In the most recent installment of the Institute for Humane Studies and Big Think video series, Jon Zimmerman, professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania, delves into important milestones in free speech history and how those events have shaped our culture today.
Zimmerman explains the nuances of various case studies that have made an impact on free speech in America, highlighting specific instances in which free speech was directly contested.
One such case, Cohen v. California, transpired during the Vietnam War and served as a landmark decision for Americans’ rights to openly criticize United States involvement in war. This decision has subsequently led to our freedom to be openly critical of not only wars but also government policies, and even leaders.
“If you don’t know that history,” says Zimmerman, “You don’t know how precious this freedom is… Our standards of what’s acceptable and our standards of what should be tolerated have changed over time. And I think everybody should know about these changes.”
He goes on to describe how free speech at its core benefits the powerless, emphasizing how it has become a vital tool for “the people at the bottom,” or those with the least amount of power, as free speech is the only method they have for enacting change.
“If you go ahead and censor [free speech], eventually it’s going to be turned against the people with the least power, and it may be turned against you.”
This video is one in a 14-part series about civil discourse. To view additional videos from the series, visit the Institute for Humane Studies blog.
Prior videos in this series:
John Stuart Mill’s Big Idea: Harsh Critics Make Good Thinkers
with Keith Whittington, Princeton University professor of politics
Why Pitting Prejudices Against Each Other Keeps Society Free
with Jonathan Rauch, Brookings senior fellow
Free Speech on College Campuses: A Bottom-up Approach
with Emily Chamlee-Wright, IHS president