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Free speech: Use it or lose it

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APRIL 13, 2023

Free speech is one of the pillars of democracy, not just in the United States, but worldwide. Without it, the voices necessary to keep governments accountable and guarantee human rights are left in darkness. 

Unfortunately, free speech is under attack, and in more places than you may think. Opportunistic and ill-willed authoritarians have become wise to the notion that letting people express themselves inevitably leads to the demise of their regimes. When only a single viewpoint is allowed to be expressed in a society, no matter how virtuous it is, it will eventually be corrupted by those in power who are no longer bound by ideological principles. 

The Tlatelolco Massacre in 1968 in Mexico serves as a poignant example of the fight for this fundamental right. Thousands of students, joined by professors, labor workers, parents and others, protested against the corrupt and authoritarian rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, during its 39th year of consecutive rule. The PRI, whose founders had been part of the revolution that overthrew the dictatorial government of President Porfirio Díaz, became oppressors themselves.

The Tlatelolco Massacre serves as a stark reminder of the importance of valuing and protecting free speech for the preservation of democracy, and it is our duty to protect it and foster it not only for ourselves but for future generations. 

However, efforts to restrict free speech are sadly not confined to the dustbin of history. Modern dictators are, if anything, more concerned about the deleterious effects dissenting speech can have on their regimes, given the advent of the internet. During times of crisis, authoritarian leaders often use the excuse of “national security” or “unity” to suppress dissenting opinions.

Immediately after he initiated his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin started harshly cracking down on a nascent anti-war protest movement that resulted in nearly 20,000 arrests nationwide. While Putin himself may have viewed this crackdown as a sign of his strength, it has, in reality, limited his options as Russian battlefield defeats mount. 

A very different outcome can be found in the United States regarding the Iraq War, one of the nation’s more controversial wars. In the months leading up to it, and for the duration of the war, there were well-organized anti-war protests involving various politically-minded groups. Notably, the U.S. government took comparatively little punitive action against them. 

Mounting public opposition to the war was one of the reasons why Barack Obama, who ran on ending U.S. involvement in Iraq, was able to win the 2008 presidential election. The U.S. formally withdrew in 2011, and just recently, both houses of Congress voted to repeal the initial authorization for the war. Their voice having been stolen by Putin, the Russian people will not have the same chance to end their own national quagmire. 

Make no mistake, the attack on freedom of speech is not exclusive to foreign countries. We in the United States are finding out the hard way how state power can be used to stifle viewpoints that a ruling party doesn’t like. Just last week, the Tennessee House of Representatives expelled two lawmakers. In the protests that would lead to their expulsion, Rep. Justin Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson called for gun reform in light of the Covenant School shooting during the legislature’s recess. When their microphones were cut, both lawmakers used bullhorns to express their grievances. Accused of violating decorum rules, the lawmakers faced a rare consequence. Few lawmakers have ever been expelled from the state house and others who have stood accused of more significant violations have faced lesser consequences if any; certainly not expulsion.

By expelling lawmakers whose only transgression was exercising their freedom of speech in a vociferously yet peaceful manner, the Tennessee state legislature is restricting the discourse so necessary to democracy. After all, it is only through debate that policy is formed, and policy is how the government serves its people. 

The status quo of any country or state cannot be expected to improve if the voices of its people, let alone its lawmakers, are suppressed. Such a precedent not only hinders discourse but may also result in lawmakers failing to serve the interests of their constituents for fear of similar punishment.

How, then, can we ensure that our own voices are not muzzled? Put simply, we need to speak up in order to safeguard our freedoms. Nowadays, with the advent of social media, making your voice heard online is a simple and easy thing to do. Physical action, like joining a protest or march, is similarly made easier by the internet-based dissemination of information by activist groups. If you care about anything, even if it isn’t political, speak your mind, and you will likely find that there are many others who share your opinion. 

When voices are raised in unison, they become infinitely stronger, so we encourage everyone who’s passionate about anything to find groups that share their passions and get involved however they can.

The Democracy Hawks are an on campus club who share the goal of protecting and strengthening democratic principles in the United States and worldwide. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

APRIL 23, 2023