by LAUREN ROBEL
Free speech, said the Supreme Court years ago, is “the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other freedom.”
A democratic republic’s continued existence depends on our access to information, and our ability to discuss that information with others to make informed decisions about the people who represent us. It depends on our freedom to dissent, to criticize, and to hold those in power accountable. Freedom of expression, undergirded by freedom of the press, protects freedom of thought, the central aspect of our identities, of who we are and how we choose to live. If we are not free to read, to learn, and to speak, we are not free.
It is the first thing to go in autocracies. Teach a people to fear the consequences of their own words; train a nation to distrust all sources of information but the government; malign and punish those who speak critically or dissent from the government’s view of things—then power cannot be held to account and a people cannot engage in self-government. Tolerance degrades. Pluralism becomes impossible. Thought is stifled. Only one viewpoint is permitted.
Freedom of speech depends on our government and those who wield its power respecting and supporting its role and understanding that democracies are noisy, fractious places whose citizens think and speak for themselves. We have had a tacit if imperfect understanding in this country that our government and its agents respect our right as citizens to facts, opinions, and dissent. This understanding is corrupted when daily presidential tweets attack private citizens by name for their words, repeatedly call the press “FAKE” and “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE,” and disparage peaceful dissenters as “CRIMINALS.” It is degraded when the enormous and unmatchable power of federal office is used to threaten individuals and subject them to the threat of violence from others on the basis of their expressed political viewpoints. It is undermined by executive orders against speech platforms that have the audacity to question the truth of a presidential statement. Without the restraint of government leaders, a people can quickly lose the ability to restrain themselves or to tolerate those with whom they disagree. We can fairly ask whether we are, as a nation, better or worse off in this regard than we were four years ago.
The First Amendment was first for a reason. It exists to keep our government and its agents from destroying the conditions necessary for democratic self-government. A government that does not lead its people toward tolerance and open debate leads them away from democracy. We have reason to question, and to resist, which direction our current leaders are taking us in this next election.
Note: These are Lauren Robel’s personal views and not those of Indiana University. She is the Val Nolan Professor of Law at the IU Maurer School of Law and provost of the IU–Bloomington campus. She teaches constitutional law and litigation and the law of federal courts.