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For the Fourth: Ben Franklin on Freedom of Speech—50 Years Before the Constitution

By July 4, 2016

FIRE is privileged to have an office that looks directly down on Independence Hall in Philadelphia. You cannot enter our building without walking right past this landmark that means so much, not just to American history, but to the history of liberty in the world. It’s fitting, therefore, that on this Independence Day, we take a look at what one of America’s founders was thinking about the values FIRE holds dear as he entered the building below us on May 25, 1787, to kick off the Constitutional Convention.

Given that FIRE is based in Philadelphia, we can’t go wrong by looking into the writings of Benjamin Franklin, Philly’s favorite son. An author, publisher, scientist, statesman, diplomat, postmaster, inventor, and revolutionary, Franklin was a Renaissance man the likes of which the world may not see again. In November 1737, as the 31-year-old publisher of The Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin printed an essay entitled “On Freedom of Speech and the Press.” (As with many writings from the time, there is some uncertainty about whether Franklin himself wrote it, although there is no question that it expressed his sentiments.) It begins:

Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.

[…]

An evil magistrate intrusted with power to punish for words, would be armed with a weapon the most destructive and terrible. Under pretence of pruning off the exuberant branches, he would be apt to destroy the tree.

(Emphasis in original.)

Style of speech aside, this reads like something straight off of FIRE’s blog. This is no accident. What Franklin published 279 years ago is equally true today—freedom of speech is vital to a free society. An authority figure given the power to punish someone merely for his or her expression is still a destructive and terrible weapon. Such a censor damages both the life and career of the person he or she victimizes, as well as the larger idea of a free society. A review of FIRE’s hundreds of free speech cases over the past decade and a half shows that both campuses and government are rife with “magistrates” who may not be “evil,” but may be simply self-interested, uninformed, or politically biased. Nevertheless, in “pruning” the branches of expression they see as destructive, they weaken the tree of our fundamental liberties.

It’s sometimes said that First Amendment jurisprudence is largely an invention of the 20th century, as most of the cases that define free speech in the United States come from that century or this one. But the writings of Franklin and America’s other founders, as well as the philosophers like John Locke who influenced them, make it clear that reverence for freedom of speech was in place among Americans long before the United States was born. Today, then, let’s raise a glass and celebrate that on America’s 240th birthday, it still is.