Freedom of Speech on Piece of Tape

You may have seen the signs around campus announcing First Amendment Rights training at UNI. I am a staunch believer in the First Amendment. The amendment is a key freedom setting America apart from totalitarian, authoritarian, and even other democratic governments. I encourage you to complete the training; it doesn’t take long, and you’ll learn some interesting aspects of the First Amendment.

I would urge people not only to become aware of the First Amendment but to embrace it. I realize many people are uncomfortable with hearing opposing viewpoints, some of which may be obnoxious or even hateful. But we will never change our minds about anything unless we hear other points of view. It was not for nothing that  Voltaire said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I agree with Voltaire, except for, perhaps, the part,  “to the death.”

Why does this matter? People currently in power may think it dandy to squelch dissent to their policies. This is both an unethical and short-sighted attitude. Holders of political power today may find themselves voted out of office tomorrow. Within my lifetime, faculty members were pressured to sign loyalty oaths at the height of the Cold War. Some few brave people refused and suffered unjust penalties. Today, people on the left are trying to squelch conservatives, although to be honest, both sides have adherents pushing limits upon free speech.

Why is free speech valuable? Free speech is valuable, because you learn more from people you disagree with than from people you agree with. No person, no party has a monopoly on truth. Do you want to find truth or do you want to pretend you already know the truth? British classical liberal, John Stuart Mill wrote, “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind (On Liberty, 257).” He continued: “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation—those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity for exchanging error for truth; if wrong they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error (On Liberty, 258).”

Free speech protects the weakest members of our society. Imagine the Civil Rights Movement without free speech.

Without free speech, the right to vote becomes impotent. Dictators love winning elections by 99-to-1 percent. They don’t even flinch at the obvious chicanery involved in such outcomes, since even the worst candidate in free elections often gains at least 10-20 per cent of the vote.

Authoritarian and totalitarian leaders are on the march across the world. They suppress contrary views and attempt to brainwash their citizens. Fake news is a game most politicians indulge in. Don’t be so naïve as to think your favorite news source is incapable of shoddy, biased reporting. Is Fox News biased? Of course it is. Is CNN biased? Of course it is. These organizations are trying to draw the largest audience possible. They do so by emphasizing the sensational and fomenting outrage and fear. Just as pernicious is what news outlets fail to cover, sins of omission, as it were.

There is a safety valve. In antebellum America, towns of any size would have competing newspapers. Cedar Falls of 1860 might have a Republican Daily and a Herald Democrat. These newspapers were often funded by political parties. Objectivity? “We don’t need no stinkin’ objectivity,” to misquote a famous line from Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Citizens could compare the accuracy of the competing papers, and one could argue that competition forced the editors to hew closer to the truth than they might have otherwise. Competition protects us. True, you have to exert effort in ascertaining which version is more accurate. You have to exercise critical thinking, but freedom requires responsibility and effort.

Cherish the fact that Americans can entertain a variety of views on any given topic. Do not rush to squelch people who disagree with you. Sometimes they will be correct, and you will be wrong. Be glad that Americans can call their president a variety of unsavory epithets without fear of being hauled off to a gulag. Very few countries allow such freedom of expression. When we lose this ability, we will be a long step towards tyranny.


David Surdam

Professor of Economics

University of Northern Iowa


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.