[Prev | Next | Index] 2/22/96, Updated 3/26/98. anson@mj12.com, Anson Kennedy, Atlanta, Georgia
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An Essential Liberty

by Anson Kennedy

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
--Benjamin Franklin, 1759

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or the press; or the right of the people to peacably assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
--The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, declared in force December 15, 1791

[the United States] can't be so fixed on our desire to preserve the rights of ordinary Americans...
--President William Jefferson Clinton, March 1, 1993: Boston Globe, 3/2/93, page 3

Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel.
--Patrick Henry

Ben Franklin's quote is most often used in support of Second Amendment freedoms (its application to gun rights is obvious), but it applies equally to assaults on the First Amendment. For what does the Communications Decency Amendment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 do if not take away the essential right to free speech in the name of "protecting" minors? The Founding Fathers knew nothing (could not have known anything) of today's "Information Superhighway." What they did know was that speech, even unpopular speech (especially unpopular speech), is necessary for a free society. They fought a bloody war to escape one tyrant and win for their descendents a society in which this, and other, essential liberties are protected.  Our obligation is to ensure, some 200 years later, their legacy continues.

Those who support the Act have been swayed by the rhetoric of those who fear free speech and what it stands for: free minds. The proof lies in the provisions restricting discussion of abortion, a procedure legal in all fifty states. What is indecent or offensive in providing directions to the Feminist Women's  Health Center at 580 14th Street in downtown Atlanta (from I-85 South, take a right on the 14th Street exit; the Center is about 2 miles on the left, right after the "QUIET" sign)? Nothing, of course. But doing so may allow a woman obtain an abortion. Those who introduced the provision knew they had failed in making the act illegal, so the next best thing is to restrict discussion about it, to abridge the right to freedom of speech in just this one case. We know what this really is: It is the camel's nose under the tent.

The assault on free speech comes from many directions, not just the "Religious Right." Read President Clinton's quote above and think about what it means, the attitude it represents. He was speaking of gun ownership rights, but a cavalier attitude towards the Second Amendment leads down a street to the First Amendment. Andrew Ford said, "Without either the First or Second Amendment, we would have no liberty; the First allows us to find out what's happening, the Second allows us to do something about it! The Second will be taken away first, followed by the First and then the rest of our freedoms." He may have been wrong about the order, but he was right about the end result.

The 24 Hours of Democracy Campaign carries on the spirit expressed  above by Patrick Henry with a chorus of voices crying out, "We will not be silent!" Perhaps some are even saying, "Give me Liberty, or give me death!" but the situation, thankfully, isn't that dire. Yet. Winston Churchill said it best:

"If you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a small chance of survival. There may even be a worse case: you may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves."

Now is the time to fight.

Whose speech is next? Mine, perhaps? Or yours? Who will speak out then?

Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.
--Daniel Webster

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