Nearly a year before the U.S. became embroiled in World War II, on January 6, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered a speech extolling what he called the four fundamental freedoms: freedom from fear, from want, and freedom of speech and religion. That speech inspired Norman Rockwell’s painting named Freedom of Speech, taken from Rockwell’s experience at a Vermont Town Hall meeting where a man stood and spoke his mind, and no one interrupted him or shouted him down. The point was to hear him out, to let him have his say.
On March 20, 2014, more than 70 years after FDR’s speech and Rockwell’s painting appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, In a country far from the U.S. geographically, but in later years not so far ideologically, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan moved to block access to Twitter.
Although one of the oldest settled regions in world history ( more than ten times older than the U.S.), Turkey had for more than 90 years (July 24, 1923) adopted a parliamentary representative democracy, the Republic of Turkey. Originally led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey was reformed from a six-century sultanate into a secular republic, notably through religious neutrality of government and promotion of equal education and universal suffrage, thus expanding freedom of expression in the public sphere.
In blocking Twitter, Mr. Erdogan lashed out at this social medium as a “menace to society.” According to Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, “This is another fundamental blow to freedom of expression in Turkey.”
How boldly the ideal captured in Rockwell’s painting contrasts with Erdogan’s move to shutter social media in Turkey. The objective, of course, is to silence dissent. Yet by taping a mouth shut, one does not silence the mind that holds and crafts opposition. If public policy will benefit the public at large, the policy must be formed by the public, the multitude of unique voices, the parts that make up the whole. Silencing opposing views benefits no one, whereas using them makes the united whole truly representative and satisfactory.
In the U.S., the year 1963 heralded civil rights demonstrations over a sizable swath of the land. On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered a Civil Rights Announcement in response to a court order for the University of Alabama to admit two qualified young Negro Alabamans. President Kennedy recalled the nation’s founding and asserted that the rights of everyone are diminished when the rights of one are threatened. August of that year marked the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And that same year, the National Communication Association articulated a Credo for Free and Responsible Communication in a Democratic Society:
“We support the proposition that a free society can absorb with equanimity speech which exceeds the boundaries of generally accepted beliefs and mores; that much good and little harm can ensue if we err on the side of freedom, whereas much harm and little good may follow if we err on the side of suppression.”
We can look at freedom seekers throughout history, whose quotes echo that sentiment: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and so on. When will we learn that suppression of speech is more dangerous than speech itself?