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Freedom of speech under fire

I lost $2, but America is losing much more

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This is the latest in a series of classic columns (edited for space) by Joel Belz. Joel wrote this column for the April 15, 2000, issue of WORLD.

I’m just back from the Asheville Mall, and I bring back bad news. Folks there have lost their sense of values; they no longer know a bargain when they see one.

I did my own little poll, you see, stopping the first 10 people who came down the big atrium to ask them a simple question: “Can you tell me something about the Bill of Rights? Can you identify one of the rights included in that document?” Only three people out of 10 could mention a single one of the great liberties guaranteed by those grand articles.

Alarmed, I went on with 10 more people. “Can you tell me something about the First Amendment? I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me one thing it says.” Sadly, the experiment cost me only $2.

So set aside all your other worries. Really, only one thing in the year 2000 is worth being concerned about on the public-policy front—and it’s big enough, all by itself, to eclipse every other problem.

Wonder of wonders: It’s also a traditionally liberal cause. But it’s one many liberals seem more and more ready to trade in for the rest of their agenda.

I’m talking about First Amendment freedoms—and especially about freedom of speech. It’s such a cornerstone of the traditional system of American liberties that we tend to think of it as indestructible. Yet even while we bask in what could be the sunset of that freedom, some folks are chipping away big pieces of the old rock.

No, this isn’t just a worrywart’s interpretation of things. Within the last couple of weeks, Congress actually voted on a proposal to give to itself “power to set reasonable limits on the amount of contributions that may be accepted, and the amount of expenditures that may be made by, in support of, or in opposition to, a candidate for nomination for election to, or for election to, federal office.” The measure lost, but a third of the senators who once had taken an oath to defend the Constitution voted to chisel away at one of its most foundational articles.

WORLD took a lot of heat for saying so in our Feb. 19 issue, but such also would have been the effect of Sen. John McCain’s proposal for campaign-finance reform. Our critics didn’t like the bluntness of the inference we drew with this statement: “Mr. McCain would essentially suspend the First Amendment for 60 days prior to any federal election.” But nobody argued with our evidence for that inference in the very next sentence: “He would make it illegal for nonprofit groups—from the National Rifle Association to the National Right-to-Life Committee—to advertise against a candidate, publish ‘report cards’ on votes, or even mention a candidate’s name in a way that might ‘materially benefit’ his opponent.”

Like the pedestrians at the mall, the media, educational, and political elite have been so distracted by other issues that they have forgotten what the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights are all about. Willy-nilly, they start proposing remedies whose poison is much more potent than the evils they are out to correct. We shouldn’t be surprised. For if anything has come to characterize freedom in our age, it is the spirit that says, “You can say anything you want, of course—just so long as you don’t offend our sense of what is appropriate to be said.”

What will surprise many Christians will be the ­discovery, more and more in the near future, that First Amendment freedoms and the Bill of Rights were meant not so much for the majority to revel in as for the protection of minorities. As one of the newest minorities in society, Christians may devoutly wish over the next decade or two that they had worked harder to protect the very tools by which they could discuss, debate, and promote their point of view on many other issues. Freedom of speech is going to become a very big issue.

Joel Belz

Joel Belz (1941–2024) was WORLD’s founder and a regular contributor of commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. He served as editor, publisher, and CEO for more than three decades at WORLD and was the author of Consider These Things.


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