Freedom of speech--what a powerful concept!

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Anthony E. Valerio
  • Commander, 97th Training Squadron
This month marks the 235th anniversary of our founding fathers bravely signing the Declaration of Independence. This document was so fundamentally different than anything that had ever been created and has changed not only our country but also the world. These brave men described a future where everyone has rights that must be respected by our government and one another.

Reflecting on this concept brings me back a few years. I was working in the United States Central Command Strategic Plans and Policy Staff when some visiting foreign officers approached me perplexed with a question, "Why does the United States tolerate groups speaking nonsense?"

We began a discussion about the freedom of speech, our most fundamental and misunderstood right. The topic began with a discussion about a television show by a group of conspiracy theorists who portrayed the September 11, 2001 attacks as a government cover-up. They thought it was as reckless of our government to allow such "drivel" on the television as the groups were to produce such a show. The conversation continued as we tried to establish a line of what was and wasn't allowable. They eventually came to realize that setting a limit is extraordinarily difficult and can also be used to repress well-intentioned organizations. That day our international partners came to a realization - it is easier to tolerate some outlandish ideas than it is to try to suppress them. The United States consciously allows freedom of speech and allows our citizens to be the judge of what they are willing to believe. As the discussion continued, they began to advocate the importance of dissent to move forward as a country, a concept their home nations had not experienced in decades.

We Americans are quick to point out our rights, yet slightly slower to understand the implications of them. While I can say and do nearly anything I want (as one of my rights), I am also free to deal with the implications of my actions. Freedom of speech is a simple yet dangerous concept.

I fight for our flag and am willing to die defending it. Unfortunately that flag can be burned in protest or desecrated in the name of art. While I disagree with these actions, I still defend these rights. This paradox confuses other countries of the world, as well as many Americans. Military members tend to be the object of many protestors, although without the blood of those before us, none of us would have a voice. The Korean War Memorial in Washington D.C. has a wall that states, "Freedom is not Free." Wars are not only physical but intellectual battles as well.