Free speech heroes and villains

Here and Now

This story was originally covered by PRI’s Here and Now. For more, listen to the audio above.

First Amendment heroes “are those who are willing to say what they think and to take the risk of saying what they think,” according to William Bennett Turner, attorney and author of the new book “Figures Of Speech.” His book tells the story of first amendment heroes, many of whom were extremely unpopular. He says, “free-speech controversies are by definition about unpopular speech — speech that the majority of people don’t want to hear.”

“Free speech villains are those who suppress speech, or in the case of judges those who are too willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt,” Turner told PRI’s Here and Now. And there are plenty of those in the world, too.

There are many misconceptions about the First Amendment that Turner tries to clear up. For one thing, some people think that churches, newspapers or companies can violate the First Amendment. Not true, says Turner. “Only government can violate the First Amendment. And a lot of people just get that wrong.”

So Facebook can silence offensive speech on the website, but it’s not violating the First Amendment.

There is a “a very troubling ignorance about our system and where our civil rights and civil liberties come from,” according to Turner. One poll cited by Turner said that “half of high school students think that the newspapers aught not to be able to publish without government approval.” Another poll found that “two-thirds of Americans can name at least one judge of American Idol, whereas only 1 in 10 knows who the chief justice of the United States is.”

“Certainly we do,” take our freedom of speech for granted, according to Turner. “And never should because our freedoms are very fragile. They hang by a thread of a 5-4 majority on the United States Supreme Court because what the first amendment means is what the Supreme Court says it means.”


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