In December 1860, the great American orator and former slave Frederick Douglass delivered one of his finest speeches, “A Plea for Free Speech in Boston.” In it, he boldly declared that “liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.”
That line—and that speech—emerged from a rather unfortunate incident.
The week before Douglass issued his plea, a meeting was scheduled in Boston to discuss what was, in 1860, a controversial question: “How Shall Slavery be Abolished?” But before the meeting could make any progress, it was “invaded, insulted, [and] captured” by an unruly mob, who sought to silence the abolitionists.
As Douglass explained, the mayor “refused to protect” the meeting—or the free speech of the abolitionists—and instead, simply cancelled it.
But Frederick Douglass knew the real danger the mob posed was not in their disorder, but in denying their fellow citizens the right to free speech. So he did what anyone who seeks to defend free speech should do: he spoke up.
In Boston’s storied Music Hall, Douglass delivered his iconic, timeless oration about the incident, and about the importance of the freedom of speech. He said: “No right was deemed by the fathers of the Government more sacred than the right of speech. It was in their eyes, as in the eyes of all thoughtful men, the great moral renovator of society and government." 2
“Moral Renovator”: The power of free speech
As the phrase “moral renovator” suggests, free speech gives us the tools to repair, update, and improve our society and its principles, the way one might consider rebuilding a home. We can address damages, tear down harmful walls, open new doors, and even restore a crumbling foundation.
This power to remake ourselves is partially why the freedom of speech is enshrined in the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and why it is the first freedom that President Roosevelt asserted in his iconic speech. It must come first because our right to speak freely is a prerequisite for all of our other freedoms—and for living in a free society.
Without freedom of speech, there is no preacher in the pulpit, no defense at a trial. Without freedom of speech, we cannot cast our vote or call our representatives. Without freedom of speech, there is no women’s suffrage or March on Washington, no marriage equality or Black Lives Matter or #MeToo movement.
It’s no wonder that Frederick Douglass called free speech the “dread of tyrants.” He knew that, as he put it, “Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance and of a judgment to come in their presence.” Speech and reason are bulwarks against an unjust society.
Of course, free speech is not a panacea; and while some speech allows us to confront injustice, there are plenty of instances when our speech can perpetuate injustice and harm. For example, on many college campuses today, students are testing and contesting where free speech ends and hate speech begins. It’s a question worth asking—and one, from my perspective, with no easy answer.
But what amazes me is that more than 240 years after our founding, and more than 150 years after Frederick Douglass’s stirring defense of the First Amendment, the freedom of speech is still vital to the functioning of our democracy.
Free speech in our time
When Frederick Douglass spoke in Boston, or when President Roosevelt outlined his Four Freedoms, neither could have imagined the extent to which free expression would change. We now have more ways to exercise this freedom than ever before. The internet allows us to transmit our ideas to an unknowably large audience of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, devoted readers and disgruntled trolls alike. Our smartphones let us make this connection anywhere, anytime. If, after reading this sentence, you wanted to express your reaction to it with a large audience, it would take just a couple taps of your fingers.
Technology also has enabled speech around the world, allowing access to information and giving people of every kind and category new avenues to organize. In some countries ruled by an authoritarian political regime, the ability to speak anonymously on the internet has been a boon. In places where expressing your opinion under your own name can be dangerous, the anonymity of the internet has allowed free opinion and expression to survive.
But this amazing technology has simultaneously accelerated a few unsettling trends. According to the Pew Research Center, more than two in every five Americans has been harassed on the internet. A sickening one-half of young women have received an explicit image that they never asked for. One in four Americans has had completely false information about them posted online. 3
The very same anonymity that protects some on the internet allows others to spew vitriol with relative impunity. They are emboldened by the fact that their comments do not have consequences for their lives outside the internet. And time and again, when confronted, these trolls admit that in the heat of the moment, they forget that they are attacking real people. Speech, no longer paired with reason or respect, becomes a tool of our disintegration rather than our renovation.
The problem of disconnection
This phenomenon speaks to larger problems that the internet exacerbates, but is not fully responsible for—a deepening disconnection between people, and a lack of empathy for one another.
And not only are we actively disconnecting from one another’s humanity—even as we become more connected than ever before—but we also seem more willing and able to disconnect from certain kinds of information.
We tend to curate the information that comes our way, while social and commercial media try to give us what they think we want. We engage with stories that confirm our assumptions and biases, that do not challenge or expand our view of the world. Online monologues allow their writers to dig deeper and deeper into their own thoughts without considering the views of others. We become more entrenched in our own views. In some cases, it is almost as if we’re just talking to ourselves.
As this happens, the algorithms figure out what we want, what is comfortable, and they just keep feeding us more of the same. Our confirmation bias compounds on itself. Meanwhile, alternative media outlets sow doubt and confusion based on what they want us to believe—even if it is not true. In the process, our common ground gets eroded, and one of free speech’s most potent uses—as a check on power, often in the form of journalism—becomes undervalued.
The responsibility to listen
For our freedom of speech to work—to have meaning or the power to improve our democracy—we need to listen to one another.
In fact, we have a responsibility to listen, because listening allows us to extend the freedom of speech to others. This is why the right to assemble is so closely linked to the right to free speech. They share an amendment because speech is meaningless without an audience.
Without a congregation of listeners, there’s no difference between the preacher on a Sunday morning and the subway platform. Without a jury of open-minded and engaged listeners, or an attentive judge, or proper accountability, a trial becomes less just. If our elected officials do not consider the opinions of their constituents, then our political speech does little to advance our interests. Without the backing of a country or a congress, women’s suffrage does not achieve the Nineteenth Amendment, the Civil Rights movement does not pass necessary legislation or change minds and hearts, and the movement for marriage equality is stymied. Today, without people willing to listen to the legitimate grievances of a movement like Black Lives Matter—if the country chooses only to look away or to reflexively argue—people of color will continue to die at the hands of police while the deeper structural problems remain unaddressed.
So, when we listen to each other, we do more than extend a common courtesy; we give credence and power to that first and sacred right. We say, “You are a human, too, and deserve to be heard.” We give dignity to others when we enable their voices, consider their perspectives, and thoughtfully grapple with their ideas. We participate in the ongoing exchange between people that defines our democracy, and allow ideas and actions to ripple through, even renovate, our society.
A model listener
Sometimes I worry that this kind of listening is a lost art—that we have forgotten how to look someone in the eye and hear what they are saying without being distracted by what we plan to say next.
This was one of my chief concerns as I prepared for commencement at Simmons College. Whom could I point to, as an aspirational example, for how we ought to embrace our responsibility to listen? Then I remembered that Simmons College was the alma mater of my dear friend, the late Gwen Ifill. Even though we lost her too soon, she left behind a lesson in—and a legacy of—listening.
Gwen was a giant of journalism. She covered politics for The Washington Post, The New York Times, and NBC, and was anchor of PBS NewsHour. Throughout her storied career, she received numerous accolades and acknowledgments for her talent, professionalism, and poise. Thanks to her decades in the field, Gwen understood the problems our world faces better than anybody. But above all else, I believe what made her such a talented reporter was not her intellect (though it was sharp) and not her experience (though it was deep). It was her special ability to listen to others and amplify their voices.
The week Gwen passed away, her colleagues aired a powerful tribute to her. They said many great things about Gwen, but one comment from a fellow reporter struck me: “No matter how complicated and how fraught the conversations I have with people, Gwen taught me how to listen.”
I saw this extraordinary talent of Gwen’s in person, on many occasions. One incident that comes to mind was when we were together in Selma, Alabama, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the march on Bloody Sunday.
That night, we had dinner with our shared hero: Congressman John Lewis. Congressman Lewis was only twenty-five years old when he was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but you can still see his scars from that awful day. Now imagine being Congressman Lewis. He’s a civil rights legend who literally walked side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But he is perhaps most famous for his defiance during what must have been one of the most terrible days of his life. It must be so frustrating to be asked, over and over, to recall a nightmare.
Gwen understood this. And she knew that on this night—on this sacred anniversary—the congressman must have had a lot on his mind. We both wanted to hear what the congressman was thinking—but I, personally, didn’t know how to coax it out of him.
Then Gwen did what Gwen did best. She asked a couple of well-placed, thoughtful questions—and then she listened. She looked him in the eyes, smiled, and gave him her full attention. It worked. Congressman Lewis shared story after story. By the end of the night, we all had tears in our eyes.
But here’s the thing: That night wasn’t the exception for Gwen. And it wasn’t just because Congressman Lewis is a famous civil rights leader.
Gwen wanted to listen to everyone, all the time.
Over and over again, I watched Gwen work hard to listen. Whether you were rich or poor, young or old, powerful or powerless—Gwen wanted to know your story. She did her research and asked questions, but above all else, she showed that she cared about people and wanted to make their voices heard. That was true even if she didn’t agree with you. She always stayed resolute in her capacity to hear you out.
Of course, Gwen wasn’t just listening for herself or her own edification, though she might have listened anyway. As a journalist, she was listening to others and for others, and for the sake of finding the truth and fulfilling our highest ideals. It’s what made Gwen so great at her job. It’s also what made her such a good friend, person, and citizen.
Being better listeners
We should all hope and aspire to live by Gwen’s example. In our own lives, we must try to seek out stories we may not want to hear and opinions we may not completely agree with. As I’ve found through many of these conversations in my own life, you don’t have to change your position to change your perspective. I’ve never regretted giving listening a chance. Every time, I’ve learned something new.
Listening in this way is, of course, quite difficult. Some people may hear “listen” as synonymous with “stop talking.” But listening is not a passive act of staying quiet; it’s an active choice to engage with others, and to be critical and compassionate in equal measure.
While it is important for members of our media, like Gwen, to listen, it is even more essential that we all embrace our own individual responsibility for listening. As citizens, this is our first and primary charge. It’s not something you do only once—and again, it isn’t easy. But listening to others is the kind of daily civic work that makes our democracy stronger, improves our society, and maintains our valued and essential rights. Listening gives meaning to speech, gives purpose to voice, and gives dignity to people. Otherwise, it’s just talk.
Only when we listen can we find common ground. Only when we listen can we forge compromise and a common future. And only when we listen can we begin to heal the divides throughout this country, and build the bridges that our democracy today so desperately needs.