Typography

This week, University of Kansas communications professor emeritus Paul Friedman and I split the stage at the Sedona Public Library to discuss free speech for Banned Books Week.

As both a newspaper editor and a performance poet, I enjoy any opportunity to speak on the topics of journalism and poetry. Groups that have invited me to lecture usually ask me to speak on the dual topics, which collectively serve as prime examples of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and expression.

While Americans view free speech as our most sacred civil right, it was almost an afterthought. Within 60 years of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440, books were already being banned.

The Index Expurgatorius contained a list of books the Catholic Church explicitly banned from publication. Many of these titles were published illegally or in countries where the church had less authority and then smuggled throughout Europe.

In England, free speech had long been permitted but it wasn’t until Parliament ousted King James II in 1688 and invited Mary III and William of Orange to assume the throne that it was made statutory law for members of Parliament in the Declaration of Right of 1689. Free speech was a tenuous right for commoners, but the crown generally only prosecuted blasphemy against the Church of England and attacks on the government as seditious libel. Unlike modern libel laws, the actual truth of statement attacking the government or an official was not defense.

In the wilds of British America, lax enforcement of anti-government libel created a generation of colonists for whom free speech on secular matters was a natural, unalienable right. Blasphemy, however, was still prosecuted often.

After the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation devolved most individual rights to the states, many of which had bills of rights protecting free speech, the press, the right to protest and forbidding the establishment of religion. The articles were scrapped in 1789 and the states presented with a new Constitution.

As it went out for ratification, proponents Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, known as the Federalists, argued forcefully for ratification. Meanwhile a group dubbed “Antifederalists” stirred up fears that the new national government threatened individual liberty.

The Massachusetts Convention secured a gentleman’s agreement for the addition of a bill of rights after ratification — a similar deal was struck with the five states that ratified after Massachusetts. In Rhode Island, an armed mob of 1,000 men marched to Providence demanding a similar compromise.

“There is even reason to believe that the Bill of Rights was more the chance product of political expediency on all sides than of principled commitment to personal liberties,” constitutional historian Leonard W. Levy wrote.

After the 10 Amendments in the Bill of Rights were ratified in 1791, free speech remained one of the least-litigated rights. The first Supreme Court cases regarding free speech were not brought before the court until 1919, all involving questions about anti-war activity. Since then, the tenets, definitions, allowances and prohibitions of free speech and expression have been argued in 154 cases, with each ruling further clarifying our first and most fundamental right.

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