This summer, we have all witnessed the heavy hand of government intervening in the freedom of speech, as the behavior of the Secret Service at both the Republican convention in Cleveland and the Democratic convention in Philadelphia was troubling and unconstitutional.
Though the First Amendment was originally written only to restrain Congress (“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”), it is now uniformly interpreted to restrict all government in America from abridging the freedom of speech.
The reason this freedom is referred to as “the” freedom of speech is to reflect the belief of the Framers that the right to speak freely is pre-political. Stated differently, the freedom of speech is an integral aspect of our humanity. The government does not grant the freedom of speech; it is prohibited from interfering with it.
This is known as a negative right, in the sense that government is negated from interfering with a personal natural right. A natural right is one whose exercise does not require a government permission slip. Speech is the classic example.
The reasons for this are numerous, and not the least of them are our natural inclinations to think as we wish and to say what we think in pursuit of happiness and personal fulfillment. The practical reasons for this right are the needs of an informed electorate to challenge the government and demand transparency and accountability.
How did this play out during the hot weeks in Cleveland and Philadelphia? Not well.