On September 1, 2022, President Biden gave a speech titled, Battle for the Soul of the Nation. In it, he labels the vision that MAGA Republicans have for America as “extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” He allocated two thirds of the entire speech to make his case that the views of others are “a clear and present danger to our democracy.” Biden’s solution to this perceived threat is “to stop the assault on American democracy.”[1] In reality, silencing those who have differing opinions would be a greater threat to democracy than those opinions will ever be.

President Biden is not the first president to use such rhetoric. Of the opinions of Democrats President Trump said, “The Democrats have become too extreme. And they’ve become, frankly, too dangerous to govern. They’ve gone wacko…You don’t hand matches to an arsonist, and you don’t give power to an angry, left-wing mob.”[2] His solution was to silence them out of governing. Both Biden and Trump sought to prevent differing opinions from sitting at the table of government.

The tendency to use the force of government to silence opposition is not just a twenty-first century problem. Even the fiery, freedom loving John Adams signed the Sedition acts when he was president. The acts made it illegal to disagree with Congress, the President, or any law of the United States.[3] It was argued that the acts were to protect the republic. Interestingly, the law was set to expire March 3, 1801, the last day of Adam’s and the House’s term in office. An action that appeared to protect those holding office at the time, not the republic.

Taking away the free speech of others in the name of protecting democracy is to forget that free speech is one of the primary pillars of democracy. The First Amendment is the first in the Bill of Rights because it is designed to protect the foundational building blocks of democratic principles. The First Amendment is not a list of single, disconnected subjects; it is a logical progression of rights. Our individual rights begin with the ability to think and believe. No other person has control over our thoughts and beliefs. The next logical step is our freedom to speak and to publish, or print, those thoughts—the freedom of speech and of the press. Next comes the right to assemble with other citizens to discuss what we have spoken and printed. Last, we have the right to assemble for the purpose of expressing our thoughts to our elected representatives in government. If we have a right to think, we have a right to petition, and a right to every step in between.

The freedom of conscience, speech, press, assembly, and petition are the pillars of democracy. A president, or any one for that matter, cannot protect democracy by striping those unalienable rights from those of differing opinions. That action does not protect democracy—it destroys it! If political opposition loses those pillars, what course of action are they left with? If they cannot speak, write, assemble, or petition, they will either succumb to oppression or rise up in violence. If democratic actions are forbidden, tyranny and chaos with thrive.

The presidential election between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams was one of the most heated in American history. Two longtime friends became bitter political enemies. Their friendship was rekindled in their sunset years, but in 1800 they did not see eye to eye. Jefferson won the election, and in his inaugural address he petitioned the people to enter into a united discourse, something lost during the course of the election.

A remarkable thing about Jefferson’s inaugural speech is that he strongly endorsed the freedom of speech even though he had been obliterated in the press. Worse yet, he and his likeminded Americans were the ones specifically targeted by the Alien and Sedition Acts. After all that, he still believed that the freedom of speech was the best method of combating falsehood and discord.

Jefferson begins his speech by acknowledging that a stranger to the idea of liberty as it exists in America might not understand the purpose of public debate, even if that debate is heated. Once an election is decided according to the rules of the Constitution, Americans should reunite in the spirit of common liberty. To not do so would defeat the purpose of protecting liberty—harmony.
Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things… But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.[4]
Just as differences in religious creeds are not necessarily differences of morality, differences of policy between Republicans and Democrats are not always a difference of principle. In a dark time of discord, Jefferson sought the light of common ground. Rights protected by the Constitution are the one thing all Americans have in common. This includes the freedom of speech. Speech should be protected even if it goes so far as to express the opinion that the nation should be abolished. In fact, to allow that speech would show how important the protection of speech is.
If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.[5]
Most importantly, protecting all speech is the only way to guarantee that correct opinions are free to rebut errors. Humans are imperfect. No person or group of people has a monopoly on truth. If one group is allowed to silence the speech of others, not only will tyranny result, but truth may also be censored too. If some people can be in error, it is likely that other people are in error as well. Therefore, all must be free to express their opinions if truth is to find its way into the light.
Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.[6]
The logical progression of rights in the First Amendment helps clarify our responsibility as citizens to preserve free expression. Who can deny that each individual has a right to think? If this basic undeniable right exists, which of us can rightfully restrain another from expressing their thoughts? Our collective expression of thought is what moves society forward. As we assemble to discuss our thoughts, varying opinions arise. Inevitably, one group in society will try to silence another, first by intimidation and then by the force of government. This repeated pattern is the reason the Framers wisely included the First Amendment. Our undeniable right to free expression exists so long as we petition our government for redress against any attempts to subvert it.

Americans have been free to express their ideas and document their findings with fewer censors than history’s other examples. The United States of America has been a significant leader in advances in civil government, religious commitment in the form of charity, in medicine, transportation, manufacturing, science, agriculture, and virtually every modern achievement. This is not because Americans are more capable than other nations, but because the freedom to think and the freedom to express those thoughts are protected and enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

The voice of the people is the very definition of democracy. To silence those voices eliminates the thing that makes a democracy a democracy. Silencing people is a greater threat to democracy than their opinions will ever be.
  
[1] Remarks by President Biden on the Continued Battle for the Soul of the Nation
[2] Campaign speech, Council Bluffs, IA, October 8, 2018
[3] An Act in Addition to the Act, Entitled An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes Against the United States, 14 July 1798
[4] Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, 4 March 1801
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.

4 comments

Nov 28, 2022
Dale

Are we a democracy? I thought America is a republic, not a democracy. I also thought the founders were opposed to a democracy.

Nov 28, 2022
Michael Van Wormer

While I agree with the premise that free speech is vital to the liberty of the people, and I am glad to see the historical references to “The Alien and Sedition Act” under Adams and Jefferson’s conciliatory inaugural address; I don’t see the direct banning of free speech from either Biden or Trump. Both were highly critical, and Biden was highly untruthful in many of his accusations; nevertheless, I don’t see either calling for a ban on free speech. I do, however, see the social media, in conjunction with government officials, barring free speech in favor of a specific ideology.

The article is great, but the identification of the source of the threat to free speech is inaccurate.

Nov 28, 2022
Bill
As bad as Adams was, lincoln certainly out did him in violations of our Constitution. Hundreds of newspapers were shut down, theie buildings often destroyed, and their editors imprisoned for the “crime” of “disloyal speech.” Few, if any, of those men were ever charged with an actual crime in a civilian court, had the right to counsel, or were permitted to face their accusers in a court of law.

That includes almost the entire Maryland Legislature and the Mayor of Baltimore. Yet, somehow, lincoln is often called the greatest POTUS ever, by those whose ignorance of history would fill many volumes. And, I will be very surprised if these comments are approved by the publisher. Yet it is all true. But I wager my free speech rights will be lacking here, where free speech is extolled.

Nov 28, 2022
Susan Dabney

The threat to democracy is in not accepting the will of the people expressed through the ballot box. You confuse the 1st Amendment with the right to vote. No one running for office has been silenced.

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