebrate during Free Speech Week.
People in many other parts of the world do not have the luxury of that protection. As Free Speech Week gets underway, let’s celebrate the remarkable freedoms we enjoy in this country and the First Amendment that makes them possible. But let’s also pause and reflect on the plight of Jamal Khashoggi. He spoke out about abuses and injustice in a country where speech is not protected. For him, speaking freely carried a death sentence.
Richard T. Kaplar is Executive Director of The Media Institute, which created Free Speech Week in 2005. To learn more about the week and how to participate, visit www.freespeechweek.org.