Though it is not yet “Banned Book Week” which is an event that has been in effect since 1982, freedom of speech is a hot topic of conversation in 2021. We have seen institutions and professions that have typically been the guardians of the First Amendment to include lawyers, politicians, publishing houses, journalists and even authors, support actions that would silence those with whom they disagree. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States used to be something we could all rally around as Americans; we would fight and die for your right to speak even if, especially if, we didn’t agree with you. There has been a shift. Private institutions that used to act in the spirit of the First Amendment have abandoned those traditional principles of the professions they represent. Today we see people and institutions whose livelihoods are ironically guaranteed by the First Amendment actively calling for or supporting others who would limit that right for those with different opinions. As private institutions they have every right to do so even though it is a departure from their long-held stances defending civil liberties for all.
I encourage Americans to study the history of the First Amendment, why it exists, past attacks on this right, Supreme Court rulings and precedent, and what has followed historically when books and speech are banned. Understand the difference between “imminent incitement” and “advocacy” as per the Brandenburg Principle decided in a 1969 9-0 decision by the Supreme Court in Brandenburg v. Ohio. Decide for yourself if you stand for the right of others to disagree with you. We used to celebrate the spirit of the First Amendment and welcome our beliefs and arguments competing in the marketplace of ideas. This month’s selections are directly or indirectly tied to that notion.
As Americans, standing up for the right of others to disagree with us should be a unifying principle. Remember those who stood strong to ensure we would inherit these freedoms. We owe it to them to put in the requisite time, energy and effort to the study of history before we abridge the rights they fought and died for. They sacrificed their futures and trusted us to pass those freedoms on to our children and grandchildren.
In 2021, the First Amendment now divides us. Though the original source of the quote is unknown (often attributed to Mark Twain), “History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, but It Often Rhymes” is a wise reminder to study the past, heed its lessons, and apply it to our perspective and decisions in the form of wisdom.
Before you cheer or support the abridgment of free speech and the “cancelation” of those with different ideas and beliefs via Tweets, opinion pieces or even your silence, take a moment to remember the words of Martin Niemöller: