The Discomforts of Democracy

Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz

Participating in a fully democratic society can sometimes be uncomfortable.  The democratic space is filled with competing ideas:  some of which are echoes of your own opinions and many of which are disagreeable or even “wrong” or “dangerous.”  Citizens of democracies will find some of their strongly-held beliefs directly challenged on occasion. That causes discomfort.  And that’s a good thing.

Why should people put up with the discomforts of democracy?  First, public debate, which is a normal and healthy part of democratic life, is critical to exploring important issues.  Exchanging opinions and perspectives with citizens that don’t agree (and don’t agree with you!) is fundamental to shaping policy. Expressing – and listening to – various views allows citizens and political leaders to reach an understanding and develop or change rules, laws, and social expectations.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”  This declaration serves as the foundation for the International Bill of Rights and of several other crucial human rights agreements.  It has become a touchstone for actions by governments, individuals, and nongovernmental groups. Most significantly, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been ratified by every country in the world.  Practically no other international instrument can claim this honor, and this is the second reason why the discomfort is worth it.  Freedom of speech is an international norm.

As Americans, we are still in the process of refining our own democratic practices.  However, over the past 240 years of working on American representative democracy, we have reached some basic agreements within our society and defined what our core values are around public debate and freedom of speech. The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from making any law abridging the freedom of speech.  And this right encompasses much more than just speaking, writing, or publishing in the media. In the long history of U.S. court challenges, it has also come to include the right not to speak, the right of students to wear armbands to school to protest a war, the right to use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages, and the right to engage in symbolic speech, such as burning the U.S. flag in protest, among other means of expression.

The U.S. Supreme Court wrote that freedom of expression is “the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom.” Without it, other fundamental rights would wither and die. While other countries with well-developed democratic systems may not see eye-to-eye with us on this point, we believe that having to face views you don’t share — opinions that might make you uncomfortable or even offend you — are ultimately healthy and necessary within political discourse. The U.S. system is built on the idea that the free and open exchange of ideas encourages understanding, advances truth-seeking, and allows for the rebuttal of falsehoods.

By permitting freedom of expression in our society, individuals can reach their full potential. With the next presidential elections only months away and the potential to elect our first woman president, I am reminded that less than 100 years ago, American women exercised their right to vote for the first time. This right was recognized only after women (and men) made speeches, signed petitions, marched in parades and argued over and over again that women, like men, deserved all of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Freedom of speech also serves as a check on government, because this freedom permits citizens to criticize the government openly, without fear of reprisal or punishment.  The movement against the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War was an example of using free speech to do just this. A challenging, emotional, and polarizing debate began with demonstrations in 1964 and raged for years. By using nonviolent marches, opinion articles and other peaceful events, by 1967 opposition groups succeeded in convincing a majority of Americans that U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was a mistake. This, in turn, led to the U.S. eventually withdrawing from the war in Vietnam.

And that’s not the last time Americans exercised their freedom of speech to examine something uncomfortable.  For the last 25 years, one such issue in the United States has been same-sex marriage. In the media, courtrooms, and via the internet, proponents and opponents engaged in an often-heated debate about whether unions between same-sex individuals deserved “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.” When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they did, its ruling reflected two decades of public discourse that informed an evolving understanding of marriage equality.

In protecting one’s own right to free expression, it is also essential to protect other’s rights. A famous example in the United States occurred in 1978 when the American Civil Liberties Union defended a Nazi group that wanted to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, where many Holocaust survivors lived. The ACLU persuaded a federal court to uphold the Nazis’ First Amendment right to march and express their views, illustrating commitment to the principle that the right to freedom of expression must apply to everyone – even unpopular groups.  Preserving this right means preserving it for everyone equally, no matter how discomforting such an application of principle may be. As Author Evelyn Beatrice Hall once wrote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

That said, there are still some limits to free speech under our law, which were developed over two centuries of U.S. Supreme Court cases. In America, you are not allowed to incite actions that would harm others.  In 1919, then-Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes made the classic distinction between liberty and license. Just because you have the right to say something does not mean that you can say it any time you want.  Shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater for example, is a harmful use of free speech.

Freedom of speech and expression is the bedrock of democratic society. Since citizens have different opinions, this freedom comes with some discomfort.  The United States believes, and experience has shown, that the best way to counter offensive free speech is not with suppression but rather, with more free speech. Don’t like a political cartoon about something?  Draw a better one, don’t punish the cartoonist.  As President Barack Obama said recently, “We have to uphold a free press and freedom of speech.  Because, in the end, lies and misinformation are no match for the truth.”

Published in The Himalayan Times on June 22, 2016