Freedom Of Speech

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

This morning I begin a series of sermons on the four freedoms listed in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s annual speech to Congress from 1941. It was a treacherous time in our nation’s history. We were just coming out of a severe financial depression during which much was lost, including the lives of many who could not bear facing a life without wealth. From that time until they died, my parents always lived as though another depression were just around the corner. We saved everything. We were frugal. They taught me the importance of a dollar.

Roosevelt was facing the war in Europe and the implications for America. We hadn’t entered World War II yet in January of 1941, but we were on the brink. This speech is remembered more than any other of his speeches and is called “The Four Freedoms” speech. During this time in our nation’s history, it seems appropriate to me to consider these freedoms and how they relate to our liberal religious faith.

Some people may view the four freedoms as purely political in nature. There are people who feel that our Sunday services should not cover “politics.” Yet many UUs find the four freedoms to be profoundly spiritual in nature. Former American Unitarian Association President Frederick May Eliot observed that “the principles of human freedom, of liberty under law, of rational tolerance and of charity are at the very center of our faith. Not peripheral but at the center. John Buehrens, former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association has often said that the mission of UUism is to provide “spiritual resources for democratic living.” This might make a great UU bumper sticker.

The Rev. Barbara Pescan writes:

“A question: Should the church stay out of politics? Steven Fritchman, minister for thirty years of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, answered this question for his congregation and radio audience April 23, 1950. This was about a year and a half before he was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee as they sought to discover “The extent of infiltration of communism into the film industry.” Fritchman knew nothing about that subject, but he and his liberal congregation were well known to be vocal proponents of freedom of speech. The subpoena was intended to have what would be called, twenty years later, a “chilling effect” on free speech, the right of association and freedom of religion. Rev. Fritchman, with the support of his board and his congregation, refused to answer HUAC’s questions. About the church and politics Fritchman said:

….[Religion and politics] cannot be separated without ending the meaning of religion. The church will become a complete vestigial organ of our society, like the vermiform appendix to our bodies, if we cease to let religion strengthen and purify our political life. The church has long sanctioned the warfare against gambling, prostitution, and the drug traffic. The other issues of human injustice and exploitation are no less in need of moral involvement….”

We begin this series of sermons with Freedom of Speech, which is part of the First Amendment to our Federal Constitution. To begin, I’d like to share a little story:

A man from the United States met an emigrant from Russia. In the course of Conversation, he said: “I guess you left Russia because you wanted more freedom.”
“No, I had plenty of freedom,” replied the Russian. ” I could not complain.”
“Then it must be that there were no opportunities in Russia,” he tried next.
“I had opportunities!” the Russian insisted. “I could not complain.”
“Was it that you could not find a nice place to live?”
“Not at all. I had a beautiful apartment. I could not complain.”
The man looked confused. “If everything was fine in Russia, why did you come to America?”
“Aha!” the Russian chortled. “Here I can complain!”

Freedom of Speech is protected by law, but has been interpreted to include an incredible number of human activities. Rodney A. Smolla lists the following areas covered by the First Amendment’s protection of free speech in his book Speech in an Open Society:

“…sit-ins, marches, parades, loudspeakers, satellites, sound trucks, billboards, magazine ads, flag-burning, cross-burning, draft-card burning, nativity scene displays, menorah displays, incitements to riot, abstract advocacy of revolution, hecklers, captive audiences, fighting words, profanity, vulgarity, obscenity, indecency, newspapers, broadcasting, cable television operators, telephone companies, computer networks, videotext, teletext, copyright, trademark, labor unions, libraries, streets, red-light districts, topless clubs, dance halls, parks, sidewalk, libel, invasion of privacy, infliction of emotional distress, advertising, speech by government employees, speech in political campaigns, grade schools, high schools and universities.”

These are not what first comes to mind when we as individuals think of Freedom of Speech. I tend to think of a scenario like the immigrant from Russia who upon arriving in America acquiresthe right to complain. I read somewhere that Freedom of Speech was granted in England about one hundred years before we wrote our First Amendment. The British Bill of Rights passed in 1689 establishing Parliament’s authority over the monarchy. It ended the practice of executing the members of Parliament for disagreeing with the king or queen during a session of Parliament. It extended freedom of speech to Parliament at least.

Which brings me to the question of what it means to have freedom of speech? How free are we, really? And how much does freedom relate to our moral and ethical principles? What can we do for and with our freedom that supports our ethical principles? Unitarian Adlai Stevenson once said: “My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.”

What we say as Unitarian Universalists is unpopular in many places these days, as it always has been. We have the example of Theodore Parker who was active in the Underground Railway movement to take slaves to Canada and safety. During the nineteenth century, he kept a loaded pistol on his desk as he wrote his antislavery sermons. Here in the state of Kansas we are in the minority on several issues of statewide importance. This church was unanimous in deciding not to support the recent so called “Marriage Amendment” which puts us in the camp of liberals, the latest four letter word. Our members have worked to prevent the inclusion of creationism and the so called Intelligent Design beliefs from being included in the states’ Science curriculum. Some of us are working to promote the public’s awareness of the oppressive practice by many Kansas police officers of racial profiling. A large number of us have worked tirelessly since 1991 and earlier to protect women’s reproductive health options.

All these are unpopular positions in the eyes of a great many citizens of Kansas. Hopefully, this is evidence that as long as we can continue this work, we are promoting the health of a free society in Kansas.

Freedom of speech comes directly out of the exercise of our freedom of thought, which is affected by our commitment to liberal religion and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism. The Rev. Nancy Dean writes:

“I have known many people who did not exercise the freedom of thought-no doubt you do, too. They were so afraid of not fitting in with some group, or uncomfortable that their thoughts might set them apart, that they gave away that precious freedom for the sake of conformity. Just think how many in Hitler’s ranks felt that something was not right about what this madman was doing, but were too afraid to speak out, did not want their neighbors to label them. How wrong, how terrible it was that so many priests, ministers, leaders would not stand up so that others around them would have the courage to do the same?”

The opening words this morning asked the questions when should I speak and when should I remain silent. This is the dilemma of the responsibility of living our lives with the right of freedom of speech. Clearly, in situations such as the time of the Third Reich in Germany, we can see by hindsight that all those who did not risk speaking out supported the continuation of the snowballing loss of freedom in the new republic which led to global disaster.

In many other situations, it is difficult to know when to speak and when to be silent. During all our interactions as a religious community, there are times when we may hesitate to speak up and express our ideas, our feelings, our opinions. All of us share the responsibility to consider the consequences of our words. We must realize and be responsible for the power of the words we speak…and the words we fail to speak.

I believe some of us are still fettered by growing up during a time when children were meant to be seen and not heard. People have told me that they wanted to say something but they didn’t want to “make waves.” It is important to remember that while still waters may run deep, nevertheless without waves the sailboat will not make any progress in any direction. Our ship has a rudder and we can change directions without overturning. Our freedom to speak does not imply that when we do, our ideas will necessarily be put into action, but that they have been shared and will affect the future of our church. As the minister, I have had many ideas that have not been accepted by the Board, but I keep mentioning them in the hopes that at some time, it will be the right time.

In the larger community, when we speak out on behalf of others, when we speak out for justice, we must practice our freedom of speech in the ways we believe will be most effective. We find that frequently some words bring responses that we may not desire. We must learn to reframe our liberal religious ideas in terms of our principles of promoting justice, equity and compassion inhuman relations. I am reading and interesting book, that has some political party comparisons, but supports the idea of reframing issues. It is called “Don’t Think Of An Elephant” by George Lakoff. The strategies he suggests have been used by Stewardship Committees of many churches. Members respond with increased financial support when they understand the place their church holds in the community, the programs and outreach of the church, such as our generous support recently of our Partner Church.

Our first amendment right to freedom of speech has been and essential protection for causes that we both support and regret. The lit of areas covered by this freedom that I read earlier have included cases that created a national discussion, such as the well known Skokie case where the ACLU defended the right to expression of a small neo-Nazi group in 1977. I remember being so upset that I did not renew my ACLU membership for many years. The ACLU position was that they had to defend free speech “for those we despise and those who despise us.”

Free speech pours out all around us in the form of talk radio which has become more and more a part of our American lives. From time to time riding in the car, I listen to some of the commentators on 1330 and I wonder how they can say the things they say. It seems to me they twist the truth and put words and ideas into the mouths of people. I try to listen to what they are saying in order to see if underneath the entertainment value there are messages that I should hear in order to balance my views. Once in a while, I do here something, that while usually quite small, rings a little bell.

I believe the intention of free speech by our founding fathers was the hope that we would be in dialogue with each other. That by allowing diverse ideas to be shared, all would benefit in the marketplace of ideas. While it is hard to listen, I believe it is important now for us to understand what is being said on a level deeper than the shock value of the commentators. We still have freedom of speech, and we have freedom to not speak. When we are not speaking, we need to be listening, to find new approaches to preserving the values and principles we hold dear. It is not enough to just turn off opposing viewpoints. In promoting our freedom of thought, we must be willing to at least listen openly to the ideas of others, and hopefully develop strategies to engage in the conversation.

In closing, I’d like to remind you of the copy of Norman Rockwell’s four paintings created in honor of Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms Speech” that you passed as you entered this morning. The painting honoring Freedom of Speech show a man standing surrounded by a crowd of seated companions. He looks like a working man, or a farmer, perhaps, saying hs piece at a town meeting, while the others listen attentively. What might Rockwell paint were he alive today. Perhaps a young man driving his car with a cell phone held to his ear. Perhaps a young women sitting at the keyboard of her computer, writing a blog that exposes some misrepresentation she discovered in the bought-and-paid-for establishment press. Perhaps a high school student going to school with a shirt proclaiming he is a member of a gay and straight alliance. Perhaps a group of union members protesting outside a factory. The pictures would certainly be much different today, which underlines the progress we have made as a result of the freedoms we have enjoyed.

I remember a train trip from Moscow to Minsk in 1989. Out the window we watched people who lived near the tracks caring for their vegetable gardens. They were watering with a metal cup, scooping water from a galvanized metal bucket. We felt we had time traveled back to the beginning of the century. Not only can that Russian immigrant complain, he can water his garden with a hose.