Freedom of expression or speech is the most fundamental right in the United States. It means citizens have the right to freely express themselves and their opinions.

Although our history is replete with examples where it was not always protected and defended, polls indicate that Americans consider this freedom more important than religious freedom and due-process rights.

Freedom of expression, after all, captures how we view ourselves individually and as a nation. The utterance is commonplace in everyday conversations among Americans. It provides the historical foundation of our two most revered documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The history of the republic presents us with a story about expanding freedom of expression to include more and more people. Amendments to the Constitution constitute the primary way this was accomplished. The first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights, guarantee civil liberties. Subsequent Amendments ended slavery, defined citizenship and extended the franchise to blacks, women and 18-year-olds.

Women, racial and ethnic minorities, workers, and others have struggled to deepen and transform the definition of freedom of expression. Over several generations, some real strides have been made in reducing disparities based on race and sex. Women and minorities have secured greater access in the areas of employment, politics, education and athletics. In 1998, an amendment to the Iowa Constitution brought equal legal rights to women.

On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal nationwide. No longer can states deny gay men and lesbian women the same marriage rights as opposite-sex couples. Six years earlier, in a unanimous ruling of the state’s Supreme Court, Iowa became only the third state in the union to give same-sex couples the right to marry.

Belief in freedom of expression as an inherent right of all people has coexisted with persistent efforts to limit this freedom by race, gender, class and in other ways. Limiting it can be traced to slaves, immigrants, the poor and others. The meaning of freedom of expression has been constructed at various levels, in congressional debates, in political essays, on picket lines and even in bedrooms.

The promise of our nation’s freedom of expression for all leaves no one out. All individuals should have the right to pursue their dreams, regardless of who they are, who they love, or where they live.

When Republicans control the legislative and judicial branches, we get government that services the rich and takes from everyone else. Whether it’s health care policies, protecting the environment, supporting workers, advocating for minorities or promoting safety, profits and wealth “trump” all other concerns.

Presidents and the press have clashed since the birth of the republic. But no president in living memory has conducted such an incendiary, dogged, and slanderous attack on the news media comparable to Trump.

Trump has also spewed his venom on other communities who voiced opposition to his administration, undermining the constitutional freedom of speech and press enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. While vilifying his critics (MSNBC), Trump applauds and offers special access to those praising his administration (“Fox and Friends”).

Today, the idea of freedom of expression continues to circumscribe our culture and politics. The term remains vigorously contested. The debates will continue and new definitions will emerge.

Liberals insist that freedom should be shared by all, not just the rich and powerful. This is an ongoing struggle to secure the right of everyone to equal opportunity, regardless of skin color, sexual identity and economic status.

Scharnau is retired from a history teaching career of some 50 years. His email address is LiberalRalph@gmail.com.

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