Speak Up!

I enrolled in First Amendment law this semester, more because I felt I shouldn’t graduate law school without taking it than because I had a real passion for the subject material. It turns out that the decision is, quite possibly, the best course selection I made all year.

As seems appropriate for a class on the First Amendment, our professor weaves in allusions to literature and philosophy, which I love. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to talk about Shakespeare in a legal setting, and it’s wonderful to do it. While many law school courses touch on the history underlying legal doctrines, and the general political-philosophical lines underlying the doctrines, it’s rare to take a law school class that delves deeply into underlying philosophy. First Amendment is different. Its broad philosophies escape politics, and deal with the value of knowledge itself. I leave class pondering the source of truth, thinking of the big questions that have no answers.

The class has brought me two insights. The first is an understanding that free speech has shaped the face of modern America. Our country affords broad protection to political speech. Rather than criminalizing certain kinds of speech that we don’t wish to hear, we support a philosophy expressed by Justice Brandeis in 1927: where individuals express ideas that are harmful, hateful, or offensive, the best thing to do is “apply more speech.” It is through the exchange of ideas, rather than government regulation, that the truth will emerge. This puts a responsibility on people to reason through controversial ideas, and talk about why they are right or wrong, why they make us angry or fulfilled, why they should be suppressed, altered, or expressed. Without free speech, we would not have been able to engage in some of the significant social movements of the past few years, from the protests growing from the tragic deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, to the Occupy movement. We may not have been able to start important discussions about race, class, and inequality. We have an obligation to use the freedom fundamental to our country to make our country a better place.

The second insight I’ve gained from this course is that fear has often gripped our world, and in such times, people have a habit of suppressing speech about the topics that scare them: think back to a time like the “Red Scare.” I believe we are entering another such time of fear. Lately, when I read the paper, or flip through the pages of TIME, I’ve been accosted by images, captions, and headlines reminding me of our world’s increasing uncertainty, from ISIS’s brutal fearmongering, to the attacks at Charlie Hebdo, to recent devastating trends in the weather.

We must enter this time armed with knowledge, rather than fear. As we face unprecedented terror, fierce religious and cultural battles, and environmental disaster, our answer should be speech. We must articulate the things that scare us, dissect the reasons for our fear, defend and hone our views and beliefs, sway and be swayed. We must speak up for the marginalized, fight for equality. It is our right, but it is also our responsibility.

One Comment

John W. White posted on July 18, 2015 at 3:13 pm

Hi Sarah, your journey is an inspiration as is your blog. Keep up the good writing.


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