Freedom of Speech Week is timely reminder of democracy at work
We're so accustomed to free speech, we don't always recognize its value. Send pupils into the paper to hunt for comments about a public official, the government, courts, schools or a business that could be censored in an undemoctratic system.
Freedom of speech covers images as well as words. Ask students to look for an editorial page cartoon with sharply pointed criticism protected by the First Amendment.
All freedoms carry responsibilities, and journalists work under legal and voluntary guidelines that don't permit everything to be printed. Invite examples of "untouchable" details or topics for a classroom list.
Schools, libraries, media outlets, civic groups and others next week mark Freedom of Speech Week to celebrate a cornerstone of democracy. This relatively new observance from Oct. 15-21 is organized by a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., called The Media Institute. It works to raise awareness of issues involving the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Free speech is "the language of America" and "defines our American way of life," sponsors say at www.freespeechweek.org. The institute and other advocates stress the need to defend that democratic principle against efforts to limit unpopular political, social or religious views. Several free speech challenges made news recently.
A lively national debate two weeks ago pivoted around whether Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, deserved to speak at Columbia University while visiting New York for a United Nations appearance. The school's president -- a First Amendment scholar -- resisted pressure from some students, faculty members, alumni, politicians, the public and media commentators to cancel the invitation.
First Amendment excerpt: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."
Editorial says: "Hate-filled rhetoric by any elected leader is unacceptable and downright painful. But that doesn't mean Americans should be so eager to silence [Iran's president] or any other voice we don't like. That's not the way we do things here in the United States, where freedom of speech is one of our hallowed rights. That precious right cannot be preserved by denying it to others, no matter how obnoxious their views may be." – Times Argus of Barre, Vt.
Advocate of limits says: "There's a point where they don't have the right to say the things they've been saying. The university should begin drawing a line and not keep covering everything with freedom of speech. We challenge the university to take a stand about . . . what the difference is between freedom of speech and hate speech, fighting words and violent speech." -- Gabriela Alcazar, president of Latino student group at Michigan State University, opposing anti-immigration speakers hosted this fall by Young Americans for Freedom
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