Civil Rights: Freedom of Speech

Introduction

Federalism is not the primary ingredient in ensuring people’s civil liberties and civil rights. It is the US Constitution that made it possible to establish a government and a society that paved the way for a just and fair society, and whose members enjoy certain fundamental rights. Nevertheless, federalism is a helpful tool in implementing the laws of the land. Federalism’s beneficial impact on a citizen’s freedom of speech created a chain-reaction of positive outcomes that resulted in the enhancement of people’s civil rights and civil liberties.

A Positive and Negative Example of How Federalism Has Affected the Freedom of Speech

Although federalism as a form of government created positive results and caused the strengthening of people’s civil liberties and civil rights, it has to be made clear that the wellspring of blessing is not rooted in federalism per se. It is important to point out the value of federalism as a governmental framework and nothing more. A strict interpretation of the laws of the land and the history behind these laws lead to the conclusion that the root cause of all civil rights and civil liberties did not come from a system of governance but from the US Constitution.

This important legal document states that the US Congress is prohibited from the ratification of laws that directly prevent the citizen’s freedom of speech and freedom of the press (Ruane, 2014). In addition, the US Constitution enshrined the rights of people and ensured the creation of a democratic society protected from the ambitions of a tyrannical ruler. Thus, the Constitution laid the groundwork for a government structure that guarantees the rights and privileges covered by the freedom of speech. From this point forward, the people’s freedom of speech forms part of a constellation of basic rights that, when taken together, are instrumental in the establishment of a government that was created to serve the people and not the privileged few.

If there is indeed a positive role that one can think of when it comes to federalism and the freedom to voice out an ordinary person’s opinion without fear of reprisal from a powerful government, it has to be an indirect one. In other words, even if the government of the United States is not based on federalism, the people can still enjoy the benefits of free speech. For example, highly-industrialized countries in Europe do not subscribe to the same form of governance, and yet, these affluent nations enjoy the same basic forms of civil rights and civil liberties. In fact, the citizens of these nations enjoy the right to speak out their minds and criticize their national leaders without fear of incarceration and other forms of harassment.

It is imperative to point out that the term “freedom of speech” is an umbrella statement that covers a whole spectrum of rights related to expressing ideas and criticisms. Thus, the advantage of a federal form of government must be appreciated not only in paving the way for the expression of free speech but also in creating a culture that allows for changes when criticisms or innovative ideas deserve careful consideration. Free speech is not just a way to express an idea but also a mechanism to modify or transform obsolete regulations and traditions.

It has been made clear that freedom of speech does not require the existence of a federal government. Nevertheless, one can argue that America’s federal form of governance made it easier to enforce the legal principles found in the US Constitution, especially those related to the current topic of discussion. This assertion requires a little argument because the appropriate application of federalism leads to the emergence of a government that diffuses power in three major levels: national government, state government, and local government. Aside from the matrix of governance that enabled the diffusion of power from a vertical to a horizontal direction, the framework that enforces the equal sharing of power has been strengthened by the existence of three major branches of government.

Granting that the office of the US president seemed to operate as the most powerful branch among the three equal branches of government, it is not difficult to see how the US Constitution limited the power of the Oval Office. For example, the US Congress was given the authority to control the nation’s wealth through its power to align the resources of the US government in the process of deliberating the nation’s annual budget. Therefore, it is not possible to have a one-man rule. Since it is impossible to consolidate power in one office, it is unlikely to develop a powerful entity that can stifle free press or the right of an ordinary person to express his or her ideas or criticisms against national leaders.

A positive example of how federalism reinforced America’s First Amendment rights can be seen in the case Watts v. the United States, 394 U.S. 705 (1969). In this particular legal suit, a man was convicted because of grave threats made against an incumbent US president. However, the US Supreme Court overturned the decision because the accused did not demonstrate any intent to harm the president. The accused was merely exercising his right to criticize him (Ruane, 2014). This case demonstrated the power of federalism to allow the expression of free speech even if the words that came out negatively affected one of the co-equal branches of the government. This case underscored how the US Constitution created a legal shield protecting ordinary citizens from powerful entities.

The ability to communicate, publish, and broadcast incendiary ideas is a basic right that the American people needed to safeguard their freedom. Nevertheless, this capability is a two-edged sword, because if the federal government stubbornly insists on its correct interpretation of a contentious issue, ordinary citizens may inadvertently get a taste of injustice due to the inappropriate application of certain laws.

A negative example of how federalism can affect the freedom of speech can be seen indirectly in the perpetuation of Jim Crow laws in the South. In this context, Jim Crow laws were oppressive against blacks. It is difficult to understand the behavior of the federal government when it failed to intervene and forced the politicians and lawmakers of the Southern states to recognize the First Amendment rights of African Americans under the US Constitution.

However, one can understand the logic behind such a deliberate stance to ignore clear violations of the law, and one can see the rationale of such actions in the case of Barron v. City of Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243, wherein the US Supreme Court ruled that the US Constitution prevented the federal government from intervening in matters involving the individual and the state (Mercer, 2017). In other words, the national government had no choice at that time except to accept the validity of all state-sponsored laws.

A Positive and Negative Example of How the Freedom of Speech Has Affected Civil Rights

It is not prudent or practical to isolate the freedom of speech clause of the Constitution from other rights and civil liberties that are deemed crucial in the establishment of a just and fair society. It is imperative to interpret the phrase that states that the government must not formalize and implement any type of law that prohibits or abridges a person’s right to express his mind in the context of other civil rights that were ensured together with the freedom of speech.

This includes the freedom to exercise his or her religion of choice, freedom of speech, and the right to assemble and to petition the government to address certain grievances (Trainer, 2017). Therefore, one can make the argument that the fundamental right to free speech secures the other fundamental rights. One can also extend this argument to include the idea that the proper utilization of the freedom of speech ensures people’s civil rights.

Extending the argument made earlier, one can also make the assertion that protecting a person’s right to speak out his thoughts is the same way as securing his political and social freedom. In addition, the citizens’ right to free speech works in tandem with the people’s civil rights as if existing in some sort of a mutually beneficial relationship. For example, if the majority supports a proposal to restrict the movement of Iraqi-born or Saudi-born American citizens, the affected members of the minority group can use social media sites and available publishing platforms to air out their opinion regarding the said subject matter. In another scenario, ordinary people can peaceably assemble to protest certain government actions. Thus, the removal of the fundamental right to voice out concerns and suggestions also endangers the citizenry’s civil rights.

One positive example of how the right to free speech strengthened a person’s civil rights can be seen in the case Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 625 (1925). In this particular jurisprudence, the State of New York attempted to curtail Benjamin Gitlow’s right to express his communist-inspired views. A New York statute in 1902 made it a crime to advocate any form of idea or concept that leads to violent destruction or overthrow of the government (Schultz & Vile, 2015). However, Gitlow cited the aforementioned section in the Constitution that guaranteed his right to speak out subversive ideas without the pain of punishment (Gitlow v. New York, 1925).

After deliberating over the case, the US Supreme Court made the decision that a person’s freedom of speech is a basic right. The Court added that this right must be protected, as described in the Fourteenth Amendment. This is an important development. The Court’s decision emphasized not only the value of free speech but also the legal principle that no one can take that right away from any citizen of the United States. If there existed a valid reason for restricting that freedom, the Court asserted that this has to go through a fair trial. Therefore, Gitlow’s decision to use his freedom to speak out his mind strengthened the interpretation of the law with regard to the issue of civil rights.

Without a doubt, the free exercise of an important right does not only bolster the capability of ordinary citizens to experience various forms of political and religious freedom. However, this capability is not beyond the reach of people that are going to abuse the privilege of communicating or broadcasting ideas and sentiments. Thus, the reverse can be true so that the use of free speech endangers or negatively affects a person’s civil rights. A negative example of how a person’s freedom of expression can have a destructive effect on a person’s right to pursue liberty and happiness can be seen in the case Elonis v. the United States, 575 U.S. (2015).

It was discovered that Anthony Elonis utilized social media platforms for communicating graphically violent words and expressions for the purpose of harassing his former wife. In this particular lawsuit, the petitioner argued that he was merely expressing his First Amendment rights. However, his words were interpreted as a real hazard and constituted a real threat to the life of another human being. Elonis’ use of his right was a perversion of the law. It stained the beauty of a legal framework ensuring a nation’s civil rights.

A Positive and Negative Example of How the Freedom of Speech Has Affected Civil Liberties

The appropriate exercise of the right to free speech strengthens the population’s civil liberties. A positive example of how the freedom of speech enhanced the American people’s civil liberties can be seen in the resolution of the case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (Lutz, 2017). This case revealed how a group of African Americans’ freedom of speech-enabled them to take down an oppressive educational system that stifled their children’s freedom to study in a public school of their choice.

It was the outcome of the legal proceedings that enabled the petitioners’ families to enjoy the added freedom of enrolling their children in a preferred public school (Lutz, 2017). However, all of these positive developments were preceded by the petitioners’ decision to speak out about the controversial issue. Thus, one can make the conclusion that the ability to communicate ideas and to criticize unlawful policies helps secure other fundamental rights as well (Allison, 2013).

For example, free speech was utilized to ratify a law allowing African Americans to participate in the electoral process. In this example, free speech was a tool that was used to expand the scope of civil liberties in favor of African Americans. Therefore, the use of the freedom of speech allowed African Americans to experience a higher level of freedom when it comes to their educational opportunities.

Before going any further, it is important to point out that one can also use his or her right to free speech as a means to limit or infringe on the rights of others. A negative example of how a society can use free speech to further undermine the rights and freedom of the marginalized members of the community can be seen in the oppressive environment in the Southern states at the height of Jim Crow laws. One can make the argument that the case Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S 537, came about as the members of the majority expressed their opinion against the members of the minority (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896).

In this case, the dominant group used their rights to discuss their anger and suspicion against former Negro slaves who were living among them. Their expression of disgust and annoyance succeeded in separating whites from blacks. In this example, the members of the dominant group used their right to express their ideas and created an oppressive culture. They used their freedom to speak out their thoughts in order to ridicule and make life miserable for African Americans living in the south.

They used their freedom to segregate blacks from whites, and eloquently explained the positive effects of such an arrangement. However, the separation went beyond the idea of promoting harmony, because many of the black folks were denied the freedom to use certain aspects of the state’s public transportation and other forms of public services. Therefore, one can say that free speech had a reverse effect and did not promote people’s civil liberties.

Conclusion

It has been established that the existence of a federal government through the concept of federalism created a legal and governmental framework that made it easier for American citizens to enjoy their fundamental rights as enshrined in the First Amendment. Thus, federalism paved the way for the efficient implementation of laws that secured free speech or the right to express ideas without the pain of punishment.

It has also been accepted that the appropriate exercise of the citizenry’s freedom of speech strengthened certain aspects of the population’s civil rights and civil liberties. Nevertheless, the inappropriate application of a person’s right to speak out his mind can also undermine other human beings civil rights and civil liberties. Therefore, this sobering realization calls for a greater appreciation of The First Amendment rights, especially the freedom of speech.

References

Allison, C. (2013). Voting rights legislation. Web.

Elonis v. United States, 575 U.S. _ (2015). Web.

Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 625. (1925). Web.

Lutz, M. (2017). The hidden cost of Brown v. Board: African American educator’s resistance to desegregating schools. Web.

Mercer, W. (2017). Diminishing Bill of Rights: Barron v. Baltimore and the foundation of American liberty. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537. (1896). Web.

Ruane, K. (2014). Freedom of speech and press: Exceptions to the First AmendmentWeb.

Schultz, D., & Vile, J. (2015). The encyclopedia of civil liberties in America. New York, NY: Routledge.

Trainer, M. (2017). Why religious freedom matters to Americans. Web.

Watts v. United States, 394 U.S. 705. (1969). Web.