Lois Barry

Union County Progressives/Democrats

A s Americans, we’re born with the right to speak and publish freely without censorship or fear of reprisal. It’s a gift, and because we didn’t have to ask for it or wait for it, much less die for it as others around the world are willing to do, we take it for granted. It is literally the “First” of our Constitutional rights. Without free speech our democracy cannot survive.

Our concept of free speech was formed by the Greeks about 2,500 years ago. They established every citizen’s right to address elected officials as an equal as well as the right “to courageously speak honest truth” to any public gathering, no matter how offensive the information might be.

Later they added the important expectation that public speech should be logical and reasonable.

Those three concepts formed our Constitutional ideal of free speech. At that time, philosophers defined free speech as “the intellectual freedom to participate in the public exchange of arguments.” As printed news became available, uncensored political news was soon so valued that it was considered the fourth branch of government, essential to revealing and preventing corruption. In the last 25 years, 1,892 journalists have died in the service of truth, providing the world with accurate accounts of events.

Unfortunately, our cherished concepts of free speech are no longer clear. Just as our attitudes toward immigration have changed since the Statue of Liberty was erected, Congress and the Courts may soon be discussing aspects of free speech. Since 2010, corporations and interest groups have spent freely to influence our thinking, and now the unregulated internet offers a limitless public forum. We face important decisions about net neutrality, and the problems of dark posts, rabble-rousing epidemics of misinformation and Russian corruption of social media.

Another problem is our lying president who views the press “as the enemy of America” and dismisses honest coverage as “fake news,” while his alt-right followers manufacture false accusations and threatening scenarios. As we face demanding national problems, Trump’s documented lies are destabilizing our society.

He attempts to discredit journalists, judges, scientists, the FBI and members of Congress who speak out against his fabrications. Who should we believe? These individuals whose expertise and experience have earned national respect? Or Trump?

By meddling with our trust and attention, he has not literally censored free speech, but he has profoundly degraded it. This president is a danger to our democracy. That’s my honest, thoughtful opinion. Thanks to the First Amendment, I can express it without fear of being arrested.

The National Holocaust Museum displays the 12 Early Warning Signs of Fascism: “Powerful nationalism;
disdain for human rights; identification of enemies as a unifying cause; rampant sexism; controlled mass media; obsession with national security; religion and government intertwined; corporate
power protected; labor power suppressed; disdain for intellectuals and the arts; obsession with crime and punishment; rampant cronyism and corruption.” Sound familiar? Be warned.

To protect our priceless right to free speech, we need to listen and read skeptically as well as speak responsibly. If you doubt anything I’ve written, Google “the 10 best fact-checking sites.” In these times of rampant misinformation, they are invaluable assets.

Trump’s administration has replaced honest, reasonable debate with simplistic slogans. Immigration: “Build the wall!” Climate change: “Fake news!” Mass shootings: “Arm teachers!”

As thoughtful defenders of our right to free speech, we must elect leaders who value open discussion of complicated issues and ask: Is it a priority? What are the options? Consequences of action or no action? Who benefits and who pays: Individuals? Corporations? The environment? Future generations?

Fortunately, we will soon have an opportunity to exercise and protect our free speech. A Candidates Forum is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. March 22 at La Grande Middle School. Every candidate for Congressional District 2 has been invited, and most will attend. Listen critically. Ask questions. Form opinions. Discuss your decisions. Vote wisely.