Freedom and the Search for its Meaning

Lewis H. Lapham, former editor of Harper’s Magazine, once said that leadership “…imposes on both leader and follower alike the burdens of self-restraint.” In other words, self-control as a national value is vital in any democracy, especially in one such as ours with a powerful constitutional safeguard on expression.

Last week, President Obama offered us such a lesson on the First Amendment when an unexpected heckler managed to crash his invitation-only speech at National Defense University, shouting to him about the prisoners on hunger strike at Guantanamo and the importance of closing the facility. POTUS let her talk for a minute and encouraged the audience to listen to what she had to say. When he asked to finish his point, she continued to persist. Obama finally stopped her, “Part of free speech,” he said, “is…you listening.”

The miracle of modern technology has given voice to the unheard and empowered the weak. It has created new communities, and opened the door for an unprecedented level of dialogue among other citizens and strangers. It has connected people who’ve lost touch. It has made once lonely people feel part of a bigger social circle.

It has also amplified the noisiest among us and turned people who had once valued social skills into distracted, self-absorbed citizens. No one seems to be listening any more—to anybody on any issue. If they were, empathy, persuasion and open-mindedness might have a chance in contemporary life. Instead, increasing numbers of people believe that influence is about shouting the loudest.

In this context, the First Amendment of the Constitution is now being increasingly evoked—some would say abused—at nearly every turn. This is the price, perhaps, of failing to provide more than a half a semester of civics for students in most of the nation’s high schools. Earlier generations, at least, were steeped in the notion that there is no freedom without responsibility.

The Washington Post’s venerable national security columnist, Walter Pincus, wrote this week about the leaking of highly sensitive national security documents. “When will journalists take responsibility for what they do without circling the wagons and shouting that the First Amendment is under attack?” he asked. Citing a case currently under investigation, he points out that “…I believe the First Amendment covers the right to publish information, but it does not grant blanket immunity for how that information is gathered.”  It does not, he went on, include breaking the law.

On another front, federal law enforcement officers have also been investigating a former U.S. Marine and several active-duty Marines for posting threatening and “lewd” messages aimed at President Obama and Congressman Jackie Speier (D-CA). According to USA Today, when Speier apparently reported this to the authorities, these same bloggers “referred to her in vulgar terms and accused her of trampling their First Amendment rights.”

We will find out in the coming months the results of these two cases. But President Obama is right in a larger sense. There is a flip side to our rights. Freedom belongs to everyone, not just to those who outspokenly “exercise” their rights. Constitutional protection may assure you a lot, but it was not intended – as Obama pointed out – to be a license to scream without listening. It does not give the media the right to break the law for the sake of a scoop. Nor was it created so you could slander someone or gratuitously ruin another person’s image or reputation just to get attention. Without responsibility and self-control, the road that lies ahead leads to strife, an erosion of our collective security and safety—and possibly chaos.

Senator Elihu Root, one of this nation’s greatest public servants, summed it up best just after the turn of the twentieth century. “Religion, the philosophy of morals, the teaching of history, and the experience of every human life point to the same conclusion—that in the practical conduct of life the most difficult and necessary virtue is self-restraint.”

It is only in this way that democracy, and the fairness that it promises, can thrive.


Cornell Law School has this to say about the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States:

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. Freedom of expression consists of the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and the implied rights of association and belief. The Supreme Court interprets the extent of the protection afforded to these rights. The First Amendment has been interpreted by the Court as applying to the entire federal government even though it is only expressly applicable to Congress. Furthermore, the Court has interpreted, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as protecting the rights in the First Amendment from interference by state governments.

8 thoughts on “Freedom and the Search for its Meaning

  1. Brava!!! With rights come responsibilities, but from every part of culture we hear demands for rights but failure to accept responsibility. Thank you for this excellent essay.

  2. Susan reminds us of a basic tenant of democracy – listening. The Founding Fathers took inspiration not from the Tower of Babel, but Athens. The President gave an affirmative reminder of listening in the NDU incident. Would that the cage-rattlers and loud mouths of the right and left would balance their broadsides with thoughtful listening.

    However, the self restraint Susan calls for is beyond the reach of legal sanction. It can be encouraged (and enforced) by something far more powerful, leadership. True leadership inspires the right action of others. I recall a close friend back in the 70s who, when told a racist joke, would say “I am disappointed in you” and walk away. His actions had far more power for good than railing against the joker or censuring wrongheaded speech.

    The First Amendment is a platform to speak. Each of us must work personally to balance that right with a culture of listening.

  3. Thank you, Susan, for again offering your wonderful insights.

    Part of what’s so challenging about the situation as you describe it is that there is no way to legislate decorum or a sense of decency. The difficulty also lies in the lack of willingness to listen to viewpoints that differ from one’s own, or to acknowledge that, since politics is the art of the possible, one will rarely entirely get one’s own way. In that sense, the problem is one of a kind of lack of maturity: we need to grow up – some perhaps more than others, but all of us to some degree or another.

    Put another way, one could say that your column poses very useful questions about self-government on the individual level: Am I willing to accept the idea that I have not just rights but also responsibilities and then to live with the implications of those responsibilities, even when it is hardest? Perhaps this is what President Obama meant when he talked about “the role of citizen” and referred to “the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”

    And it also seems that the demand is even greater for those who have more power or authority. In that sense, those whom I most hope will read what you’ve written and take it to heart are not just individual citizens, but those whose decisions and actions shape the lives of so many others.

  4. Susan, you have written a new basic primer for Americans. Simple, clear and to the heart of what differentiates an American from the rest of the world. I pray this is read by young and old and pondered. Thank you for the reminder.


  6. Excellent as always Susan…RIGHT ON TARGET! I think another real questions is, WHEN will Journalists STOP being REPORTERS and be JOURNALISTS…who TELL the TRUTH!
    Never before have we witnessed so much personal SPIN from the media…It’s a confusion tactic that has people especially on the Social medias in such discord. Folks lead a fast paced life and pick up the quickest “post” and take it as total fact. Many times, the distortion spreads like wildfire and is based on untruths… Responsibility is key.

    “It is only in this way that democracy, and the fairness that it promises, can thrive.”

    Thank You Susan for this thoughtful series of points. 🙂

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