“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” ~ Voltaire
While I still think this may be one of the greatest quotes in the history of democracy, I always assumed it was uttered by a famous personage from the Revolutionary War — from one of our Founding Fathers.
Ah, but we have a large sign in the newsroom that says to “never assume” … that it has the potential to make an “ass (of) u (and) me.”
Yet, in researching the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and other subsequent amendments, it became as clear as muddy water that British author Evelyn Beatrice Hall passed along this quote gleaned from French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher François-Marie Arouet — commonly known as Voltaire.
If it was Voltaire, or whomever first uttered the words is not the point — it’s the words themselves.
They go right to the heart of American democracy and the First Amendment.
Now, I firmly doubt one in 1,000 Americans can tell you exactly how many amendments there are to the U.S. Constitution — it may be one in 10,000, who knows.
Or that 33 amendments to the Constitution have been proposed by Congress, and that six were never ratified over the course of our nation’s history. The 18th — Prohibition — was repealed by the 21st.
The first 10 amendments to the Constitution collectively are called the Bill of Rights — sacred to our democracy, to our government and our way of life.
We have the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms; and we have the Sixth Amendment, the right to a fair trial.
We are in the midst of one of our amendments — the 12th — since it deals with presidential elections; the 13th abolished slavery; the 16th deals with income taxes; the 19th granted the vote to women.
The 27th and last dealt with congressional pay — and I think Congress slipped that one past us.
But the First Amendment is first for a reason. It is by far the most important, and without it, none of the other 26 amendments have nearly the weight or substance.
The First Amendment is that important.
And for all its importance, it is short and sweet and to the point.
“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.”
This nation was founded on these bedrock principles, and to breach them in any way — to me — goes against everything the Founding Fathers, the Continental Army and Americans of the 13 Colonies fought, bled, suffered and died for those many years ago.
There are scores of famous quotes throughout American history that affirm and re-affirm the First Amendment.
My favorite is from President Harry Truman: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
Or this quote, from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas: “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”
Again, great words, but also a great warning.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” The words from President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address — perhaps the most famous speech in American history — ring out today amidst the super-heated rhetoric over the office of the presidency and the Nov. 8 election, as they did for Lincoln in 1860.
Free speech debate, protected by the First Amendment, is the only way Americans can look at this election, or any of our daily endeavors.
Yet, free speech and free thought come with caveats, that the speech not be so intemperate, or that our position or thoughts are such that we only consider one side of the debate without truly taking the time to listen to an opposing view.
I’ve quoted this before, and I will quote it to my dying breath, from the late Professor Tibbie Shades, who hailed from my neck of the woods — “Always listen to what the other guy has to say, because he may just be right.”
His words are as astute and genuine and thought-provoking as any president, supreme court justice or philosopher.
Americans who don’t head them, do so at their peril — and the peril of American democracy.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle.