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July 6, 2014

In the State of the Union Address, delivered to the 77th United States Congress on January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enumerated four fundamental freedoms that should be the rights of human beings everywhere in the world:

  1. Freedom of speech and expression
  2. Freedom for  every person to worship in his or her own way
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

“The Four Freedoms” speech inspired a set of four paintings by Norman Rockwell. They were printed in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943, accompanied by essays on the Four Freedoms.

Every freedom carries with it certain responsibilities. Perhaps the Bill of Rights should include a companion Bill of Responsibility.

During the month of July, my “By the Way” column written for the H-J Weekly will feature the Four Freedoms and the responsibilities that accompany them.

For this week: FREEDOM OF SPEECH

I overheard a conversation between a coach and a referee at a basketball game. Actually, it was a shouting match. Everybody in the gymnasium heard it.

“You ought to give up refereeing before you ruin the game of basketball!”

“If you were any kind of a coach, you would teach your team how to play the game!”

“They could play the game if you weren’t such a whistle-happy idiot.”

“You can’t say that to me! I’ll throw you out of this game!”

“This is a free country with freedom of speech. I can say whatever I want to say!”

“Then you’ll say it outside sitting on the bus in the parking lot!”

With that the referee ejected the coach from the game and the gym.

Was the coach right? Does freedom of speech mean we can say anything to or about anybody? Let’s consider four points.

Freedom of speech is an integral concept in democracy. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that the ability to criticize the government and our government officials is the central meaning of the First Amendment. It is the principal way a free society can hold elected officials accountable.

Freedom of speech is necessary in order for us to disagree peacefully. Free speech has fallen into disfavor at certain points in our national history, most notably during times of war. “None but the dead have free speech. None but the dead are permitted to speak truth,” wrote Mark Twain in “The War Prayer” during an American military intervention in the Philippines. Harper’s Bazaar rejected the article as being too radical.

In 1906, Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote a biography about Voltaire. She wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” She defines an important responsibility regarding freedom of expression, protecting the rights of others even when we disagree with them.

I can recall the objections raised about freedom of expression during the time of the civil rights movement and the Viet Nam War. Most of us do not want to hear opinions that are opposed to our thoughts and ideas.

In December 1965, John and Mary Beth Tinker wore black armbands to school in Des Moines, Iowa, to protest the war in Vietnam. School officials told them they would have to remove the armbands. When they refused, they were suspended from school.

With their parents, they sued the school district, claiming a violation of their First Amendment right of freedom of speech.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students. Students and teachers don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” the Court said.

The Court did not, however, grant students an unlimited right to self-expression. The ruling said that First Amendment guarantees must be balanced against a school’s need to keep order: As long as an act of expression doesn’t disrupt classwork or school activities or invade the rights of others, it’s acceptable.

Regarding the students in this case, “their deviation consisted only in wearing on their sleeve a band of black cloth,” the Court said. “They caused discussion outside of the classrooms, but no interference with work and no disorder.”

The Tinker case is considered a landmark decision by the court.

Freedom of speech requires that we speak. Edmund Burke wrote, “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to say nothing.” While it is true that even silence can be a form of free speech, we have a responsibility to let our voice be heard. The way that we do that best is by being informed voters.

Beyond our civic duty, freedom of speech carries moral responsibility. As a child, I learned, as you probably did, a little ditty. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” I have since learned, as you probably have, that the cliché is just not true. Words can hurt and can inflict wounds that leave lasting scars.

One of the most widely quoted statements of business ethics is The Four-Way Test, created in 1932, by Herbert J. Taylor. When asked to take charge of a company that was facing bankruptcy, Taylor issued a guide for employees to follow in their business and professional lives. The Four-Way Test is credited with the survival of the company. Adopted by Rotary International in 1943, The Four-Way Test has been translated into more than a hundred languages. It asks the following four questions:

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all?
  3. Will it build good will?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all?

A woman was a notorious gossip. She was given to making up lies and peddling half-truths about others. Finally, she confessed to her priest. As penance, the pastor asked her to do a very odd thing.

“Take a feather pillow to the top of a hill on a breezy day. Cut open the pillow, let the feathers fly in the wind. Then come back to see me.”

The puzzled woman did as she was told. When she returned to report the completion of her penance, the wise cleric instructed, “Now, go retrieve all of the feathers.”

“But that is impossible!” the woman protested. “I could never even begin to get them all back.”

“Exactly,” said the priest. “And so it is with your words.”

I learned something else as a child, a prayer. “Guard my lips against untruth.” It is part of our responsibility as people who enjoy freedom of speech.

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