“One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”
Justice John M. Harlan, Cohen v. California (1971)
It is probably no accident that freedom of speech is the first freedom mentioned in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law..
.abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Constitution’s framers believed that freedom of inquiry and liberty of expression were the hallmarks of a democratic society.
Freedom of speech, of the press, of association, of assembly and petition — this set of guarantees, protected by the First Amendment, comprises what we refer to as freedom of expression. The Supreme Court has written that this freedom is “the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom.” Without it, other fundamental rights, like the right to vote, would wither and die.
But in spite of its “preferred position” in our constitutional hierarchy, the nation’s commitment to freedom of expression has been tested over and over again. Especially during times of national stress, like war abroad or social upheaval at home, people exercising their First Amendment rights have been censored, fined, even jailed. Those with unpopular political ideas have always borne the brunt of government repression. It was during WWI — hardly ancient history — that a person could be jailed just for giving out anti-war leaflets. Out of those early cases, modern First Amendment law evolved. Many struggles and many cases later, ours is the most speech-protective country in the world.
(Glasser, Visions of Liberty, 1991.)
Three Reasons Why Freedom of Expression Is Essential to a Free Society
It is the foundation of self-fulfillment. The right to express one’s thoughts and to communicate freely with others affirms the dignity and worth of each and every member of society, and allows each individual to realize his or her full human potential. Thus, freedom of expression is an end in itself — and as such, deserves society’s greatest protection.
It is vital to the attainment and advancement of knowledge, and the search for the truth. The eminent 19th-century writer and civil libertarian, John Stuart Mill, contended that enlightened judgment is possible only if one considers all facts and ideas, from whatever source, and tests one’s own conclusions against opposing views.
Therefore, all points of view — even those that are “bad” or socially harmful — should be represented in society’s “marketplace of ideas.”
It is necessary to our system of self-government and gives the American people a “checking function” against government excess and corruption. If the American people are to be the masters of their fate and of their elected government, they must be well-informed and have access to all information, ideas and points of view. Mass ignorance is a breeding ground for oppression and tyranny.
Beginning in the 1980’s, religious fundamentalists and some parents’ groups have waged a persistent campaign to limit the variety of cultural messages available to American youth by attacking the content of some of the music industry’s creative products. These attacks have taken numerous forms, including a call by the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) for the labeling of recordings whose themes or imagery relate to sexuality, violence, drug or alcohol use, suicide or the “occult,” and prosecutions of record companies and store owners for producing or selling albums that contain controversial songs.
After years of pressure from the PMRC and a series of Senate hearings in 1985, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) introduced, in 1990, a uniform labeling system using the logo, “Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics.” The RIAA initiated this system without providing record companies with any standards, criteria or guidelines for determining which albums should be labeled. That decision is left completely up to the companies, which have chosen to label only selected rock and rap albums and not recordings of country music, opera or musical comedy that may also contain controversial material.
Dissatisfied with the RIAA’s labels, many would-be censors have demanded even more limits on the sale of music with controversial lyrics. As a result, legislators have introduced bills in more than 20 states in recent years that would require warning labels far more detailed .