Freedom of Speech by Donalyn Miller
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
–First Amendment, U.S. Constitution
The United States Constitution stands as one of the most influential, forward-thinking, and debated documents in human history. Through amendments, including the Bill of Rights, we advance America’s commitment to equality for all citizens. Over 200 years after it was written, we continue to reference and interpret the Constitution— working to ensure that everyone has unrestricted access to the rights we were promised.
As Gandhi said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable.” In too many parts of America, we have broken our promises. How we treat our elderly, poor, sick, marginalized, and young people define our national identity and reveal our true values and beliefs.
We cannot take our rights and freedoms for granted and expect to keep them. Each of us must determine the role we play in defending and supporting the rights of all Americans. We all have skin in the game. This isn’t about politics. It’s about human decency and dignity. As author Jason Reynolds said, “You cannot live your best life unless we can all live our best lives. You cannot be your best self unless I can be my best self.” We cannot separate self-interest from the greater good and continue to live in a free and equal society.
Over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, I participated in Heinemann’s annual Inquiry Institute in New Orleans. This institute gives educators instruction and practice in how to develop inquiry explorations for students around social justice and cultural issues. The day before the institute, faculty members visited the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana. Unlike many plantation museums and tours, which glamorize the opulent lifestyle of wealthy white plantation families, the Whitney Plantation focuses solely on the experiences of enslaved people in Louisiana—the only plantation museum of its kind in the state.
As an English teacher, I was particularly moved by the stories of children, who were often taken from their parents, forced into harsh labor at a young age, and denied educational opportunities. First-person narratives of slaves collected by The Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930’s illustrate how the refusal to teach slaves reading and writing skills (and the harsh punishments for anyone caught doing so) was a powerful institutional tool employed to deny enslaved people fundamental rights and freedoms. Without literacy, we cannot achieve our full potential as citizens and human beings.
No matter how inclusive Society becomes, there will always be a group whose rights are necessarily restricted. Children do not attain their full citizenship until the age of eighteen (and in some cases, twenty-one). Children cannot exercise their free will. They cannot live where they want or choose their schools. They cannot own property or access health and social services on their own. We limit children’s rights because we believe we are protecting or benefitting them. We promise to care for them. We promise to help children achieve their full potential. Children depend on us to protect and secure their freedoms for them.
Free speech ensures the free flow of ideas and self-expression promised by the Bill of Rights. This First Amendment right guarantees access to a free press, to peacefully protest, to hold our government accountable, and protects our ability to read, write, and say what we want.
Freedom of speech is also recognized as a fundamental human right in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states, “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
Like all rights, we restrict freedom of speech in ways that benefit and protect a civil, moral, and fair society. We cannot use our free speech rights to infringe the rights of another. We cannot yell, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We consider hate speech, death threats, treason, slander, plagiarism, obscenity, and lying during sworn testimony prohibited forms of speech. It’s a tricky balance. How do we protect and uphold our free speech rights and impose limitations only so far as these rules serve every citizen?
Teachers, librarians, artists, journalists, and publishers must commit to protecting freedom of speech rights for all citizens. We have a responsibility to model and teach how to evaluate sources of information for accuracy, credibility, bias, and agenda. In a world flooded with information where anyone with Internet access and a phone can launch a revolution or spread a rumor, critical literacy skills are the most important skills we aren’t teaching enough. We need our librarians more than ever.
We have a responsibility to include as many voices and perspectives as possible when exploring issues and ideas. We must not pass judgments against those who have different perspectives and experiences than ours. How are diverse voices represented? What we exclude matters just as much as what we include. Whose voice is missing? The absence of a voice is a judgment against it.
We have a responsibility to encourage children to develop personal identities away from outside influence. What we read and hear shapes our identities and how we see the world. When we restrict or define every act of reading and writing children do, we deny them self-agency to develop their own identities. This isn’t education; it’s indoctrination. When we force school children to watch or read propaganda, when we deny children opportunities to read, write, and say what they want, we infringe their rights. We must be able to justify why we are doing so.
The opposite of freedom of speech is censorship and we must fight it in every form. The American Library Association and Office of Intellectual Freedom define censorship as the “suppression of information and ideas” which includes limiting access to points of view and materials deemed objectionable by certain groups. While censors and critics have a right to protest just like any other citizen, they do not have the right to impose their views on others in ways that limit their rights to free speech. When we remove materials from libraries and classrooms or refuse to include these materials in the first place, when we narrow children’s access to certain texts and points of view, when we value certain perspectives over others, we become censors.
This weekend, I attended the Texas Council of Teachers of English conference in Fort Worth, Texas. Hundreds of literacy professionals gathered to share ideas, network with colleagues, celebrate the artists who write and illustrate for children, and advance our understanding of teaching and learning. On Saturday, less than block from the convention hotel, peaceful protestors marched through downtown Fort Worth proclaiming our shared commitment to defending the rights of all people. Many educators joined the march—exercising our free speech rights as citizens and reinforcing education’s role in ensuring the strength of our democracy.
Whether you agree with the reasons behind the Women’s Marches around the globe or not, we must honor the rights of free people to express their opinions without fear of retribution or censorship. **As English writer Beatrice Evelyn Hall wrote in her 1906 biography on Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Our rights to free speech do not require universal agreement in thought and word or acceptance of those who infringe these rights.
Who benefits when artists, journalists, educators, critics, publishers, and our most vulnerable lose their voices?
Who benefits when our right to exercise free speech is seen as unpatriotic or dangerous?
Who benefits when children receive unequal access to information and ideas?
As people dedicated to the literacy lives of children, we have a responsibility to protect freedom of speech rights and do our part to ensure all children can attain their full promise as literate citizens of our great country and the world.
**This quote is often attributed incorrectly to Voltaire himself, but historians believe Ms. Hall used these words to describe Voltaire, not cite his actual words.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.