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What does free speech mean to you?

An Echo Press editorial

Imagine if this entire page was blank.

Imagine if every letter, every column, every editorial, was first read by government officials who could ruthlessly edit out anything that they thought would cast the government in a bad light.

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We’re so lucky to have freedom of speech in this country. Yet, shockingly, it’s taken for granted. A recent study indicated that 36 percent of Americans could not name a First Amendment protection such as freedom of speech.

This week is Free Speech Week, an annual, nationwide program held every October. The goal of the nonpartisan, non-ideological event is to raise awareness and celebrate the importance of free speech and a free press in the U.S.

What can you do as an individual or family to promote free speech? Here are some ideas from Freedom of Speech Week:

--Raise free speech awareness by telling your kids about Free Speech Week. Talk to your kids about freedom of speech and how it affects their lives. Help them create a work of art, a short story or a poem. Take them to the library to read new books.

--Exercise your free speech right by writing a letter to your senator or representative about an issue that is important to you. Post a message online. Display a bumper sticker. Keep a journal. Write a letter to the editor. Speak out at a rally. Express yourself in the ways that work best for you. Just let your voice be heard!

--Get others involved by talking to the organizations you belong to. Tell them about FSW, and ask them to be partnering organizations.

You can also read the following essay, “American free speech as an exemplar” by Bill Ramey, philosophy professor at the University of Missouri. The piece was the winner in FSW’s essay contest last year. Here it is:

“Should the United States hold the rest of the world to its standard of free speech? This is no academic question. Recently, our free speech tradition has clashed with traditions that favor limits on free speech. Moreover, the global nature of the Internet is such that a person’s speech in one country may clash with another person’s beliefs in another country. Some Americans therefore suggest that we need to be aware that our free speech tradition is not a universal one. In “The World Doesn’t Love the First Amendment,” Eric Posner writes that “Americans need to learn that the rest of the world…see[s] no sense in the First Amendment” and that “[w]e have to remember that our First Amendment values are not universal.” Thus I pose the question again: Should the United States hold the rest of the world to its standard of free speech?

“The answer is ‘yes, it should.’ Here is why: the right to free expression is a universal human right. Though our free speech tradition in America is unique, freedom of speech is not uniquely American. It is no more uniquely American than the right not to be seized unlawfully; it is no more uniquely American than the right not to be tortured; it is no more uniquely American than the right not to be pressed into slavery; and it is no more uniquely American than the right to freedom of conscience, religion, and thought. Indeed, the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” adopted by most of the world’s major countries, affirms freedom of speech to be a universal right. Thus the world holds itself to a universal standard of free speech.

“Perhaps we ought to worry that it is a mark of intolerance to hold all cultures to such a standard, especially cultures that cherish beliefs that clash with free expression in other cultures. Yet it is no more intolerant to hold other cultures to a standard of free speech than it is to hold them to other standards of human rights, e.g., the right not to be enslaved. Tolerance does not require us to compromise on the fundamental values of civilization.

“Perhaps, too, the American tradition of free speech, as expressed in the First Amendment, is appropriately broad for American citizens but inappropriately broad for citizens in countries with different free speech traditions, as Posner suggests. However, if free speech in America is broad, then this a virtue, not a vice; and as Aristotle pointed out, if something is a virtue, then there cannot be too much of it. Hence, the American tradition of free speech is an exemplar to the rest of the world of the right to free speech. This is what free speech in America means today.”

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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