“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freedom of speech”—Benjamin Franklin
In the wake of recent events in Paris, we’re reminded of the timelessness of Ben Franklin’s cautionary words, and the critical role that free speech plays in the preservation of liberty in a democracy.
Of course, a major component of a democracy’s commitment to free speech is its willingness to protect freedom of the press. And while it’s true that the business world and the media sometimes find themselves cast into opposing corners, it’s equally true that each party plays a vital role in a healthy democracy.
The Founding Fathers understood that then, as now, media in all its forms—print, broadcast, and, more recently, online—provide a key foundation upon which democracy is built; for its part, a thriving business community promotes healthy competition and innovation, both of which are also key components of any modern democracy.
As CEO of a growing, successful business, I know full well the critical role that business media play in providing me with useful insight and information that informs many of my business decisions. And as the head of a leading Las Vegas-based business, I am always willing—indeed, happy and proud—to share our company’s story with members of the media. (A recent example of business media interest in Sackett National Holdings can be seen here in a feature story, by the Las Vegas Business Press)
While occasional media excesses may sometimes make it easy to generalize, and cast a negative pall over all media, the fact is that the media industry itself is an enormous, thriving business that employs thousands of Americans in a wide variety of jobs.
As a proponent of information technology–and free speech–I also take pleasure in the fact that modern technology has resulted in an explosion of media outlets; the resulting increase in sources of news and information has also opened the door to hundreds of thousands of previously unheard voices. That, too, is welcome news.
In a democracy, we believe that there is no such thing as “too much” freedom of speech. However, that does not mean that even in a democracy there are no limits placed on free speech.
It has been almost a century since Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famed quote regarding the limits of free speech. In 1919’s Schenck vs. The United States, Justice Holmes famously wrote, on behalf of a unanimous Supreme Court, that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater and causing a panic.”
In other words, even in the world’s greatest democracy, free speech is not limitless.
Still, the U.S. Supreme Court has also issued countless decisions regarding freedom of speech that—quite correctly—defended the extensive limits of free speech, even to the point of allowing it to occur when it may be deemed offensive by some.
For more than two centuries, that defense of free speech has been a hallmark of American democracy, and it is one we proudly share with our democratic friends and allies such as France.
And while Justice Holmes’ was correct that free speech does have its limits, recent events in Paris also serve as a stark reminder that Ben Franklin’s warning was prescient: a democratic nation’s liberty is, indeed, contingent on its willingness to promote–and defend—both free speech and freedom of the press.