Freedom of Speech and Thought
by Paul M. Bessel, August 30, 1995
Free speech and thought is a basic human yearning, as people want to
be able to say what they wish, to express their ideas, desires, and feelings. It is easy
to say that everyone should have freedom of speech, but it is just as easy to present
reasons for restricting freedom of speech. Some people's speech is hateful, violent, and
harmful to the harmony of others. It is often easy to convince a majority that certain
things should not be allowed to be said. Most would agree that free speech does not
include the right to talk about hiring someone to kill, or to endanger others by yelling
"Fire" in a crowded theater just to cause panic. However, most people would also
not support the idea that anyone who says something unpopular should be silenced, because
that would mean free speech only includes the freedom to agree with the current majority.
And most people would not support the idea that "harmony" is so important that
people should not be permitted to express ideas designed to try to improve their society
just because those ideas are disliked by the authorities. There are still questions about
what constitutes "speech," what types of speech, if any, are not entitled to
protection, and how other interests should be weighed when judging speech. This is a
continuing debate that probably will never end.
Benefits of Freedom of Speech, and Limitations
There are many benefits of freedom of speech. The marketplace idea
is a way of saying that the best way to search for advancements in our lives is to
encourage people to think and talk as much as they want, with the best ideas eventually
gaining the most support. The human dignity concept holds that freedom of speech and
thought is an end itself, that the human spirit demands self-expression and each person
should be able to say and think whatever he or she wishes even when that person does not
intend to convince others, because all of us benefit whenever human dignity is increased.
The self-government idea holds that freedom of speech is an indispensable tool in a
democracy because it informs the people, helps mold majority decisions, restrains bad
actions by leaders, and promotes stability by insuring that those who want to express
ideas that are different from the majority can do so in a peaceful manner without fear of
The First Amendment
The U.S. Constitution was written in 1787 and ratified by 1789, but
many objected to the lack of a list of rights of the people. Those who wrote the
Constitution initially said there was no need for such a list because almost all State
constitutions contained one, but one of the first acts of the first Congress under the
Constitution was to write a Bill of Rights. There was little doubt that the first item on
this list would include the right of freedom of speech and thought, and this was included
in what became the 1st Amendment: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the
freedom of speech." By 1791 this amendment and the others in the Bill of Rights
became a part of the Constitution, but it only applied to the federal government. States
could adopt laws that violated free speech if they wished.
Virginia Grand Lodge statements about this subject
Every Mason in Virginia is given a booklet, The Degree of
Entered Apprentice, that provides an official explanation of Freemasonry in Virginia.
That booklet includes the following:
Questions for discussion
1. Masonic writers and leaders frequently say that Freemasonry
supports freedom of thought and speech, even saying this is why Masons have been
persecuted, but exactly what does this mean? In what ways has Freemasonry supported
freedom of speech and thought in the past, and now?
Free Speech in an Open Society, by Rodney A. Smolla, 1992.
The First Amendment Book, by Robert J. Wagman, 1991.
The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America, by Nat Hentoff, 1980.
A Worthy Tradition: Freedom of Speech in America, by Harry Kalven, Jr., 1988.
The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, 1992.
From ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL, et al. v. FREE SPEECH COALITION et al., decided April 16, 2002
Congress may pass valid laws to protect children from abuse, and it has. E.g., 18 U.S.C. 2241, 2251. The prospect of crime, however, by itself does not justify laws suppressing protected speech. See Kingsley Intl Pictures Corp. v. Regents of Univ. of N.Y., 360 U.S. 684, 689 (1959) (Among free men, the deterrents ordinarily to be applied to prevent crime are education and punishment for violations of the law, not abridgment of the rights of free speech) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). It is also well established that speech may not be prohibited because it concerns subjects offending our sensibilities. See FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726, 745 (1978) ([T]he fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it); see also Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844, 874 (1997) (In evaluating the free speech rights of adults, we have made it perfectly clear that [s]exual expression which is indecent but not obscene is protected by the First Amendment) (quoting Sable Communications of Cal., Inc. v. FCC, 492 U.S. 115, 126 (1989); Carey v. Population Services Intl, 431 U.S. 678, 701 (1977) ([T]he fact that protected speech may be offensive to some does not justify its suppression).
As a general principle, the First Amendment bars the government from dictating what we see or read or speak or hear. The freedom of speech has its limits; it does not embrace certain categories of speech, including defamation, incitement, obscenity, and pornography produced with real children. See Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Members of N.Y. State Crime Victims Bd., 502 U.S. 105, 127 (1991) (Kennedy, J., concurring).
The mere tendency of speech to encourage unlawful acts is not a sufficient reason for banning it. The government cannot constitutionally premise legislation on the desirability of controlling a persons private thoughts. Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 566 (1969). First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end. The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.
To preserve these freedoms, and to protect speech for its own sake, the Courts First Amendment cases draw vital distinctions between words and deeds, between ideas and conduct. See Kingsley Intl Pictures Corp., 360 U.S., at 689; see also Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514, 529 (2001) (The normal method of deterring unlawful conduct is to impose an appropriate punishment on the person who engages in it). The government may not prohibit speech because it increases the chance an unlawful act will be committed at some indefinite future time. Hess v. Indiana, 414 U.S. 105, 108 (1973) (per curiam). The government may suppress speech for advocating the use of force or a violation of law only if such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action. Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 447 (1969) (per curiam). There is here no attempt, incitement, solicitation, or conspiracy. The Government has shown no more than a remote connection between speech that might encourage thoughts or impulses and any resulting child abuse. Without a significantly stronger, more direct connection, the Government may not prohibit speech on the ground that it may encourage pedophiles to engage in illegal conduct.
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