Free Speech in Troubled Times

(An old colleague, Jeff Unger, brought this piece to my attention. Jeff makes a daily practice of posting interesting bits of writing on his Facebook page.)

“To an Anxious Friend”
William Allen White
July 27, 1922

“You tell me that law is above freedom of utterance. And I reply that you can have no wise laws nor free entertainment of wise laws unless there is free expression of the wisdom of the people – and, alas, their folly with it. But if there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison, and the wisdom will survive. That is the history of the race. It is proof of man’s kinship with God. You say that freedom of utterance is not for time of stress, and I reply with the sad truth that only in times of stress is freedom of utterance in danger. No one questions it in calm days, because it is not needed. And the reverse is true also; only when free utterance is suppressed is it needed, and when it is needed, it is most vital to justice.”

This is the beginning of an editorial White published in the Emporia Gazette, the Kansas daily he bought as a young man. He seems to have written it at a moment of national stress (between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Depression.) The implication is that the “anxious friend” wants the cessation of speech and the imposition of order. In some ways, we are at a similar junction today. Here are some of the protest signs I saw in news reports last month. I’m not sure I understand all of the messages, but they all are speech.

Here is the final paragraph of White’s piece:

“So, dear friend, put fear out of your heart. This nation will survive, this state will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold – by voice, by posted card, by letter, or by press. Reason has never failed men. Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.”

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