Freedom of Speech

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Freedom of Speech

Meredith Kerr

Charles W. Locke

U.S. History 121-03


Imagine a time when one could be fined,

imprisoned and even killed for just simply speaking

one's mind. Speech is the basic vehicle for

communication of beliefs, thoughts and ideas.

Without the right to speak one's mind freely one

would be forced to agree with everything society

stated. With freedom of speech one's own ideas can

be expressed freely and the follower's belief will

be stronger. The words sound so simple, but

without them the world would bee a very different

place. Without the right to speak freely one would

not be able to debt, nor would one be able to

receive full coverage on world issues. There would

be no interesting newspapers, no free religion and

no free thoughts. This amendment seems so simple

but, the boundaries of which issues and incidents

are covered are so complex and varied. What is

legal and illegal? What can be said and cannot be

said? Does this amendment include spoken word only

or does it include action also? What, if any,

limits should be put to this amendment?

As long as the government has existed, people

have battled over censorship. Censorship takes on

all different shapes and forms: banning of books,

television guidelines, laws that curb specific

types of speech, and imprisonment or even death for

openly speaking. For example, in sixteenth century

England, a loyal subject of Henry VII was

imprisoned for saying, "I like not the proceedings

of this realm."1 In earlier times this would have

been punishable by death for treason.

The need for freedom of speech was first

brought up in Massachusetts Body of Liberties in

1641. After the Revolutionary War in America, many

states recommend that free speech be put in the

United States Constitution. Nevertheless, freedom

of speech was written into the Bill of Rights and

was ratified in 1791.

A few years after the First Amendment was

ratified, the government passed the Sedition Act of

1798. This was to help prevent resistance or

rebellion against the government. It also made it

illegal to print, write or say "any false,

scandalous and malicious" things against the

government. One person was convicted under the act

for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish


This was never challenged by the

Democratic-Republicans because of the

Federalist-dominated the court rule. The act

eventually ended the Federalists in 1800 and was

destroyed itself. There was no other sedition law

passed before 1917.

Between 1800 and 1917, the individual states

placed more restrictions on the freedom of speech

than did the Federal government. There was a lot

of trouble between groups trying to form work

unions and picketers. The unions often tried to

challenge the boundaries of speech and actions.

They said picketing was protected speech. Their

business leaders saw it as coercive actions. The

courts routinely supported the business leaders and

issued injunctions, orders prohibiting a specified

action to prevent union pickets.

Slaves also fell outside the boundaries of the

protected speech. In the south freely speaking

about slavery was frowned upon. They would also

censor mail to make sure no abolitionist materials

were being shipped to the south. In the 1830's

pro-slavery people convinced the government to stop

taking petitions against slavery. In 1844 Congress

was forced to repeal this statement because of the

anti-slavery enragement with denial of free speech

and petition.

During World War I the only way the government

could suppress criticism of the war was to pass the

Espionage Act of 19173. This was done to try and

stop "willfully utter, print, write, or publishing

and disloyal, profane, scurrilous,...
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