Thursday, January 17, 2013

On Benjamin Franklin and Speech

There’s a quote that is frequently misattributed to Benjamin Franklin, but it nonetheless reflects his thinking: “WITHOUT Freedom of Thought, the can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty, without Freedom of Speech; which is the Right of every Man, as far as by it, he does not hurt or control the Right of another. And this is the only Check it ought to suffer, and the only bounds it ought to know.” 

The facts are these: Benjamin’s brother James had started a newspaper called the New England Courant. In its early issues, contributors and James himself repeatedly satirized the hypocrisy of Boston’s Puritan leaders. One of these Puritans – most likely Increase Mather – was described as someone who “quarrels with his neighbors because they do not look and think just as he would have them.”

Although threatened with libel more than once, James wasn’t formally charged until he began to satirize governor Samuel Shute. By the standards of the day, one could be prosecuted for libel even for truthful statements, and it didn’t matter whether the statements were serious accusations or merely facetious.  

While James sat in prison, Benjamin Franklin, then 16 years of age, chose to continue publishing the New England Courant. He assumed the pseudonym of Silence Dogood, and wrote a column which presented the quotation above. He’d taken it straight out of Cato’s Letters. The point of this quote was, of course, to protest the action taken against James.

In the same column, the young Franklin quotes one of Tacitus’ reflections on Rome: it is “A blessed Time when you might think what you would, and speak what you thought.” Franklin observed that Rome, “with the loss of its Liberty, Lost also its Freedom of Speech; then Mens Words began to be feared and watched.” 

Years later, these thoughts still occupied Franklin’s mind. Writing in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1737, he said, “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins. Republics ... derive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the action of the magistrates ...”

He warned that if citizens allow the freedom of speech to be curtailed in any respect, it is the same as giving away their principle defense against tyrants. If speech is punishable, “an evil magistrate intrusted with the power to punish for words, would be armed with a weapon the most destructive and terrible.”

Franklin recalled the time of Emperor Caligula. “By the help of inferences, and inuendoes, treasons multiplied in a prodigious manner ... silence was declared an overt act, to prove the treasonable purposes of the heart; looks were construed into treason; a serene, open aspect was an evidence, that the person was pleased with the calamities that befell the emperor; a severe, thoughtful countenance was urged against the man that wore it, as a proof of his plotting against the state; dreams were often made capital offences.”

Franklin believed that it was inevitable that citizens will eventually give away their freedoms. In a speech encouraging delegates to support the U.S. Constitution, he said, “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”

If we try to imagine Franklin’s perspective, we can imagine what he would make of the United States today. Consider the plight of Laura Poitras,

Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker and the recipient of a 2012 MacArthur Fellowship, estimates that she has been detained more than 40 times upon returning to the United States. She has been questioned for hours about her meetings abroad, her credit cards and notes have been copied, and after one trip her laptop, camera and cellphone were seized for 41 days.
"Ms. Poitras said these interrogations largely subsided after a Salon article describing her experiences was published in April, but she is editing her latest film in Europe to avoid crossing the border with her research and interviews. (The film, the third in a series about the war on terror, focuses on domestic surveillance.)
“I'm taking more and more extreme measures, to the point where I'm actually editing outside the country,” she said (source).
Pascal Amidor, a Ph.D. student in the field of Islamic Studies, reports similar experiences.

 Mr. Amidor … was traveling from Montreal to New York on an Amtrak train in 2011 when he was stopped at the border, questioned by DHS agents, handcuffed, taken off the train and kept in a holding cell for several hours before being released without charges; those DHS agents seized his laptop and returned it 11 days later when, the ACLU explains, “there was evidence that many of his personal files, including research, photos and chats with his girlfriend, had been searched.” That’s just one case of thousands, all without any oversight, transparency, legal checks, or any demonstration of wrongdoing (source).
There is the hope that all American colleges and universities will teach students to revere their freedom of speech. As Franklin believed, “A nation of well informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins.” However, some – perhaps even the majority -- of American colleges and universities have not all lived up to their obligation. “Since the 1980s, in part because of ‘political correctness’ concerns about racially insensitive speech and sexual harassment, and in part because of the dramatic expansion in the ranks of nonfaculty campus administrators, colleges have enacted stringent speech codes. These codes are sometimes well intended but, outside of the ivory tower, would violate the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.” The article continues, 

Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., forbade students to protest an appearance by Representative Paul D. Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee. Why? According to university policy, students must apply 10 business days in advance to demonstrate in the college’s tiny “free speech zone” — and Mr. Ryan’s visit was announced on a Sunday, two days before his Tuesday visit.
Also last month, a student at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, was blocked from putting a notice on her door arguing that neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney was fit for office. (She successfully appealed.) And over the summer, a federal judge struck down the University of Cincinnati’s “free speech zone,” which had limited demonstrations to 0.1 percent of the campus (source).
The reader will probably recall the furor, about the time of the Benghazi attack, concerning an anti-Muslim film that was posted on YouTube. It inflamed anti-American sentiment among people of the Islamic faith, and President Obama requested that YouTube and other content providers remove the film. Franklin might have done it differently: “our cause is the cause of all mankind, and that we are fighting for their liberty in defending our own.”

The White House's request to YouTube provoked almost no objections from Democrats, who – when there is a Republican president – tightly bind themselves to the ACLU and parade around as free speech crusaders. To the extent they acknowledged any of this at all, their responses ranged from indulging patently absurd pretenses (this was just a polite request from the White House: what's wrong with that?) to affirmative justification (the film is intended to cause violence and thus should be removed).
As the author of the article correctly points out, “The claim that political speech should be suppressed because it is intended to ‘inspire’ or ‘provoke’ others to commit violence has been the favorite tactic of censors and free speech enemies for decades (source).”
And lastly, there is this item from the United States Department of Justice (source):

“Emerson Begolly is accused of repeatedly using the Internet to promote violent jihad against Americans,” said U.S. Attorney MacBride. “These allegations demonstrate how young people in the United States can become influenced by – and eventually participate in – jihadist propaganda that is a serious threat to the safety of us all.”
I will end with what is probably the most familiar – and at the same time most forgotten -- Franklin quote. After he left the hall where the delegates had been debating the Constitution, a woman named Mrs. Powel asked Franklin, “What type of government have you delegates given us?" And Franklin replied, "A republic, if you can keep it.”

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