Freedom of Expression Takes the Field

This year, Four Freedoms Park has been celebrating the 75th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's pivotal Four Freedoms speech, for which this memorial is named. This blog post is the first in a four-part series celebrating each of these four freedoms in a modern context. 

FDR gave his eighth State of the Union address on January 6, 1941, as the United States was preparing for war against the Axis powers (the country entered World War II in December, 1941). In this speech, FDR emphasized individual liberties protected by the U.S. Bill of Rights and offered these cherished freedoms as the basis for a just, secure, and peaceful world. Specifically, he called out four fundamental human freedoms: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of worship. In the peaceful future world FDR envisioned, these freedoms would prevail everywhere—the opposite of dictators’ racist, violent suppressions of liberty.

The Four Freedoms inscribed on the granite wall of the Park's "Room." Photo © Paul Warchol.

The Four Freedoms inscribed on the granite wall of the Park's "Room." Photo © Paul Warchol.

That future world was not a far off millennium, but "a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation." And indeed, FDR’s four freedoms are still incredibly important in our world today. Each generation has a responsibility to define and fight for these freedoms anew, to affirm the kind of people we are, and to shape how we want our world to be.

The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.

Freedom of speech and expression may be the most well-known of the four freedoms, often cited by pundits, students, courts, reporters, and activists. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, freedom of expression “is the foundation of a vibrant democracy, and without it, other fundamental rights, like the right to vote, would wither away.”

The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights protects freedom of speech and expression (as well as freedom of the press and the rights to peaceably assemble, practice religion, and petition the government). The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that freedom of speech covers rights such as the right not to speak (i.e. not to salute the flag), to use offensive language to convey political messages, engage in symbolic speech (i.e. burn the flag), and for students to protest in school. The court has also prohibited limitations on freedom of speech and expression on the internet.

As our world has changed, new challenges to freedom of speech and expression have arisen in the media, arts, online, in the ways that people protest injustices, and the way that the U.S. government conducts surveillance and tries to keep our country safe. It can be a fine line between national security and censorship, as the controversial WikiLeaks’ release of classified government material shows. In general, the internet has created new ways to connect, share information, and express ourselves. Yet it can also be used to collect private information and commercialize our digital interactions.

Recent examples of threats to freedom of speech and expression include a New Hampshire law banning ballot selfies (which was overturned by a federal court), North Dakota ’s actions against the people (mostly Native Americans) peacefully protesting the oil pipeline, and public reactions to San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem.

Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem during pre-season NFL games in August to protest the numerous police shootings of unarmed black people. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." This became a huge news story and other people—sports players, students, even members of the military—joined the protest. Backlash against Kaepernick has made him the most disliked player in the NFL as some interpret his actions as disrespecting the American flag, the police, and veterans.

Courtesy flickr by Brook Ward

Courtesy flickr by Brook Ward

The public is divided on whether celebrities and sports players have an obligation to use their influence for social good or whether they should just keep quiet and do what they are paid to do. There’s a long history of political activism among athletes (Muhammed Ali is one example), but athletes who speak up risk losing important endorsements and even their jobs.

President Obama has even weighed in on Kaepernick’s protest, saying “I believe that us honoring our flag and our anthem is part of what binds us together as a nation. But I also always try to remind folks that part of what makes this country special is that we respect people's rights to have a different opinion." Obama encouraged each side to listen to each other and think about how their actions may be causing pain. 

Political protest can be powerful and achieve real results. Kaepernick has continued to kneel during the national anthem at every football game he has been in for more than a month. Not only has the 49ers franchise not reprimanded him, they’ve donated $1 million to “the cause of improving racial and economic inequality and fostering communication and collaboration between law enforcement and the communities they serve here in the Bay Area.” Kaepernick is donating $1 million of his own money as well.

There was already a national conversation growing around #BlackLivesMatter, police brutality, and racial inequality in this country, but now the conversation has grown in the sports world too.

FDR may not have envisioned the internet, an African-American president (or a woman presidential candidate), or climate change, but he knew that freedom of speech and expression would be a vital part of our world today.

What does freedom of speech and expression mean to you?