The Constitutional Right and Republican Fight for Free Speech

Mar 29, 2023

by Eric Alderman

The Republican platform enthusiastically endorses free speech unregulated by the federal government. Free speech is enshrined in the Constitution in the words of the First Amendment and placed together with other American pillars of liberty: freedom of religion, press, assembly, and petition. Like any other freedom, it is delicately held and can be attacked or weakened at any time.

In the arena of ideas, freedom of speech provides a fundamental and important check on government and tyranny.

Americans have the right to voice support or opposition to legislation, administrative rules, and policy proposals, and freely provide their opinions on matters in the public sphere. Through this process, contrary viewpoints are given voice and debated. Where there is no freedom of speech, such voices are discouraged and silenced, preventing an exchange of ideas. The free exchange of thought challenges Americans to think through their beliefs and helps them to better understand what they believe and why.

Americans are frequently surprised or taken off guard to hear that freedom of speech as a guaranteed right, simply does not exist in other nations. Western nations such as Great Britain and Canada routinely police “hate speech,” which is defined however the government defines it. The power of government to strangle dissent and the desire of those in power to shut down opposing voices will always linger underneath the surface, which is why Americans must be

These rights are not to be taken lightly, for they can disappear quickly. Several times in American history, the national government has attempted to do just that.

In the late 1790s, under the presidency of John Adams, the United States engaged in an undeclared naval war with France. Disagreement over the conflict split along partisan lines and President Adams and his political party did not appreciate the criticism they received. Therefore, in 1798, Congress passed the Sedition Act, which specifically authorized the president to jail or fine anyone who printed anything “false, scandalous or malicious” about the United States government with the intent to insult the elected or appointed officials of the United States government. The standard for judging what things were “false, scandalous and malicious” fell to the president and the government enforcing the law. 

The Sedition Act was enforced. A mere ten years after the Constitution was ratified, the federal government energetically prosecuted people for the crime of having opposing viewpoints. Twenty-five people were arrested for criticizing the Federalist government under the law. The 1800 election changed the government, and the law was no longer enforced.

Fast forward to 1917. American involvement in World War I caused more threats to free speech. Democrat President Woodrow Wilson turned abrasive when others disagreed with him. Wilson used the power of the government to block any dissent over American involvement in the Great War in Europe. He signed into law the Sedition Act of 1918 which made it illegal to use “disloyal, profane, or abusive language” about the United States government, its military, and its institutions. The language of the act was purposefully vague and gave the government an unusual amount of power to decide what disloyalty was. Convicted persons could be fined large sums of money and thrown into prison for years.

Today, public school boards attempt to silence parents who show up to voice their objections to how their children are taught. Government officials routinely express interest in suppressing content on social media platforms. Students on taxpayer-funded college campuses are sometimes not free to express themselves in the classroom without fear of reprisal or academic punishment.

The side that wants to win will always defeat the side that is silent and wants to be left alone.  Your right to free speech is important for a freely functioning nation, and precious. Use it.