The Importance of Free Speech


Elaina Schilt, Writer/Designer

The freedom of speech gives us the ability to speak our minds without the fear of imprisonment, punishment or censorship. It allows for journalists to do their job and for American citizens to freely criticize the government. However, that crucial foundation upon which our nation was built is slowly being chipped away. 

Most of us, as Americans, likely take the freedom of speech for granted. We don’t know what it’s like to live in a place where saying the wrong thing could put our lives at risk. It doesn’t occur to most that in far too many countries across the world, speaking out against the government could have grave consequences. 

The First Amendment grants the freedom of speech, and it is one of the most important rights guaranteed to Americans by the United States Constitution. 

Because of the major role that American newspapers played in the Revolutionary War, the freedoms of speech and press were extremely important to the founding fathers. 

That’s why it made its way into the Bill of Rights along with many other important guarantees,  such as freedom of religion, freedom to assembly and the right to keep and bear arms. 

Free speech gave past Americans the power to accomplish many changes that were crucial to the development of the nation. For example, powerful voices of leaders like Frederick Douglass were essential to the abolitionist movement in the mid 1800s. The women’s suffrage movement was made possible by the passionate words of activists such as Susan B. Anthony during the early 1900s. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s compelling speeches of the Civil Rights era would not have been heard by millions without the freedom of speech. 

The first amendment states that no law can be made that restricts the “freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

One thing that all of these influential historical heroes had in common was that they weren’t afraid to stand up for what they believed in, even if it meant going against the mainstream way of thinking. It was the first amendment that facilitated these great movements in American history, and without it, America would not be the free country that it is today. 

 Many people around the world are not granted the freedom of speech. In countries such as Cuba and North Korea, totalitarian governments see information as a threat to their power, and therefore heavily restrict media and speech. 

North Korea is infamous for its ruthless intolerance of political dissenters. The nation has a system of camps where political prisoners are starved or worked to death, many of them imprisoned just for criticizing the government.

There is no media in North Korea that is not run by the state. Radios and televisions have only a few channels that the government allows. While some personal electronic devices are allowed, all are closely monitored by the government. North Koreans who are caught with forbidden material are subject to severe punishment, and often death. 

Cuba is another nation where the people have little freedom. According to the Cuban Constitution, media and speech are allowed as long as they exist within the “objectives of socialist society” and are not “contrary to the Revolution.” 

Censorship of the Cuban media is commonplace. There are no privately owned media outlets in Cuba. Rather, all media is controlled by the government. Only five percent of homes in Cuba are connected to the internet. However, with the internet also being heavily censored, there is little difference between it and the state-run media. People in Cuba who criticize the government in any way are thrown in jail for long periods of time, often without a trial. 

Even in democratic nations like the United Kingdom freedom of speech is dying. So-called “hate speech” is punishable by fines and imprisonment.  

Something is considered hate speech if the victim believes that the comment was motivated by prejudice based on race, religion, or sexual orientation. The problem is that these accusations could be completely subjective; they could be based on bias or opinions about the alleged perpetrator. 

I think it’s safe to say that most people would agree that any speech fueled by hatred is generally bad. However, when we allow the government to determine what is and what is not hateful, we are giving up a crucial part of our freedom. 

Though dissenting speech is not legally punishable in the United States yet, we are getting closer to this reality every day. Several companies hold enormous amounts of influence and power over the American people. Social media platforms, once a place for civil public discourse, have now become a forum for cancellations and ostracization. 

You could be fired from your job, disowned by your friends and shunned by society if you dare to speak out against the hostile mob that lurks online. Piers Morgan, Ellen DeGeneres, J.K. Rowling, Shane Dawson, Justin Timberlake, Nicki Minaj, Matt Damon, Kirstie Alley and Chris Pratt are just some of the well-known individuals who have fallen victim to the toxic cancel culture. Their crime? Saying something that was deemed unacceptable by “Big Tech”.

When these people are publicly shamed, it creates an atmosphere of fear. It discourages people from speaking their minds for fear of being ostracized. 

This behavior creates a society where, eventually, there will be no discussion among people with varying opinions. When there is no opposition to mainstream ideas, there is no diversity in thought and this is a dangerous state for a nation to be in. 

The censorship of alleged misinformation has also become common on many social media platforms. Youtube, the world’s largest video-sharing website, has recently added to its policy, saying that it will not tolerate “medical misinformation that contradicts local health authorities’ or the World Health Organization’s (WHO) medical information about COVID-19.” Many creators have been censored and demonetized for violating these guidelines. 

“Fact checkers” are becoming prevalent on social media sites such as Facebook, where they flag and even remove content that they believe is misinformation. 

Doctors who shared data that was contradictory to the narrative of the WHO or CDC during the pandemic were temporarily suspended or sometimes banned from their accounts for spreading alleged misinformation relating to COVID-19. 

For example, videos of two Californian doctors, Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, were removed from Youtube because they suggested that lockdowns were unnecessary and that Covid death rates were exaggerated. 

By allowing Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and other social media platforms to censor individuals and remove insight that contradicts that of the CDC, we are allowing these companies to make decisions for us.

 Instead of taking it upon ourselves to evaluate the accuracy of this alleged misinformation and do our own research on the topic, we are giving up that privilege by allowing tech companies to take down information that does not align with the mainstream narrative.

Even if you agree with the majority now, there may come a time when you don’t. You may then find yourself cancelled. This is why it’s critical to defend everyone’s right to free speech, even those with whom you disagree.

As many people do, at times I disagree with what others say. However, I would eagerly defend anyone’s right to speak their mind, regardless of my personal opinion. Having the right to speak our minds also gives us the power to think for ourselves.

 Instead of creating a society where dissenting or unpopular voices are suppressed, we should welcome differing opinions. This is the only way that free speech and the good that comes with it will survive. 

By sharing our opinions with others and allowing them to do the same, we are creating a society that promotes acceptance and encourages the lively discussions that are essential to our way of life.