Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Matthew Lyon is an unlikely hero. By some contemporary accounts he was somewhat of a politically- opportunistic boor. Yet early in the history of the American republic Lyons served the role of martyr to the cause of free speech and a free press and helped further our understanding of these rights as guaranteed by the first amendment to the Constitution.
A short-time resident of Arlington and founder of the village of Fair Haven, Lyon began serving as Vermont’s Democrat-Republican representative to the United States’ House in 1797 and quickly set about making the lives of the nation’s Federalist president, John Adams, and those of his party members miserable. A newspaper publisher as well as a politician, Lyons used both the press and his sharp tongue to criticize Adams, labeling his policies toward France proof of the president's "unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, or selfish avarice" and saying in one speech Adam’s policies proved him more fit for the "madhouse" than executive office.
Continuing to employ such vitriolic phrases as “His Rotundness” and viciously protesting Adam’s decision to go to war with France through both the spoken and written word eventually landed Lyon in jail - he was the first person to be tried and found guilty of violating one of the four laws passed as the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Sedition Act prohibited malicious writing about the American government or its officials and Lyons was sentenced to a thousand dollar fine and four months imprisonment for his crime.
An understanding of classical republican theory helps explain legislation which seems so un-American to us today. That theory held that politicians were there to serve the greater good and emphasized dispassionate discourse - civility, you might say. But even at that early point in the nation’s history the populace had begun to understand what we fully accept now - that robust political dialogue, replete with disagreement and division, is a necessary component of an open political society which thrives on the hearing of a multitude of ideas and open and honest discussion.
That this was understood in Vermont is evidenced by Lyon’s re-election to his House seat from his jail cell. Indeed, Lyon’s support in his home state grew as his months in jail passed. Though the Federalists had put several men up against him and succeeded in preventing him from attaining a majority of votes in the November election, a second election in December gave Lyons the seat with overwhelming support.
Lyons’ story is an important one to keep in mind in light of a national tragedy that has bewilderingly been turned into a call for the restriction of political speech by some. Civility, which some claim is necessary in our political exchanges, might be called another word for censorship when it is used to shut down the ideas and beliefs of those who are not in power and therefore unable to define the acceptable terms of debate. This is precisely what the first amendment to the Constitution guards against.
John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth century philosopher who advocated strongly against censorship of thought, speech or printed word, said “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.” Stuart explained that authority, just because it is authority, is not infallible and “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility...”
Any talk of government regulation of speech should be met with strong opposition from all Americans, no matter their political persuasion or lack thereof. The argument for free speech does not assume this right is without risk, but as a society we have determined that any negatives encountered through unregulated speech and expression are far outweighed by its positive value. It is through freedom of inquiry, thought and speech that we come to define our personal and philosophical approaches to government, both of society and self.
Civility begins with each of us and if we feel it should be better practiced it is our personal responsibility to determine and adhere to the standards of politeness we would expect of others. My own wish would be for less name-calling and insulting of those with whom we differ and to instead present our arguments with more thought, as well as the facts and figures from which our thought has been formed. Logic, reason and persuasion should be the tools by which we tweak opinion, not bombast and verbal bullying.
But this should be undertaken as individuals, not through the external force of government. As the basis of all other freedoms political speech deserves the highest protection. As Claire Booth Luce once said “Censorship, like charity, should begin at home; but unlike charity, it should end there."