Truman and Free Speech

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“There is no more fundamental axiom of American freedom than the familiar statement: In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have. And the reason this is so fundamental to freedom is not, as many suppose, that it protects the few unorthodox from suppression by the majority. To permit freedom of expression is primarily for the benefit of the majority because it protects criticism, and criticism leads to progress…But we would betray our finest traditions if we attempted…to curb the simple expression of opinion. This we should never do, no matter how distasteful the opinion may be to the vast majority of our people…We need not fear the expression of ideas—we do need to fear their suppression.”

– President Harry S. Truman

Context: fighting communism in the United States and around the world.

The emphasis above is mine. One of the most important freedoms we have is under attack and I’m afraid it will only get worse. The attacks are coming fast and furious and from every side. I doubt there will be a turn from this trend, only a charging straight into an unknown and dark future.

“We punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have”

We have sunk so low these days that we are punishing people for their opinions. I don’t mean we are legally punishing them, though I suspect we aren’t far off from this. (On second thought, maybe we are – see the baker, the florist, the photographer, the wedding venue, etc. being prosecuted because of their beliefs and opinions.)

We are now punishing people in the public arena via social media, sometimes even to the point of violence off-line. There is no crime in holding an opinion and expressing it, yet many people apparently believe it is these days. The trend to punish people for their opinions has gone to name calling, bullying, harassing, taunting, threatening, unfriending, embarrassing, humiliating, and in some cases even following through with physical violence simply because someone disagrees with another person’s opinion or disagrees with their extreme viewpoint.

Take this student photo article as an example. No harm done, to anyone, by her posting a photo she is proud of. It is easy to imagine that anyone would post a picture they have when they got it while interacting with someone famous. So, when did it become acceptable to treat someone so poorly because you disagree with them?

We teach our kids in school not to bully, harass, threaten, or otherwise make someone uncomfortable (Really? Because that’s reality…). Yet, there is no reasonable expectation among the adult world that this will carry forth into daily life. We aren’t practicing what we preach. It brings to mind that whole “Do what I say, not what I do” adage.

Now, it appears at least as adults, we celebrate people who go out of their way to bully, harass, or even attack others who have opinions that don’t line up with mainstream opinion. We are teaching our kids that it is ok to fight detestable and offensive opinions with violence and intimidation and bullying and harassment, etc. as long as we believe it to be repugnant.

The whole point of the United States and it’s foundation was to protect free speech, even the kind we find repugnant. Our Founders, who were persecuted for their beliefs and opinions, are celebrated because they fought against a society that believed their ideas were repugnant. (Back to the whole historical argument – were our Founders patriots or terrorists? It depends on your point of view.) Our Constitution is meant to protect all ideas and opinions, even the ones we don’t like, because we are supposed to have a “marketplace of ideas”. Take the ones you like and leave the ones you don’t. There is nothing in the Constitution about convincing others they are wrong by bullying and harassing them into changing their idea.

Truman understood that “To permit freedom of expression is primarily for the benefit of the majority because it protects criticism, and criticism leads to progress…”  He understood that if there is a problem in society it needed to be discussed and worked on until it was fixed. If there is a belief that our country is going in the wrong direction, then there needs to be open dialogue about it not suppression and violence.

If we become a society that suppresses ideas we don’t like or find repugnant, how do we move forward? Censorship at every corner and in every facet of life? I know everyone hates the cliche “slippery slope,” but we are seeing some prime examples these days. Where does the suppression of ideas or thoughts, or opinions end? What one person finds objectionable, another finds acceptable. Who gets to decide in a open and free society?

 

 

 

3 comments

  1. This is a timely and necessary post. I don’t think it takes sides politically but just highlights a major problem in our society. As a teacher, I could tell when my students have certain unpopular opinions but are too afraid to speak up. I’ve seen students lash out at anyone who has the slightest difference of opinion. I’ve fought hard over the years to help them to see that listening is one of the biggest chances we have for positive change in any area.

    1. Thank you! I appreciate your feedback. I too had students who had unpopular views and would voice them only to be silenced by louder, more fervent opinions. Its hard in a classroom because many of the opinions that are expressed typically belong to someone connected to the student outside the classroom. That is hard to change! Teaching kids to listen to understand before speaking to silence is a challenge. Protecting the views of others, even those views we don’t like or understand, is important. Keep up the good work!

      1. You’re absolutely right that many of them are mirroring the opinions of family or someone they respect. It’s a sensitive thing. You keep up the great work yourself. It’s not easy, but someone has got to do it 🙂

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