Celebrating Free Speech: The Significance of Free Speech Week

Written by: Aditi Nambiar; Editor-in-Chief

OPINION PIECE

Every year on the third week of October, America comes together in unity to recognize, appreciate, and celebrate our right to free speech and free press. This non-partisan annual event most commonly known as Free Speech Week aims to “raise public awareness of the importance of freedom of speech and of a free press in our democracy – and to celebrate that freedom,” as the official Free Speech Week (FSW) organization states on their website. Free Speech Week was first established in 2005 when a non-profit organization in Virginia known as The Media Institute proposed the idea of hosting a conference to commemorate this right to the National Association of Broadcasters Education Foundation (NABEF). 

Both groups came together to celebrate the cause and were also joined by five other organizations interested in serving this mission (the American Association of Advertising Agencies, American Bar Association, Americans for the Arts, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and the National Endowment for the Humanities). The event soon picked up as it provided an opportunity for the national media, large organizations, broadcasting companies, and even educational institutions to start a conversation on the importance of free speech and how it remains a hallmark of our democracy. 

Before we discuss the ways in which you can get involved in celebrating free speech, let’s break down the true meaning behind the First Amendment, as well as how it applies to every individual. 

The First Amendment: 

“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 grievances.”

U.S Constitution

According to the U.S Federal Courts website, the freedom of speech as written in the First Amendment constitutes the protection of “both direct (words) and symbolic (actions)”. This also includes the right to not speak, as well as to use strong language and phrases to convey a political message, make monetary contributions to a political campaign/cause, gather for peaceful and lawful purposes, and- as a general First Amendment right which also concerns the freedom of speech- the right to petition the government. Not only is freedom of speech a First Amendment right, but it is also recognized as a human right under the 19th article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The U.S Constitution’s First Amendment freedom of speech does, however, have certain limitations and restrictions which are important for everyone to know. Some of these restrictions include obscenities, defamation (including libel and slander), incitement of imminent lawless action, solicitations to commit crimes, misleading commercial speech, advocacy of illegal actions, blackmail, or true threats. Public education administrations and institutions are also exempt from having to strictly adhere to the protection of free speech, which is why schools are often more firm when it comes to behavioral standards and using appropriate language. 

When it comes to press, the U.S courts have ruled that the same principles apply, with the specificity that the government may not censor any information before it is written and published (except in extreme cases such as national security). The main thing to remember about the First Amendment is that freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences. Free speech does not encourage or support hate speech, but rather gives everyone the entitlement to be able to freely voice their thoughts, ideas, and opinions without government interference. 

However, consequences for misusing your words and actions in a negative manner can range anywhere from the social withdrawal of others, negative action taken at the professional workplace, and in larger cases, legal action taken in court. This is why the Miranda Rights (a warning statement given by legal professionals to advise suspects of their protected rights) read, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you”. We should be careful of the potential risks that come with exploiting the freedom of speech. 

In order to take part in the national celebration of free speech, we must begin within our small communities, starting with our neighborhoods and bringing the energy forward to the greater UW Bothell community. Let’s explore some ways in which you as a fellow UW Bothell community member can celebrate free speech: 

  1. Write a letter to a Washington state senator or representative about an issue important to you.

If there is an issue that impacts you and/or your community, certainly step forward and convey your concerns to a local representative who holds the position of power to help advocate for change.

  1. Voice your opinion via social media, comment on an online article, or write a review.

Have you read something interesting lately? Been to a local restaurant? Seen a thought-provoking social media post? Share your thoughts and voice your opinion to the greater community.

  1. Write a story, article, narrative, or personal narrative piece about an important social justice or environmental issue that has impacted you. 
  1. Come together for a peaceful protest on any issue that concerns you and your community. 
  1. Contribute to the UWB student media organizations

Do you have an interesting take on a pressing topic? Are you an artist looking to share your work with the rest of the community? Would you like to report on diverse social justice topics which impact our campus and community? UWB Student Media provides a great platform for students to make their voices heard. We are here to support you in making an impact, and getting your voice heard through various mediums. You can broadcast your ideas via our local UWave radio, write an opinion piece to be included as part of The Husky Herald, submit creative pieces to our arts and literary journal, Clamor, and contribute in many more ways. This is your chance to reach up and reach out!

 Contact us for more information through our Instagram accounts: @uwaveradio, @husky_herald, and @uwb_clamor. 

As the official student newspaper of UW Bothell, we took part in free speech week by reaching out to our fellow peers through social media and asking them to share their thoughts on these two questions: 1.) “What does free speech mean to you”? and 2.) “When was a time you felt empowered by free speech”? UWB student Katie Lee Ward described free speech as “The right not to have your speech suppressed by the government. With some exceptions.” ASUWB president, James Archer shared that free speech “is the ability to speak without a filter” and that it empowers him “every day of my life.” Joe Lollo, UWB Senior, openly shared that free speech “is a human right. It lets anyone articulate opinions without fear of libel, censor, or retaliation.” 

UWB’s Social Justice Organizers and Achieving Community Transformation organization (now recognized as SJOACT) also took part in commemorating free speech through releasing the first episode of their podcast, Processing with the Pack, with Student Media’s very own UWave Radio on Thursday, the 21st of October. In this episode, they discuss the power of free speech and explore the ways in which free speech has impacted their personal and community experiences, interactions, learnings, and growth. 

To listen to the full podcast, click the link below: 

https://web.microsoftstream.com/video/edd29cb1-7b49-475a-ba3f-89abd1ecbbd8

As we continue to observe free speech and implement the values that come along with it, take a moment to reflect on how free speech has impacted your life. What specific moments have there been where you utilized your right to free speech for the greater good? And to ask the bigger question, how are you celebrating free speech this year? 

Would you like to learn more about free speech, and ways in which you can celebrate it? Check out these sources below: 

  1. Free Speech Week- Community Ideas
  2. First Amendment Common Interpretation
  3. Bill of Rights Day: Free Speech and Social Media 

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