With its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen penned by freedom fighters at the end of the French revolution in 1789, the “inalienable right” to freedom of speech was expressed: The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.
Most of us have a passing familiarity with our own founder’s attempts to instill a defense against the oppression of the prevailing view in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Even England asserted a freedom of speech in Parliament in its Bill of Rights of 1689. When in Rwanda a few years ago, I witnessed the traditional communal courts where people of “integrity” gather on gacaca grass to hear the open testimony of all parties to a dispute seeking a community-based (and community-supported) resolution.
After the genocide the Rwandan courts were overwhelmed with the masses to be processed. They employed these traditional methods to help dispense with some of the lesser matters. One of the most common criticisms was the potential for witness intimidation. The community had to value the freedom to express a viewpoint without retribution for the process to function.
In recent U.S. history, Joseph McCarthy exploited fear about communism to jail, subvert, take property or make a pariah of any who dared to express their freedom to communicate a view unsupported by the majority. Would the hundreds of artists, business leaders and just plain-old folk who were labeled and outcast because of a careless remark, identify more with Clippers owner Donald Sterling or NBA Commissioner Adam Silver? Can other people say things even if we don’t like it?