Free to Criticize

Decades ago, when this blogger was a boy, it used to be popular to say “I don’t agree with that, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The phrase seemed morbidly fascinating.  I understand it better now, having been many places where free speech is only for those with power, money, or connections.

Our Republic has been at its best when its people and its leaders insisted on inclusive and peaceful political competition – votes over violence, ballots over bullets. 

This magic can only happen when each of us is committed to the idea that all are permitted to make their case, all are permitted to criticize or argue against what they hear, and to argue for what they think is better.  We all like to speak our minds, conservatives and progressives alike.

Sports teams, businesses, artists, writers, and doctors all benefit from criticism. Many seek it out: they know it makes them stronger. The same is true of nations.

What did the founding fathers say about criticizing government leaders and their policies?

  • George Washington said this: “If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter.
  • Benjamin Franklin said:Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved.
  • James Madison said: “For the people to rule wisely, they must be free to think and speak without fear of reprisal.
  • Thomas Jefferson said: “No government should be without critics. If its intentions are good then it has nothing to fear from criticism.”  He also said, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”

The founding fathers believed in the right to free speech strongly enough to include it in our Bill of Rights.  Here is what they wrote:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

What did our presidents say about criticizing government leaders and their policies?

  • Theodore Roosevelt said: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
  • George H.W. Bush said: “How can we ever get talking when you have such acrimony and such bad feeling? You’ve got to reach out to the other person. You’ve got to convince them that long-term friendship should trump short-term adversity.”
  • Ronald Reagan said:I have always believed that a lot of the troubles in the world would disappear if we were talking to each other instead of about each other.”

Other prominent Americans have weighed in on the subject as well:

  • Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., U.S. Supreme Court justice, said: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.
  • Benjamin N. Cardozo, U.S. Supreme Court justice, said: “Of that freedom [of thought and speech] one may say that it is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.
  • William Brennan, U.S. Supreme Court justice, said: “[There exists a] profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
  • Anthony Kennedy, U.S. Supreme Court justice, said: “The First Amendment is often inconvenient. But that is beside the point. Inconvenience does not absolve the government of its obligation to tolerate speech.”
  • Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” He also said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
  • John McCain said “We want to fight, and I want to fight, but we will be respectful … That doesn’t mean you have to reduce your ferocity. It’s just got to be respectful.”

Let’s lead by example.  Let’s choose to respect every American, natural-born or naturalized, with respect.  Let’s hear what they have to say and then respectfully disagree if we must.

Art credit: National Archives. War Production Board, 1942-43.

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