The Inestimable Value of Speech

Free speech is an inalienable right assigned to mankind by their Creator. It is not a gift from our parents or our communities. It is most certainly not an endowment from the government, whose sacred duty it is to protect any God’s bequest of free speech to humanity. There is a need, however, to balance the palpable tension between the exercise of a citizen’s right to free speech and the public’s right to protection. I contend that society should always bend toward protection of free speech at all cost.

Yet, like everything in life, speech has its limits; in fact, those limits exist to protect all of us. We engage in great disservice to one another when we neglect those confines. As U.S Chief Justice John Roberts opined in a recent majority decision, speech can cause harm; it can and does hurt, wound, and damage, and our law should not pretend otherwise. Our constitutional commitment to free speech does not mean that speakers, thinkers, and writers have an absolute license.

Because of its inherent potential to cause harm, speech must exist within limits. Writing recently in the Boston Globe, Harvard professor Steven Pinker delineated the acceptable limits of speech, stating, “That is why we carve out exceptions for fraud, libel, extortion, divulging military secrets, and incitement to imminent lawless action. But these exceptions must be strictly delineated and individually justified; they cannot be an excuse to treat speech as one fungible good among many”.

It is our sacred duty as a democratic society to protect the most offensive, vile, vulgar, intimidating, repulsive, and unpalatable speech. It is the speech that angers us, the speech that hurts more than “ma cuss” – because ma cuss hurts more than “pa cuss” – it is that speech that stands in need of greater, vigilant protection. Speech that scares the living daylight out of us is the speech that stands in need of our best defense measures.

Speech is as divinely-bestowed as the air we breathe. Consequently, it demands our loyal allegiance and devoted stewardship.

Speech, free speech, is a fundamental right — one which, though not absolute, should be abrogated only in carefully circumscribed cases.

I can think of many reasons why speech is such a fundamental right in our democracy. For our purposes in this post, let’s consider three cardinal reasons. The first reason is that speech is indispensable for exchanging and evaluating ideas. And ideas are important building blocks for any successful society. Imagine for a moment what happens to the society that does not encourage the proliferation of ideas; such society has little prospect for prosperity and peace. I bet you would concede that Liberia has not been a society of ideas, at least not the kinds of ideas that move a civilized people forward. Speech, then, provides the ecology for ideas to be nourished and to flourish.

Second, speech is the best antidote to a so-say-one-so-say-all society. It is always best to encourage a plurality of voices because no one person has all the answers for society’s problems. Imagine a Liberia where oracles, soothsayers, prophets, pastors, medicine men, visionaries, imams, or gurus have been vouchsafed with the truth which only they possess and which the rest of us would be foolish, indeed criminal, to question. That is not the Liberia any of us would want to call home. In fact, the Liberian parable, “Two heads are better than one” explicitly argues for plurality of voices in public and private discourse.

A third reason that free speech is foundational to human flourishing is that it is essential to democracy and a bulwark against tyranny. How did the monstrous regimes of the 20th century gain and hold power? They squelched speech; they silenced their critics and adversaries. In fact, one of the proven weapons in the arsenals of totalitarians is the ability to not only silence but also criminalized any dissenting speech. There is a plethora of evidence in Liberian history for the suppression of speech. We cannot return to the dark days of anti-democratic practices that set the stage for the type of mayhem that commenced on December 24, 1989.

The national security argument is too often a decoy employed to suppress speech that is considered unpalatable or unfavorable to the powers that be. In fact, a society is secured to the extent that it values and protects free speech because the suppression of speech gives occasion for gossips, innuendos, misinformation, guesses, and as we say in Liberia, “They say.” An environment in which any of the aforementioned thrives is insecure and ripe for discontent.

Unfortunately, speech is too often viewed as an accelerant that ferments social unrest. It is rather the suppression of speech that agitates negative emotions. Speech is so integral to our national success and well-being that we have an obligation to safeguard, preserve, and defend it.

Imagine for a moment a Liberia in which speech did not exist, a place where no one spoke a single world. Imagine if we were all “gbo-gbos”, unable to communicate through the power of words and spoken language. How bizarre!

When we and our children cannot speak, we will not be able to think; when we cannot think, we will not innovate; when we fail to innovate, our economy incurs the consequences – it does not grow. We will be perpetually under-resourced and cannot meet the needs of our people. But as we exercise our right to free speech, be mindful that to whom much given, much is expected. Let’s speak freely with what the Creator has endowed us with, but not in a way that destroys the lives and country we either seek to change and preserve.

Your friend,
Peter

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