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Freedom of Speech - The Origins Of Free Speech Concerns

declaration tradition government framers

Struggles over attaining freedom of speech have a long history. Citizens of Athens in ancient Greece actually enjoyed considerable freedom of speech in the 400s B.C. Freedom of speech, though, was a central issue to the conflict between religion and politics throughout European history including the Reformation in the sixteenth century that gave rise to a new religious tradition of Protestantism. Speech restrictions issued by King James I led to a declaration of freedoms by Parliament in 1621. During the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, speech was considered a natural right. Influential philosophers of England and France stressed the importance of the individual with each person having a right to speak freely and participate in government. Freedom of expression thus became an important factor in the French Revolution leading to the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man.

The colonists were well aware of the English tradition of suppressing speech. In forming a democracy, the founders considered free speech absolutely necessary. Freedom of belief would have little meaning if thoughts could not be freely expressed and shared. In fact, a tradition of robust and rowdy expression was prevalent during the framing of the Constitution. The framers reasoned if government was to be governed by the people, then government can be only as effective as the citizens are informed. Influenced by the 1789 French declaration, the framers raised freedom of speech to yet another level involving constitutional law, more compelling than a declaration. In the end, the colonists struck a balance between absolute freedom and the English form of restricted freedom. The First Amendment read "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech."

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