Christopher M. Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, presented his talk, “Free Speech in America: How Long Can We Keep It?” on Feb. 7.
The lecture, which was sponsored by the College American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the New Library and the offce of Academic Affairs, was held in the library auditorium and was followed by a short Q-and-A session.
Finan, who received his doctorate in history from Columbia University, has been a long-time advocate of free speech and a strong voice in battling censorship in the United States. He presented the history of censorship from the time of the Founding Fathers to post-Sept. 11 America.
“In the 21st century, we have seen a free speech revolution,” Finan said. “Free speech has come from a point where it had no protections to a time where there are considerable safeguards placed on it.”
Finan said the Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment into the Constitution, but the right to free speech was never upheld. It did not become a main issue for the American public until World War I, when the government suppressed criticism of the war by banning magazines and publications, imprisoning people who petitioned the war and even prosecuting people who protested. In 1919, not long after the war ended, the fight for free speech began with the formation of the national ACLU.
This fight has continued into the present day, a time when the country is deeply fearful of the threat of terrorism from abroad, which is reminiscent of the atmosphere during the first and second Red Scares. Finan warned that civil liberties are overlooked when the security of the country is threatened. For this reason, the fight for free speech is one he fears is endless.
Finan predicted that “the fight for free speech will continue.”
It has not been a long and progressive line, but rather a series of peaks and dips, he said.
He cautioned that freedom can be taken away and it is the responsibility of the public to continue the fight against censorship.
He ended with his favorite quote by federal Judge Learned Hand: “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no Constitution, no law, no court can save it.”
He also presented students with insight into new issues in censorship that Finan and others have been fighting, like the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act. Many people do not realize that free speech is still being limited by government legislation.
“Christopher Finan coming to the College has made me rethink what it means to have free speech and how easily we can lose it,” sophomore Spanish and communication studies major Gabi Saraceno said. “Yes, we have made a lot of progress in achieving free speech in America, but we, as the public, still have work to do.”