The weeks of protest and rancor leading up to the Fourth of July, 2020, have demonstrated the wisdom of the Continental Congress which, on this day in 1776, approved the final version of the Declaration of Independence, with its most famous words:
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness …”
Though the United States has not always been able to live up to this high ideal, it has through the years made many adjustments – sometimes through the great sacrifice of blood – in an effort to attain this perfect goal.
All Americans owe a great deal of gratitude to those imperfect people who drafted and approved this declaration of separation from British rule and who, after winning the war of succession, went on to draft a Constitution that was amended in 1791 to include the Bill of Rights.
In this age, where many seem to think that the way to deal with people who believe differently than they do is to call them names, shout them down, or react violently, it would do us all well to consider the thoughts of two of those who were instrumental in gifting us the rights that let us peacefully hold and express our views.
“Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such thing as Wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without Freedom of Speech.”
– Benjamin Franklin
“Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error.”
– Thomas Jefferson
But, why listen to the words of long dead white men, some might ask – especially those who use today’s values and mores to tear down such historical figures.
So here are some more recent reflections on the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment.
“When you start punishing and censoring comedians, that’s a real bad sign of us as Americans losing our First Amendment rights. As a comedian, I’m gonna push the boundaries. Some things you’re going to love, and some things you’re going to hate. But this is America. Great people died for us to have this right.”
– Byron Allen, entertainment executive and comedian
“The First Amendment defends all forms of speech including hate speech, which is why groups like Ku Klux Klan are allowed to utter their poisonous remarks.”
– Salman Rushdie, author
“Yes, the First Amendment gives us the right to be ‘offensive’ with our speech. Given the fact that a new thing seems to be declared ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ every day, I’m certainly glad that we do have this protection.”
– Kat Timpf, television personality
Even before his work prosecuting Nazi war criminals, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson recognized the dangers in attempting to suppress thoughts and ideas, and in attempting to force others to conform to yours. In a 1943 decision declaring unconstitutional a state law that required students to salute the American flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, he wrote:
“Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country have been waged by many good as well as by evil men. … Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”
The Fourth of July in America is about freedom – the rights of those who hold similar beliefs, and especially the rights of those who differ.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.