I came across a quotation by John Milton (17th century English poet and civil servant under Cromwell) which has been stuck in my brain for a couple of days. The quotation struck me because it is one you have to read all the way to the end and then go back and pick it apart to really understand it.
Give me liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to my conscience above all other liberties. My cousin noted it on the old building which once housed the Chicago Tribune newspaper. The building which is now being torn down, which seems indicative of the times in our constant struggle for our freedoms.
It is worth studying because free speech is something we can never take for granted. The quotation first says, “give me the freedom to know. . .” Without solid information from reliable sources we cannot make good decisions whether it is in our personal lives or the life of our country. This freedom includes access to information which is where our public libraries are a vital tool and encouraging our young people to read books by authors of conscience and solid intelligence and to do it ourselves.
Once we know what we are talking about and can speak with solid information to back our thoughts, we move on “to utter”. This is freedom of speech which includes the right not only to speak out on issues important to the community and the individual, but to also belong to religions and organizations and action groups of all kinds. Milton was speaking against the conservatives in Cromwell’s government who were hampering the people’s right to be heard and taking too much power on for themselves. Our founding fathers put that human right front and center in our Bill of Rights.
And then “to argue freely”. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes talked about “free expression in the marketplace of ideas”. Can we discuss freely, allowing every person his or her conscience? Voltaire, a French philosopher, said “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Recently our State Republican Legislators passed an amendment that calls on the Justice Department to investigate “environmental groups” and everyone who is a member of such a group who lives in this State. I wonder if this includes Ducks or Trout Unlimited. As one state newspaper noted, membership in a nonprofit and/or volunteer organization is absolutely a form of free speech and the freedom to assemble. Did these legislators discuss the fact they were going to investigate Montanans and the groups to which we belong when they ran for office? The tentacles of this amendment are long and sticky and we could see them stretch far out into the rights of the people of Montana. Frankly, this amendment smacks of fascism and that crack in the door of our freedoms which soon finds many of our other freedoms gone as well. Can we assume this was an ‘oops! Didn’t mean that!’ That our state legislators did not read all the way to the end of the amendment as it was presented or even read it at all before they vote.