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Volume 70, Issue 71, Friday, December 3, 2004

Opinion

First Amendment has real value

by Richard Whitrock

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievance."

Perhaps the most difficult and, at the same time, most rewarding part of being an opinion editor is the opportunity to live and breathe these words on a daily basis. Often, a column will come that offends every nerve ending of the body so horribly it is physically painful to read.

The temptation at that moment to wield the delete button with a slightly too heavy hand or exercise too freely the kind of editorial discretion that skips publishing an article altogether is almost too much to ignore. Yet it is at this time that appreciation for freedom is at its highest. With the power of censorship so close at hand comes a great and overwhelming gratitude for the free expression that the Constitution has provided for all Americans.

It's easy to take for granted the ability to speak one's mind, to ignore the astounding value that such freedom has. Americans are accustomed to such liberties and exercise them many times without knowing it, reading others' exercises without realizing how close it could have come to being the victim of an overzealous editor's pen.

When the Founding Fathers bestowed upon all Americans this most precious of rights, they passed on more than simply the right to exercise free speech; they charged America with responsibilities as well.

All Americans share the responsibility to defend these rights, to ensure that they survive for the Americans who are here with us now and for those who are to come.

They charged every American with the responsibility to defend those who choose to exercise their rights, to protect them from those who would silence the voices that preach, scream, whisper or say the things they do not approve.

They charged every American with the responsibility to exercise judgment over their words by giving the gift that no other would exercise it for them and dictate their speech.

They charged every American who chooses to exercise his judgment and his rights with the responsibility to stand up and say his piece and to remain standing when it is attacked.

Finally, they charged every American with the responsibility to hold accountable those who choose to exercise their rights of free speech, as well as those who choose not to, and to help bring these rights to all who yearn for them.

These responsibilities, unspoken as they may be, are among the most solemn and important that any man or woman will ever hold. Those who choose to live up to them should be applauded and those who choose to do so in the public light should be respected.

Writers, editors, reporters, poets, whistle-blowers, bloggers, photographers, painters, voters and all others who choose to live their freedoms and responsibilities show an enormous amount of courage and love for their fellow man. People on both sides of the pen, bullhorn, computer, canvas or ballot would do well to sit back for a moment and ponder how special it is that Americans have their freedom of speech.

For those who have made it their life's work to pursue the freedoms of speech or of the press, seldom does the occasion present itself to truly appreciate the wonder and blessing that they are able to do so. But when it does, when the haze of preoccupation and selfish egos lift just enough to show outlines of fortune, the beauty is blinding.

"Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free Speech is life itself." - Salman Rushdie

Whitrock, a columnist for The Daily Cougar, 
can be reached at rick_whitrock@hotmail.com

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