Freedom Of Speech

Freedom of Speech
Meredith Kerr
Charles W. Locke
U.S. History 121-03

Imagine a time when one could be fined,
imprisoned and even killed for just simply speaking
one’s mind. Speech is the basic vehicle for
communication of beliefs, thoughts and ideas.
Without the right to speak one’s mind freely one
would be forced to agree with everything society
stated. With freedom of speech one’s own ideas can
be expressed freely and the follower’s belief will
be stronger. The words sound so simple, but
without them the world would bee a very different
place. Without the right to speak freely one would
not be able to debt, nor would one be able to
receive full coverage on world issues. There would
be no interesting newspapers, no free religion and
no free thoughts. This amendment seems so simple
but, the boundaries of which issues and incidents
are covered are so complex and varied. What is
legal and illegal? What can be said and cannot be
said? Does this amendment include spoken word only
or does it include action also? What, if any,
limits should be put to this amendment?
As long as the government has existed, people
have battled over censorship. Censorship takes on
all different shapes and forms: banning of books,
television guidelines, laws that curb specific
types of speech, and imprisonment or even death for
openly speaking. For example, in sixteenth century
England, a loyal subject of Henry VII was
imprisoned for saying, “I like not the proceedings
of this realm.”1 In earlier times this would have
been punishable by death for treason.
The need for freedom of speech was first
brought up in Massachusetts Body of Liberties in
1641. After the Revolutionary War in America, many
states recommend that free speech be put in the
United States Constitution. Nevertheless, freedom
of speech was written into the Bill of Rights and
was ratified in 1791.
A few years after the First Amendment was
ratified, the government passed the Sedition Act of
1798. This was to help prevent resistance or
rebellion against the government. It also made it
illegal to print, write or say “any false,
scandalous and malicious” things against the
government. One person was convicted under the act
for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish
This was never challenged by the
Democratic-Republicans because of the
Federalist-dominated the court rule. The act
eventually ended the Federalists in 1800 and was
destroyed itself. There was no other sedition law
passed before 1917.
Between 1800 and 1917, the individual states
placed more restrictions on the freedom of speech
than did the Federal government. There was a lot
of trouble between groups trying to form work
unions and picketers. The unions often tried to
challenge the boundaries of speech and actions.
They said picketing was protected speech. Their
business leaders saw it as coercive actions. The
courts routinely supported the business leaders and
issued injunctions, orders prohibiting a specified
action to prevent union pickets.
Slaves also fell outside the boundaries of the
protected speech. In the south freely speaking
about slavery was frowned upon. They would also
censor mail to make sure no abolitionist materials
were being shipped to the south. In the 1830’s
pro-slavery people convinced the government to stop
taking petitions against slavery. In 1844 Congress
was forced to repeal this statement because of the
anti-slavery enragement with denial of free speech
and petition.
During World War I the only way the government
could suppress criticism of the war was to pass the
Espionage Act of 19173. This was done to try and
stop “willfully utter, print, write, or publishing
and disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive
language about the form of the government of the
United States.”.
Over 2,000 citizens were convicted under this
act. This law was repeatedly challenges and for
the first time the Supreme Court heard cases on
which they upheld this law. After World War I, the
Court became very involved with trying to find and
set the boundaries for free speech.
There are many types of speech. There is Pure
speech, which is only spoken word, such as church,
debts, and meetings. This form falls under the
boundaries of the first amendment. Speech-plus is
speech with actions, like protest, marches and
picketing. Generally, actions are not as protected
as pure speech. Thirdly, there is symbolic speech.
It conveys its own message without words. This is
known as “expressive conduct”. The Supreme Court
says, “We cannot accept the view that an apparently
limitless variety of conduct can be labeled
‘speech’ whenever the person engaging in the
conduct intends thereby to express an idea”4. Some
“expressive conduct” is protected by the First
Amendment and some isn’t.
Burning draft cards was decidedly not protected
within the First Amendment. The draft was
“necessary to legitimate government purpose of
raising an army” said the Supreme Court. Thus flag
burning was protected. Two of the court cases that