Yes, you can say that and get away with it.
Tease: Yes, you can say that and get away with it.
Free speech is strenuously protected in this country. The Supreme Court seems obsessed with it, striking down any law that might insult the First Amendment.
Some of our listeners are still incensed at the High Court for striking down the Communications Decency Act of 1996, or the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform of 2002. More than any other country, our courts are touchy when it comes to censorship. Have you ever wondered why? Today’s dumb idea comes from the 18th-century British Empire: The height of the Enlightenment, when old parochial ideas gave way to human rights, literacy, and the marketplace of ideas. British subjects were now enjoying unprecedented freedoms and prosperity.
In America the 13 colonies just wanted those same freedoms. But when the king and parliament started cracking down with oppressive censorship, Americans cried foul. Why weren’t they afforded the same freedoms as their countrymen in England? A catalyst in exposing this unfair treatment was Benjamin Franklin.
At age 17 Franklin had to take over the New England Courant when his brother James was jailed on a dubious charge of scandalous libel. Evermore an advocate of a free press, Ben Franklin was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention 65 years later. And he made sure the First Amendment was unmistakable. “Congress shall make no law” abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, religion, and assembly.
If England’s kings hadn’t been so dumb about free speech in America, the First Amendment’s strict prohibitions on censorship may never have happened. We were the first country to guarantee these freedoms, and did so more than a hundred years before anyone else.
So if you think we take free speech too far in this country, blame all three King Georges. If you’re glad the government can’t tell you what to say, hats-off to that kite-flying patriot, Ben Franklin.
I’m Jeff Gentry
Best reference: Nelson, H.L. (1959). Seditious libel in colonial America. The American Journal of Legal History, 3 (2), 160-172.
Dumb Ideas that Changed the World copyright 2023 by Jeff Gentry. All rights reserved.