The fight for free speech intensifies as threats escalate

The fight for free speech intensifies as threats escalate
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America’s democracy was founded on free speech and expression. “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved,” wrote Founding Father Benjamin Franklin.

Those who founded our nation understood that a citizen’s ability to speak freely, without fear, is critical to the success of our democracy and they granted us this right in the U.S. Constitution.

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As a citizenry body, Americans overwhelmingly support the First Amendment and its guaranteed freedoms — specifically, 77 percent, according to the Freedom Forum. When it comes to the role of the media in our society, 68 percent of Americans believe it’s crucial they act as a watchdog.

However, in an abundance of opportunity to speak and be heard, Americans have not yet navigated the uncertain terrain of this guaranteed right. Challenges to free speech still exist. We see the voices of students being censored on campus, newsrooms and journalists under threat of physical assault, and the value of truth to a victim of those waging partisan attacks.

According to the latest U.S. Press Freedom Tracker report, threats to our First Amendment rights are escalating at an alarming rate.

In 2018, 35 attacks affecting 42 journalists occurred across the nation. The U.S. Department of Justice charged four federal employees for disclosing government information to the press, an increase from only one in 2017. The report also found that journalists were more frequently prohibited from reporting information in their possession in 2018 versus 2017.

It’s no wonder that more Americans are concerned about their First Amendment rights than at any time in the past 25 years.

We know that dissent is critical to democracy, but over the past year we have witnessed our fair share of First Amendment violations that bring these statistics to life.

In Washington, D.C., lawyer Ted Boutrous took on the White House in court on behalf of CNN after Jim Acosta’s press pass was revoked without cause.

In Covington, Ky., Holy Cross High School valedictorian Christian Bales was barred from speaking at his high school graduation ceremony after school officials took issue with his message.

In Atlanta, Dr. George Luber faced potential termination from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for refusing to cancel a conference on climate change with Al Gore at the direction of his superiors.

In Langhorne, Pa., Grace Marion fought against both compelled speech and rampant censorship while a reporter and editor-in-chief of her high school paper The Playwickian, after school officials compelled students against their wishes to include particular information in articles and prevented the publication of a dozen articles.

And the list goes on.

Now more than ever, we must be vigilant in our protection of this most sacred American right and celebrate those who stand up for freely expressing ourselves and accessing all avenues of truth.

One way we do that is to formally honor several of these free-speech fighters each year.

In my father’s name, the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation honors individuals each year for their courage to protect the First Amendment. Carefully selected from hundreds of nominations, a panel of judges selected seven individuals to recognize and receive an award today at the Newseum in Washington. This year’s honorees, including Boutrous, Bales, Luber and Marion, challenged censorship and fought to protect their right to free speech and expression.  

My father, Hugh Hefner, said he wanted to “live in a society where people can voice unpopular opinions” because, as a result, “our country grows and matures.” It’s a sentiment more important than ever as we continue to strengthen our constitutional right to free speech and expression.

In 2019, it is unfathomable that we still struggle to maintain our right to free speech, but these individuals, when challenged, chose to honor their convictions and stand up to censorship.

To those who occupy seats of authority, from the highest level of government to local schools, join with us in our defense and celebration of that most steadfast and indispensable value of our democracy — free speech.

Christie Hefner is founder and chairman of the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation, established in 1964 to work on behalf of individual rights in a democratic society. The foundation supports organizations that advocate for and defend civil rights and civil liberties, wutg emphasis on First Amendment rights and rational sex and drug policies. Follow on Twitter @hmhfoundation1.