Signs of the Times - Dahlia Lithwick's Remarks at the Free Speech Monument dedication
April 2006
First Amendment Monument Celebration: Dahlia Lithwick's Remarks at the Free Speech Monument dedication
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Thank you so much for the honor of speaking in this esteemed company, on this glorious day, and for this historic event.

We are here today to celebrate and honor the right to free speech. But I thought I might take a moment to put in a word for its underappreciated and under-recognized step-cousin: the right of free-listening. Because while I believe that we in this country have unprecedented and robust rights to speak, to protest, to report and to think, I sometimes fear that the corresponding responsibility--the unenforceable and un-codified right to hear what others have to say, is slowly dying for a lack of oxygen.

Without some listening the right to speak freely is meaningless.

I think the Framers understood that when they thought of free speech as a marketplace of ideas. A marketplace that meant you and me, nose to nose, in a town square just like this one, your apple cart and my apple cart, hollering back and forth at one another until someone was persuaded or someone backed down, or we both walked away mad. But new ideas would be exchanged and tested. We would both be richer for it, and hopefully over the long haul the best ideas would prevail.

The Framers couldn't have imagined that the free marketplace of ideas would morph into a strip mall of ideas, which would, in turn, morph into a glass enclosed three-story, airless multiplex of ideas. With today's vast media aggregation of news sources, and with the increasing blurring of ideas, facts and opinion in the media, it has now become possible to wake up, drive to work, listen to AM radio, sit at your desk, surf 200 different websites, go home and turn on cable news, and never once all day encounter an idea or a viewpoint that challenges the ones with which you woke up.

We are, my friends, in real peril of becoming the most widely read, well-informed, and ignorant generation in history.

That kind of listening is not a free market of ideas. It is a hall of mirrors.

We sometimes forget that free speech is not an end in itself. It is a means to a larger object: making us a smarter polity. Enriching our democracy. Testing bad ideas against good ones so we can choose wisely what sort of freedoms we most cherish. And if we limit our definition of free speech to running our mouths all day; or listening only to those ideas that reinforce the superiority of our own, the whole object of free speech is lost.

A quote that is variously attributed to two brilliant legal thinkers--former Chief Justice Warren Burger and Bob Marley--holds that "free speech carries with it the freedom to listen." But it's not just that we are free to listen. We are also responsible for it.

This is not, ladies and gentlemen, your conventional plea for civility in how we talk to each other at this wall. Indeed if the wall is filled only with smiley faces and "oh YES I agree!" then it will not have served its purpose. Both as a journalist, and as the mother of two small boys, I am convinced that there has never been a greater need for both outrage and outrageousness in our political speech.

But this is a plea that you approach this chalkboard, this opportunity for real dialogue, as the Framers intended: be brave in your ideas, read before you write, think before you erase. It is a plea that we rise above what passes for political discourse on cable television, where "shut up, you're an idiot, get off my show" is now considered a substantive exchange of views.

It is a plea that we try to unlearn some of the AM radio presumptions, presumptions that underpin so much of our debates today; that we recognize that someone who does not share your views is not a moron. Someone who does not share your views in not uneducated. Someone who does not share your views is not blinded by the fact that they are either too close to, or too far from God, to warrant a fair hearing. And someone who does not share your views is not a liar.

Soren Kierkegaard--or was it Bob Marley?--once wrote that "people demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought which they avoid."

Let's prove him wrong. The whole country is watching little Charlottesville right now--watching to see if this experiment in wholly unfettered speech will quickly descend to the worst forms of modern discourse--swiftboating, gratuitous name-calling, obscenity and lies. Let us prove to them that we understand, in this birthplace of Thomas Jefferson, that free speech is much more than that; that we recognize that free listening is still at the heart of free speech. Let's prove that a robust free market of ideas can thrive here, but only if we respect each other enough to listen.

I add my congratulations to Mr. O'Neill, and Mr. Sanford and the Mayor, and to the amazing people at the Jefferson Center who have created this spectacular monument. Thank you so much for the great honor of addressing you today.

- Dahlia Lithwick (April 20, 2006)

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