Rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution signed almost 230 years ago in Philadelphia have helped make America the most free, prosperous, and democratic country on earth. Those rights have stood the test of time through a bloody civil war, two devastating world wars, and tremendous social and technological change. You would think they’d be beyond challenge, but they are not.
Three core American rights are under attack today—the right to free speech, the right to freely participate in the political process, and the right to challenge government.
Intentionally or unintentionally, for good motives or bad, many people are trying to overregulate speech. They are trying to impose overly restrictive speech codes on our campuses and other institutions—and even use powerful arms of the government, such as the IRS, to discriminate against speech they don’t like. If we lose our constitutionally protected right to speak, it won’t be because we let some dictator yank it way. It will be because collectively we Americans let it slip away. We can’t let that happen. You get a voice in this country whether you’re rich or poor or popular or unpopular—even if what you say offends others.
Some business opponents have long sought to drive the voice of the business community out of the political process and the public debate. The idea here is to bring these companies’ political spending—which is free speech—into the open so that they can be targeted for harassment and boycotts. Proponents of such efforts claim that they are simply fighting for transparency. Don’t be fooled. What they really want is to silence viewpoints they don’t like in order to have a one-sided conversation with the American people in the public square.
One of our most basic rights is the ability to challenge the government. Yet, today, some who dare to call on government officials to defend their actions are shouted down in the public square. Fortunately, there are courageous individuals willing to stand up and fight back in the face of government’s all too frequent efforts to intimidate and silence. Former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg, for example, challenged the extraordinary actions taken by the government during the financial crisis, which everyone can agree were made in haste and involved billions of private citizen dollars. Incidentally, a judge agreed with Greenberg on the question of whether the government overstepped its bounds. Regardless of the outcome, the bottom line is that government must be accountable to the people every bit as much as the people are required to be accountable to government.
No one is certain who said it first, but eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Every generation must pay that price. The fight for freedom never ends.