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Martin Luther King: Free Speech Is a Human Right

By January 19, 2015

It’s become a bit of a tradition here at FIRE to observe the day celebrating the life and accomplishments of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by highlighting on The Torch one of the many instances in which Dr. King lauded the value of free speech.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a speech Dr. King gave on Human Rights Day in 1965 at Hunter College in New York City. His topic was the apartheid regime of South Africa, which he lambasted as “modern-day barbarians” and “spectacular savages and brutes.” Accusing the South African government of reviving Nazism, Dr. King said:

Once more, we read of tortures in jails with electric devices, suicides among prisoners, forced confessions, while in the outside community ruthless persecution of editors, religious leaders, and political opponents suppress free speech—and a free press.

Usually, when people think of human rights, their focus is on the first type of thing King lists: torture, political prisoners, show trials, etc. But Dr. King’s remarks remind us that the ability to speak your mind is no less a human right than is freedom from these more immediately painful and obvious abuses. Indeed, in a country with free speech and a free press, it’s difficult for other human rights to be violated on such a systematic scale. And when they are nevertheless violated, the freedoms of speech and press often bring about the doom of those violations (as they have, from time to time, here in America).

As the grim events in Paris recently reminded us, free speech is not just an American affectation or peculiarity—it’s a human right. Dr. King recognized that, and it’s FIRE’s hope that today, we’ll all join him in doing so.