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On Speaking Freely

Last week was National Freedom of Speech Week, the goal of which is to put a spotlight on what that freedom means both to individuals and the nation.

B&C asked that question of the top officials at the FCC, the five regulators faced with the challenge of overseeing the most powerful communications media in history.

Not surprisingly, an open Internet, which the ACLU last week called one of the key First Amendment issues of our time, figured prominently among the answers.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski: I am a passionate believer in the importance of the First Amendment and a free and vibrant marketplace of ideas. So much of what we do in encouraging competition, encouraging innovation and encouraging the spread of knowledge is deeply consistent with First Amendment principles.

One of my great inspirations on the First Amendment is Fred Friendly. I had the privilege of working for Fred Friendly in the 1980s, and he was a living, breathing, fiery embodiment of First Amendment principles. He lived [them] as Ed Murrow’s producer and as president of CBS News.

One of the most fortunate things to happen to me was to be in a position to work for Fred Friendly and learn from someone like him about the importance of the First Amendment in a Democratic society.

Commissioner Robert McDowell: In 1787, the framers of the Constitution faced a classic legislative dilemma: They couldn’t attract enough support for their proposed new law, as originally written, to propel it smoothly through ratifi cation. Many patriots who generally supported the concept for a stronger national government still hesitated to vote for the Constitution because the first draft provided no explicit protections for individual rights. Having just won a war against government tyranny, they were wary of recreating the very ills that had sparked the Revolution—the ills against which so many individual Americans had risked their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to overcome. And so the Bill Rights was added to the Constitution in 1789 as a plain-English guarantee that individual liberties, including the freedom of speech, would stand strong as well.

Two hundred twenty-one years later, our daily challenges are different, but the constitutional principles remain the same. The First Amendment begins with the phrase “Congress shall make no law” for a reason. It was intended, and functions, as a safeguard against the state trampling on the rights of individuals to think and speak freely. 

Commissioner Michael Copps: Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of our democracy. But it endures only if people fi ght for it, generation by generation. That challenge confronts us once again now. As we enter this new digital century, we must take extra care that the tools of new technology support, rather than subvert, freedom of speech.

The Open Internet is clearly a freedom of speech issue. The ability to go anywhere online, communicate with anyone, and not be prevented from viewing any legal content is key to sustaining freedom of speech in the digital world.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn: This week’s celebration of our nation’s freedom of speech highlights a fundamental civil liberty that our forefathers, with profound foresight, preserved under the First Amendment. They may have originally envisioned that freedom of speech principles protected a lone individual’s expressions in a town square, but today the Internet and other technological advancements provide the ability to connect people all over the globe—transforming that town square into a world square. Our public debates are now more dynamic, interactive and expansive.

Thus, as we face new challenges in the 21st Century, it is important that we ensure our world square affords the same protections as those envisioned for that lone individual. Just as any person should be able to walk into a town square and engage in public discourse, that same individual should have the ability to enter and participate electronically within the world square. The first step to achieve this goal is to ensure that all groups have the ability to gain access to these emerging platforms.

Commissioner Meredith Atwell Baker: In my capacity as an FCC commissioner, the freedom of speech is a consistent and powerful reminder of the need for public officials to respect the First Amendment rights of speakers, many of which are our licensees. When we consider regulation— whether it be broadcast regulation, net neutrality, or online video rules—we must always be vigilant that our efforts do not impinge on our core constitutional protections and recognize the broader impact of our actions, particularly for those living abroad without the protections of the First Amendment we too often take for granted.

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