Column: in Defense of Free Speech
Fri October 24, 2003 08:42 PM ET
By Keith Girard, Billboard Editor-in-Chief
NEW YORK (Billboard) – Free speech is a precious right. Nowhere is that more evident than in countries where the world’s dictators rule.
Almost without exception, the first victim of dictatorship is freedom of expression. Those in power cannot tolerate dissent. As we’ve seen in countries as diverse as Iraq, North Korea and Cuba, dissidents are frequently jailed — or worse.
Free speech is one of the cornerstones of the world’s democracies. When the Founding Fathers gathered to draft a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, it’s no surprise that the protection of free speech and the establishment of religion were foremost in their minds.
Under the King of England, they had experienced religious and political repression firsthand. They realized that a free and unfettered political dialogue would be critical to the functioning of a government based on the rule of law and the political will of the people.
While we’re not normally given to providing civics lessons in this space, we think it’s important to do our part to remind readers about the importance of our “first freedom.” After all, artistic expression is the first cousin of political expression, and that’s something that concerns us greatly.
In a time of national crisis, as the nation moves toward a potentially divisive election campaign, some may find it politically expedient to question the loyalty of or brand as “un-American” those who question our government’s policies.
We saw evidence of that ugly trend earlier this year, when the Dixie Chicks became the victims of an organized campaign of retribution for speaking out against the government.
Even so, a number of artists are putting their careers at risk to let their voices be heard.
Last week, we reported on efforts by Alanis Morissette and others to raise awareness about the government’s environmental policies. We were disappointed to see Interior Department spokesman Mark Pfeifle raise the fact that Morissette is Canadian, as if to suggest that her national origin disqualifies her from expressing her opinion.
This week, John Mellencamp became the latest artist to speak out. He questioned the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.
“It is not just our ‘right’ but also our duty to speak out and voice our thoughts and opinions,” he wrote in a personal message posted on his Web site. “How, then, was it possible that, in the land of freedom, those who opposed the common opinion were called … ‘un-American?”‘
We share his concern.
As Bob Dylan once said, “I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Chief among them is the responsibility to speak out without fear of retribution when you believe your government is wrong.
I just hope they don’t sue me for printing the whole article. Can you imagine – getting sued over printing an entire article defending free speech. In spite of the current interpretation of copyright law – there are things posted to the Internet that are clearly intended to be spread. And this article is clearly one of them. Even though there is a copyright statement on it – it’s the same one they put on all their articles. But the content of the article itself has an urgency to get the word out about free expression and I interpret that as permission to repost all of it.