Freedom of expression eludes many world citizens

Outside Looking In
By Gordon Barlow

America’s Federal Constitution is admired the world over. It’s not just America’s patriots who revere the principles set out in it. Its contents provided the inspiration for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted as a United Nations General Assembly resolution in 1948. The driving force behind the Declaration was Eleanor Roosevelt – a true American hero.

The Universal Declaration, in turn, inspired all the subsequent international treaties relating to civil and human rights, as well as several member-states’ domestic laws. Of all the US Constitutional clauses, the one that protects freedom of speech is pre-eminent. This commitment to freedom of expression (speech, writing, films, etc) is where civil and human rights begin. Without that freedom, no other freedoms or rights have much chance of survival. Without free discussion and debate, how can rulers – even when elected – claim to know their constituents’ minds?

In recent years, “freedom of information” has developed as a corollary of freedom of expression. The reasoning is that government secrecy should not be an obstacle to the freedom to debate. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has been a leader in litigating for the right of the public to know what its public servants are doing. As a consequence, the ACLU is known and admired in the outside world more than most civil-rights organizations of any nations.

At home, the ACLU is sometimes attacked for being too even-handed. It defends the right of Nazis and Communists to march and demonstrate in public – even Moslems, for goodness sake! Does the right to freedom of expression really apply to everybody? Surely the writers of the Constitution meant to exclude prospective enemies of the public. Surely government bureaucrats must be allowed to keep some things secret from the unwashed masses. Surely legislators must be free to ban opinions that are inimical to the public interest. The ACLU says not. The ACLU and its lawyers say that the First Amendment’s words, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of expression, or of the press… ”, actually mean that it is illegal to “abridge the freedom [etc]…”

My home island, a British possession two hundred miles south of Cuba, practices serious censorship and local-government secrecy. Newcomers to our community quickly learn that they are forbidden from expressing any opinion that opposes any public policy, written or unwritten. They are free to praise, but not to criticize. The penalty for breaking the taboo can be expulsion from the community. Any newspaper that breaks the taboo can find its advertisers melt away. Its distributors can be pressured not to stock the paper, though that is generally judged to be too extreme, and too blatant.

The trouble with censorship is that once one opinion is banned, for whatever reason, either by law or by private threats, any opinion can be banned. Our Islands’ low-skilled migrants can be, and sometimes are, expelled for objecting to unauthorized deductions from their wages. Even on our local Internet forums, comments are almost all anonymous, even on the most mundane of topics. The censorship is woven into our governmental traditions. Only five or six regular posters dare sign their real names. More fools them, I guess.

It’s hard to imagine such things happening in Hobe Sound, or any other patriotic American community. Their traditions are rooted in the freedom of expression. The First Amendment is still as revered there as it has always been. Long may that position hold. The French writer Voltaire, a friend of Ben Franklin and a strong supporter of freedom, is reported to have written, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The attribution is false, but the sentiment was his; and the sentiment found its way into the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Let Britain and its overseas possessions disdain the freedoms. We have had no Thomas Jefferson to enshrine the freedoms, and no Martin Luther King to test them. Our heritage is the poorer for that. Let America and all its individual communities cherish the freedoms, and observe them always, despite occasional discomfort.