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‘A Plea for Free Speech in Boston’: A lesson from history

This might sound familiar.

On December 3, an event was organized in Boston to oppose racial injustice. But a mob disrupted it, swarming the venue and shouting down the speaker until the event was shut down.

Of course, you might be thinking. This is just another day at Harvard, or maybe MIT?

However, this event actually took place 163 years ago, involving famed orator and statesman Frederick Douglass.

It was December 1860. Just one month after Abraham Lincoln had been elected president. Just a few weeks before South Carolina would declare its intention to secede from the Union. And exactly one year after the death of John Brown.

On that wintry day in 1860, Douglass met a group of fellow abolitionists at a Baptist church to discuss “How Can American Slavery be Abolished?”

But a pro-slavery mob had no intention of letting the discussion take place. Fearing the power of his words, opponents took over the stage. The abolitionists were unable to regain order, and police eventually cleared the venue.

On that night, the de-platformers succeeded. They probably thought they had cancelled Frederick Douglass.

But unsurprisingly, Douglass didn’t allow them to silence him permanently.

Six days later he delivered a lecture at the Boston Music Hall. After his prepared remarks on abolition, he issued “A Plea for Free Speech in Boston,” in which he highlighted the key role free speech plays in a free society.

Douglass told the crowd that “liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.”

Notice that he didn’t say only where the government itself censors speech. Douglass spoke at a time before the First Amendment even applied to the states. And he was addressing censorship by a mob of private citizens.

Douglass explained to his Boston audience that free speech isn’t just about the rights of the speaker.

“Equally clear is the right to hear. To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker,” said Douglass. “It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money.”

And he described free speech as “the great moral renovator of society and government,” declaring that it “is the dread of tyrants” and “the right which they first of all strike down [because] they know its power.”

Throughout the history of mankind, free speech has always been a radical idea. It doesn’t come easy to us and never has, but that doesn’t diminish its importance to ourselves or our society.

Aside from reminding us of Douglass’s courage and oratory skills, this piece of history should also remind us that free speech will always need defending – especially in times of deep division.

We’re in one of those times now, though fortunately nothing like 1860, when Douglass defended free speech on the eve of the Civil War.

Our polarization is often a source of dread about our future. But the way that other Americans, like Douglass, leaned into that division not by sacrificing our founding principles, but by urging adherence to them, can continue to encourage us today.

I know that this may not be a typical holiday story. But as we close out one year and look forward to starting a new one, I’m encouraged by the legacy of liberty we walk in.

Let us recommit with eternal vigilance to the defense of liberty, and especially the freedom of speech.

Wishing you happy holidays and a very Happy New Year!


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