Freedom of speech and a free press are the foundations of a free society. The Founding Fathers knew that.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost.” George Washington said, “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
It’s impossible to imagine the United States without these freedoms. The right to criticize government keeps our society healthy. Even 228 years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech is as relevant today as ever and still is frequently debated.
Among the questions we debate: Should all speech be “free”? What is the role of government in regulating or protecting the press?
Should speech or the press be constrained through laws or norms? Can a free society exist without free speech and a free press? Can freedom of speech and freedom of the press survive in a nation of citizens who are not politically literate?
Jefferson worried about that last question. In school, many of us learned of Jefferson’s famous letter in which he said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Few of us remember the next line in that letter: “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
This year, as part of Law Day, the American Bar Association has commissioned a national survey to determine how familiar ordinary Americans are with the basic legal and constitutional concepts that underlie our government, especially the rule of law and, of course, free speech and a free press. The results will be available on the ABA website, americanbar.org.
On May 1 in Washington, D.C., the ABA is sponsoring a range of activities, including a dialogue at the Library of Congress, a panel discussion on free speech at the Newseum featuring Jeffrey Rosen of the National Constitution Center, constitutional law expert Floyd Abrams and journalist Dahlia Lithwick and a public education program at a local high school. We will also honor individuals and groups that help promote public understanding of the law in their communities.
Here in Chicago, I’m happy to note The Chicago Bar Association is also busy working with the community, offering free legal services with its Call-A-Lawyer Program on April 27 and a Law Day celebration in Daley Plaza on May 3.
Our American system of equal justice for all cannot survive without public trust. To ensure it, Americans must understand how our democracy works and must actively participate in it.
Jefferson knew this. In the same 1787 letter in which he praised newspapers, he warned of the consequences of public apathy. When citizens “become inattentive to the public affairs,” he wrote, government officials become wolves and citizens become sheep. “It seems to be the law of our general nature,” he concluded.
The First Amendment corrals the impulses of wolves. It provides a constant check on government excess. Today, we celebrate Law Day by spreading public understanding of our rights and freedoms.
I think that the Founding Fathers would approve.