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Why is freedom of expression important?

Jan 8, 2024 by AFP

Freedom of speech, often called “freedom of expression,” is secured by the First Amendment. Not only was America unique in penning a written national Constitution, but also in including in it explicit protection for free speech. It raises the questions of what is “freedom of expression,” and why was it so important that the founders enshrined it in the First Amendment?

Freedom of expression is the natural right to express beliefs and ideas without interference, retaliation, compulsion, or censorship from the government. While “speech” typically refers to verbal communication, “expression” encompasses the full range of ways we can communicate ideas – speech, music, literature, architecture, fashion, comedy, cuisine, and the list goes on.

There are many reasons why free speech is important. Here are just a few.

Freedom of expression is necessary to discover truth and make social progress.

Any great and lasting advance in society – from racial equality to the possibility of self-government – depends on the discovery of truth. And free expression is how we can test and learn the truth.

In the 19th century essay “On Liberty,” English political philosopher John Stuart Mill argues that in any argument, there are only three possible scenarios: One is either wholly wrong, partially correct, or wholly correct. Free speech helps us know or confirm the truth in every case:

  • If I’m wholly wrong, I need to know that and be corrected with the truth.
  • If I’m partially correct (the most common status for most human beings), I still benefit from learning where I’m wrong and being corrected.
  • And even if I’m wholly correct, I benefit from free speech that challenges my views because it helps me to better understand and be able to defend my correct views.

In the long run, then, truth is always served by free speech.

Indeed, “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself,” as Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson put it in the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

Jefferson was so committed to this idea that free speech leads us to truth that when he founded the University of Virginia, he declared, “For here we are not afraid to follow the truth nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

And as we learn and test ideas, we can use them for good.

“Freedom of speech has been driving progress and making people’s lives better for thousands of years,” said Casey Mattox, Americans For Prosperity (AFP) Vice President of Legal and Judicial Strategy. “Almost any social movement, invention, or innovation you can think of was dependent in some way on the ability to speak and to hear.”

Go back to America’s founding: From the protest of citizens during the Boston Tea Party to the anonymous writings in the Federalist Papers, individual expression played a central role in bringing about and shaping our nation.

“I want to be able to know what the world is really like,” Mattox added. “I want to be able to know what people think. I want to be able to know what motivates people. Because if you want to make the world better, you’ve got to understand it and people’s desires and fears so that you can try to address those concerns and help them.”

“Innovation flourishes within the dynamic arena of public discourse, where a diverse array of minds ignites curiosity and sparks scientific breakthroughs. History’s most profound innovations, like conquering the skies or venturing into space, emerged by daring to challenge conventional beliefs,” said James Czerniawski, AFP Senior Policy Analyst. “Embracing this spirit of audacity is not just a celebration of progress; it’s a testament to the boundless possibilities that arise when we boldly question the limits of what is deemed possible.”

Free expression is important for American self-governance.

Free speech is not only important in the discovery of truth and social and scientific progress. It’s also indispensable in a democratic republic like the United States – where the people themselves select their leaders and hold them accountable for the decisions and laws they make on their behalf.

In a dictatorship or even a monarchy, one might argue that free speech is less important – or even a hindrance to efficient operation of the government. But where the people themselves are the sovereign, where “we the people” are in charge, not controlled as subjects from on high, free speech ensures our government reflects our will and that we can hold them accountable if they do not. And when we disagree, we can deliberate, persuade, or find areas of common ground.

“America is unique because of the way that we propose to do self-governance,” said Mattox. “You can’t self-govern without the people being able to speak to one another and persuade one another of things. ‘We the people’ actually hold the reins of power, and we as citizens have the power to actually change the government, and therefore we have to be able to talk to and persuade one another.”

Self-governance can’t work without the ability of people to participate in civic life, hold government to account, and engage on their deeply held beliefs – without fear of intimidation or harassment from people in positions in power.

In his 1860 address “A Plea for Free Speech in Boston,” American statesman Frederick Douglass said, “No right was deemed by the fathers of the government more sacred than the right of speech. It was in their eyes, as in the eyes of all thoughtful men, the great moral renovator of society and government.”

Douglass continued, “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to come in their presence.”

Because of our First Amendment and our commitment to free expression every American has the right to organize around their beliefs and advance the causes important to them.

And freedom of expression ensures every citizen has a tool to fight back against injustice or corruption. It elevates the voice of the marginalized, the vulnerable, and the oppressed. From women’s suffrage to civil rights, free expression has enabled Americans to advance our country toward equality, justice, and even greater liberty.

“Today, we continue to witness captivating instances of individuals harnessing their First Amendment rights to champion myriad causes, showcasing the power of free expression in advocating for change,” said Czerniawski. “People realize the power of their voice.”

Free speech is universal and inherent in human dignity.

Finally, the ability to think and reason with one another is part of what makes us human. When government compels, prohibits, or censors speech, it treats people as if they aren’t reasoning individuals but as cogs in a machine – as less than human.

Mattox is careful to emphasize that free expression is a natural right innate to us all as humans, not something given to us by our government.

“This idea that free speech is this 200-year-old concept is simply inaccurate,” said Mattox. “It’s actually thousands of years old, and that just proves the First Amendment didn’t grant us anything but instead protected a right that people have contended that human beings have to have as part of human dignity for thousands of years.”

No one individual can know everything or possess all truth. And each individual – regardless of our race, sex, age, religion, politics or other backgrounds or experiences – has something to contribute.

Free expression empowers us to make that contribution to society, whether big or small. Every human being is unique and has value. The protection of free expression honors that truth by ensuring that government cannot decide which classes of citizens or ideas are worthy of being heard and which are not.

* * *

Free speech is a cornerstone of a free society, and the people of the United States of America are the most free people in the world in very large part due to the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of expression.

Key to our nation’s founding principles is the belief that every man and woman holds the claim to free speech.

Freedom of expression is the best defense to prevent injustice, the best instrument for correcting injustice when it does occur, and the best tool for advancing freedom and opportunity.

Add your voice to the movement to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans.