Free Speech

In his commencement speech at Dickinson University this year, Ian McEwan delivered an impassioned defense of free speech. He said without it, democracy is a sham.

He pointed to the First Amendment as the foundation of this country, the bedrock of all the other freedoms we have, including the liberal education the students just received. Elsewhere freedom of speech is under attack.

“Across almost the entire Middle East, free thought can bring punishment or death…the same is true in Bangladesh, Pakistan, across great swathes of Africa. These past years the public space for free thought in Russia has been shrinking. In China state …[there is] a level of thought repression unprecedented in human history.”

This week (11/2/15) the director of a Ukrainian language library in Moscow was placed under house arrest for allowing access to banned Ukrainian books. In Iran two poets were sentenced to long prison terms and flogging for their poetic writings that were said to offend anti-Western factions.

In Saudi Arabia Raif Badawi was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Badawi is a writer and blogger who has been jailed, fined, and flogged. He has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and is serving a 10-year prison sentence for insulting Islam on his website.

The authorities also jailed Badawi’s lawyer who was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for “undermining the government, inciting public opinion, and insulting the judiciary.”

In China over 30 individuals (doctors, lawyers, students, teachers, writers, etc,) have been detained, jailed or exiled for defending free speech or their pro-democracy views.

McEwan spoke of the brutal attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the puzzling objections of some of the writers attending the recent American PEN gathering to defend free speech throughout the world.

At times free expression has been threatened in this country. One need only remember the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his reckless, unsubstantiated accusations. Even during the administration of George Bush, I felt that free speech was limited in some areas. And the same was true during the Vietnam-era protests.

McEwan called on the students to remember the words of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

He concluded his address by quoting George Washington: “If the freedom of speech is taken away then, dumb and silent, we may be led like sheep to the slaughter.”

We live in a privileged time in this country with unlimited freedoms that we usually take for granted. We never can be reminded too often of the liberties we enjoy. At the same time, there are always potential threats to these freedoms.

I am reminded of what Thomas Jefferson was said to have remarked, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”


LindaW said...

A provocative review - I have read about the Saudi man who is imprisoned and being flogged intermittently for "insulting Islam" - it hardly seems believable in the 21st century, but I know it is true. I am glad that we in the West have laws that protect free speech, but in spite of it, I think that right is effectively under threat. So many times I have refrained from speaking my mind because I knew that in the group I happened to be with or the setting I was in, many people would have been either offended or downright hostile. Recently, during the Planned Parenthood tempest, my daughter wanted to participate in the discussion and posted her thoughts on a website. The hate and vitriol that rained down on her really frightened her. And it thoroughly silenced her. We are living in an era where reason, civilized debate, and critical thinking seem to be disappearing. Truth and facts don't matter anymore. Ideology, prejudice, insularity rule. It's truly frightening.

Richard Katzev said...

Yes, it may be frightening in some situations, but I think it is important to be true to yourself.

You won't be flogged for expressing yourself in a group of people who may be opposed to you. Nor would your daughter after she spoke out on Planned Parenthood. People differ, but free speech still holds. I am reminded of Hirschman's view of Voice:

"Only those who choose voice can have any impact on correcting mistakes and injustices. But they must be fearless and persistent in speaking out against them, even if there is considerable risk in doing so."

But the risk you take will not endanger your life, will not send you to prison, or lead to 1000 public lashes.

Linda said...

I've thought a lot about your Exit, Loyalty & Voice post (the Max Planck post) - it has really stayed with me. Actually, as I think about it again, I am going to send it to my daughter. She is a teacher, after all, and has the minds of her students in her hands.

Yes, being uncomfortable is still a very long way from prison and public lashings.

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you, Linda. It means a lot to me that you wish to send something I write to your daughter. If she would like to correspond with me, you are welcome to send her my email address.