2015 ERC Scholarship Essay Program $1,000 Recipient
Liam Stewart, Sammamish (Eastlake High School)

Since the outset of the great “American experiment” in 1776, the balance between individual liberties and the common good has consistently been the subject of great debate. It was a lack of freedom that led to the American Revolution, and it is the free and open exchange of ideas that has led to the unprecedented success of our nation. That said, over time, we have learned that the price of free speech is hearing things we don’t always agree with. Some argue that, by placing certain restrictions on the freedom of speech, we can better protect minority groups and ensure domestic tranquility. It is my belief, however, that this could not be further from truth.

As a high school student, I’ve always supported the Republican Party because I believe it is the party that best embodies genuine American values. Over the past three years, I’ve worked for the King County Republican Party and volunteered on U.S. Congressman Dave Reichert’s reelection campaign. In this time, I’ve learned a great deal about the importance of free speech and its relevance in contemporary politics.

In 2012, for example, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Colorado State Law that prohibited the use of “graphic” images of aborted fetuses where bystanders might be “disturbed.” [1] By censoring the protesters’ images, the ban is effectively suppressing not only their means of expression, but also their underlying political beliefs and personal values. This ruling was seen by many anti-abortionists as a direct affront to their freedom of speech. After all, shouldn’t citizens who oppose abortion have the right to protest using whatever content supports their position, regardless of how “disturbing” it might be perceived by others? Furthermore, the rationale that “graphic” expression is potentially “disturbing” could easily be applied to other movements, such those in favor of gay rights, or those opposed to the death penalty. Arguments such as this were used by President Putin to promote a law in Russia that prohibits public displays of homosexuality on the grounds that others may find it unsettling. [2] Similarly, there are those in the United States who may find anti-abortion protests disagreeable, but the First Amendment rights that protect them are fundamentally the same ones that protect all Americans and their beliefs. In fact, the subjective nature of terms like “graphic” and “disturbing” could open the flood gates for future widespread government censorship.

While freedom of expression in the twenty-first century may seem limitless, examples such as the 11th Circuit Court’s ruling in Colorado are indicative of the desires of some to regulate public morality. The simple truth is that hearing things we don’t agree with is the unavoidable cost of freedom speech. That said, opposing viewpoints on political issues should not be feared; they should be embraced as the very basis of a free and democratic society. In the words of George Orwell, “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” [3]

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[1] https://www.courts.state.co.us/Courts/Court_Of_Appeals/Opinion/2012/11CA0508-PD.pdf

[2] http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/08/13/russia_and_the_ioc_agree_athletes_and_spectators_shouldn_t_be_openly_gay.html

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/01/07/free-speech-charlie-hebdo_n_6430364.html

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