On the twentieth of March, 1775, The Second Virginia Convention was assembled. That assembly has gone down in history for a stirring speech, given by a patriotic would-be-American who stood in protest of Britain’s encroachment on colonial freedom. That man’s name was Patrick Henry, and his speech is one of the most famous in American History, his final lines sure to live on after all memory of the man who spoke them has passed. He ended his speech “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty,” And with this he drew a dagger and placed it against his heart, ending his speech “or give me death.”
“Give me liberty, or give me death.” What do these words mean? The very act of allowing them to pass through his lips condemned Henry, and yet he spoke them, knowing that the chopping block for treason against Britain could possibly be his only reward. And some of you may ask why, then, did he speak them at all? Why risk death for mere words?
The answer is simple. Because if words are so powerful, so valuable a thing that someone would want to take them from us, to silence us, then they must be worth speaking. Because words can incite rebellion, can bring about change, and can enlighten, those who would have us ignorant, stagnant, and obedient would squelch us.
And that’s why I stand before you to day. I stand here to ask you, to urge you, to inspire you, to do what you can to protect your most valuable freedom. I am here to make sure, if anyone in this room is not willing to stand up and fight for your right to speak, that it is of no failing of mine. And above all of that, I am here to exercise the very right which I ask you to help defend.
Though America today is very close to the bastion of freedom it has always claimed to be, we have come a long way in recent years to get here. In the 1910s, when women were fighting for the right to vote, it was illegal for them to talk about suffrage, or birth control, or to protest, and they were often put in jail without trial. One woman, Alice Paul, went on a hunger strike, and was force fed using a tube stuck down her throat. Today, women enjoy complete freedom of speech, unhindered by the government.
In the 1950s and 60s, the red scare broke out, and people who spoke out were silenced with the threat of being accused of communism. All such accused were virtually guaranteed to lose their job, their house, their family, and also might spend time in jail. Today, a person is fully able to express themselves, politically or philosophically, and are unlikely to face such harsh consequences for doing so.
Now let us look to other countries. China is moving to the technological age, after carefully censoring all speech from the internet dealing with controversial topics such as “Sex” “Human Rights” “Tiananmen Square” “Democracy” “Free Tibet” (a Chinese underground political movement) or anything that sounds like “Uprising”, “Suppression” or “Revolution.” By this method, the Chinese government hopes to keep its people in ignorance.
And even in America, things have taken a backwards turn. The U.S. Patriot Act allows the FBI to check your tax records, your finances, your movements, your Internet activity, the books you buy or borrow, what you say on the phone, or in email, or over any electronic medium, and to hold you without cause, without charge, without an attorney or hope for a trial. They can break into your home, search through your things, look around on your computer, and do whatever they want, without having to tell you about it—ever. People have been persecuted and harassed using this legislative tool for their political or religious affiliations.
Furthermore, it seems our nation has been divided up into zones. When The President comes to town, you may find that the city has certain areas which are “free speech zones” In which you can express your opinion without The President, or the news media, being able to see you. A man was arrested for holding a sign in protest (disorderly conduct, they called it) and refusing to go to the “free speech zone” The police had set up; a baseball field surrounded by a chain link fence a third of a mile from the place the president was giving his speech. The day was labor day, 2002. The city was Pittsburgh, The man’s name was Bill Neel, he was a 65-year-old retired steel worker, and his sign said “The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us.” Signs supportive of the president were allowed, only his detractors had to be removed from sight. Mr. Neel was later quoted saying “As far as I’m concerned, the whole country is a free speech zone. If the Bush administration has its way, anyone who criticizes them will be out of sight and out of mind.”
As you can see, speech is a powerful and important thing. If it is squelched, only fascism and repression can follow. Those who would dream themselves our masters would steal our words from our mouths, because they are the most powerful weapon when faced with someone who rules through ignorance, or fear, or any of those dark emotions only dispelled by the light of reason. Every dictator in the history of earth has suppressed the speech of those who would be their detractors.
The only way that we, as a people and a nation, can maintain our freedom to express ourselves is by fighting for it. An old American saying, which I hope still lives on in this day and age, goes “I don’t agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Without this there is only ignorance. If what we have to say cannot be heard, then what others have to say is not heard by us, and we only know what information we are fed by those in power. You have a right to speak your mind, and not only do I urge you to use it, but I will defend, to the death, your right to. And so I will leave you where you began, with the last words of a speech that nearly cost it’s speaker his life, the words of America's first patriot.
Give me liberty, or give me death.