The Freedom of Expression is the Most Important Right in the First Amendment

Created: 11 October, 2016
Updated: 21 November, 2022
6 min read

How much influence the average citizen has on the policies of our government is a common debate. As our politicians seem so far removed from the everyday lives of the masses, one has to question how society sways elected officials toward a desired direction.

Awareness of the issues is without a doubt vital and activism is just as important. How we achieve both has been consistent throughout American history. That being public forums, gatherings, and the press.

Despite this evolving through different formats over time -- newspapers, radio, television, and today social media -- the fundamental effects have not been altered. Public widespread knowledge, as well as debate of an elected official’s actions or proposals, equates to influence over those actions or proposals. It gives the populace more than simply a mere voice to be heard, but a role as a decision maker in political affairs.

One can see these tools being utilized in Colonial America and into the present. The trial of John Peter Zenger is the perfect example of one of the early debates on the power, legal aspects, as well as the fear government officials have of expression in the early 18th century.

Zenger, a printer accused of publishing writings in the New York Weekly Journal illustrating the wrongdoings of the governor, William Cosby, was put on trial. The trial is significant because the printer was acquitted by his peers. It was not because of his innocence or lack of innocence under the laws of the time (in this case seditious libel). Rather, Zenger was acquitted because of the jury’s realization that the ability to publicly highlight as well as critique a government’s actions at any level shifts the balance of power to the people.

As eloquently stated by James Alexander:

“The loss of liberty in general would soon follow the suppression of the liberty of the press; for it is an essential branch of liberty, so perhaps it is the best preservative of the whole.  Even a restraint of the press would have a fatal influence.  No nation ancient or modern has ever lost the liberty of freely speaking, writing or publishing their sentiments, but forthwith lost their liberty in general and became slaves.”

As most historians have argued, the outcome is notable because it set a precedent. The importance of any precedent is that it typically changes some aspect of society that is understood to be difficult to alter. They can be found in multiple contexts, legal, social, and others.

More to the point, advantageous or not, with this new change it often proves difficult to revert back to the status quo. In considering the aforementioned story, one has to question that despite our social and cultural advancements, how may it be applied to 21st century policy?

The question of freedom’s limits and the role public expression plays in enhancing them has been a continued debate throughout the entirety of the American historical record. Civil liberties consistently evolve in contemporary America. This may be illustrated by the ongoing controversy of government intervention in American lives in an effort to keep them safe from terror.

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In 2013, Edward Snowden, a contractor for the National Security Agency, brought to light the proof of large-scale surveillance and record keeping on communications of U.S. citizens. The lack of any real probable cause was a consequential issue. Snowden argued that a society cannot have absolute security along with progressive freedom, a justification for his course of action. However, the more relevant idea one should take away from this story is the resulting new precedent and the catalyst for such.

As of 2015, the result has been that lawmakers passed new legislation, the USA Freedom Act. This does renew certain aspects of the Patriot Act, which initially enhanced the legality of surveillance with a goal of inhibiting terrorism. Many argued that the bill allowed for a regression of citizens' rights.

Nevertheless, the Freedom Act places more narrowly defined limitations on this needed federal surveillance. Greater transparency, advocacy for the citizen’s privacy, and more focused surveillance are a few of its hallmarks. While longstanding rights of the citizenry have been strengthened, Snowden’s means to achieve this end continue to be debated.

As many high level officials argue the proper legal channels would have led to a resolution, one should question a few aspects. Why would any administration and government agencies who were aware of, partially aware, and/or mandating this overreach, in turn reveal this breach of trust to the electorate? The very people that awarded them or their superior’s a station in government.

Again, making someone aware of something that they are already aware of does not coincide with a new result. Still, the catalyst for this legislative compromise, the Freedom Act, was multifaceted.

Snowden was not the first to voice these concerns; two vital elements were still missing in order for effective legislation to occur. The first was the wealth of proof to corroborate the accusations. Snowden’s leaked documents from the NSA provided this evidence. The second and perhaps most important is the very tactic that has enhanced freedom throughout all civilization. This being public awareness and the debate that follows.

While media in all contemporary formats contributed to this extensive dialogue, The Guardian, in 2013, was the forerunner. With widespread awareness of this breach of trust in the modern era, what elected official can justify asking for a future vote, while failing to act? This is truly equivalent to the Weekly Journal’s work, close to three centuries earlier.

In the midst of the Zenger Trial, the colonial public concluded that the status quo was unacceptable, based on the prominent dialogue occurring at the time. These two cases are vastly different topics separated by time and scale of the regions involved. Yet, both fall under the same umbrella of freedom.

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Ultimately, a new 21st century national precedent was set in regards to surveillance. However, without the press and public expression found within it, there is no opportunity to even disagree with this point.

I always ask my students which they believe: do laws dictate changes in society or does society dictate laws? Most correctly argue the latter.

Despite laws or their absence that contradict the consensus of the masses, history proves that public advocacy will indeed direct legislation as well as comprehensive changes in society over time. The various eras in U.S. history give countless examples, from Lewis Hine’s work on the use of child labor, to contemporary journalists covering the uprooted lives of non-combatants in the conflicts around the world.

Today, how news and public opinion reaches the masses shows a changing context, as social media affords individuals with a voice to create change.

Along with social reform, public dialogue is also the barricade that serves to keep your government at bay. Free speech is the catalyst that leads to all progression and the retention of freedoms. Yet, by its inferred meaning, your freedom of expression is undoubtedly the very liberty that protects your First Amendment.

Free speech is always defended by expression. Thereby, in an effort to advance our democratic ideals, let us remember to continue to express them.

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