Free Speech and Apple Pie
July 3, 2023
Is there anything more American than free speech? The founders of our country considered free speech so important that they made it the First Amendment of our enumerated rights, yet censorship has plagued us throughout our short history. Nothing compares, however, to the current tsunami of legislation aimed at limiting our freedom of speech.
As we prepare to celebrate Independence Day, I find myself thinking about what we’re celebrating. Independence Day is an annual reminder of what America stands for. Celebrations like July 4th make me sentimental for US History class, and it’s a good time to re-read the Constitution, which states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
After reading that, I can safely say that we’ve gotten off track from what the Founding Fathers intended for us.
Every morning while I’m catching up on the news, I find myself increasingly worried about the sanctity of the First Amendment. In 2023 alone, we’ve seen legislative attempts to ban drag performances, eliminate discussions of sexuality and gender identity in schools, ban education about racism, and attempts to censor anything remotely sexual online. According to PEN America, “1,477 books were banned during the first half of the 2022-23 school year,” which is an increase of 28% from the prior six months. PEN America also reported 86 educational gag orders had been introduced by February this year. Twenty-six states have introduced their own version of a ban on drag performance, and there have been multiple federal bills introduced that will increase censorship of sexual content exponentially on the internet.
I see Republicans introducing bans on education and books, and I see Democrats applauding decisions that are blatantly censorial, like the banning of Donald Trump on Twitter. Neither side is acting in accordance with our First Amendment rights, and more importantly, they are not listening to one another. I worry that we are so polarized we no longer have the ability to have a nuanced conversation with one another.
At the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, we believe in free speech. It’s one of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 19 states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
There’s a part of the censorship debate that is missing in all of the coverage, and that’s the human beings who are directly impacted. In the course of my work at Woodhull, I’ve been talking to those who experienced censorship and who decided to fight back: a librarian in NJ who was insulted and called a “groomer & pedophile” by the families in her community while protecting her library from book bans; a marriage and family therapist who was unable to advertise her offerings in the wake of the passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA); and a student in Florida who was barred from talking about his experience as a gay student during his valedictorian address at graduation. These are just three of the people who have experienced the negative consequences of censorship in their lives.
Censorship has a tangible impact on our daily lives as Americans, and any bill that seeks to limit speech, expression, or opinion is a direct violation of our human rights and our American values. So, this July 4th, as our legislators march in parades, watch fireworks and eat barbeque, we implore them to stop trying to strip away our right to free speech. We all deserve a seat at the picnic table and a slice of apple pie.