The Winning Oration Annual Congress National Competition 2014
By Hayley Caroline Snowden
Contest held July 2014 in South Carolina
In a crowded church sanctuary configured much like a modern university classroom, America's earliest traditions of free speech were given full expression more than 200 years ago by the Virginian statesman Patrick Henry. Speaking to persuade his colleagues to fortify Virginia's defenses against encroachments by Britain, Henry declaimed plainly, "…I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve…For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery…" He delivered these words knowing that his political opponents in the room were virulently opposed to his position. But every man of his day in the American colonies embraced a common understanding of the liberty to speak freely.
In fact, no one knew better the importance of expressive freedom than the Founding Fathers. From the dawn of the nation, they deliberately designed the Constitution to safeguard rights of individual citizens. They recognized that the "only legitimate government was based upon the consent of the governed," and accordingly drew up an outline for a weak government-one that distributed power among three countervailing branches to ensure that governmental authority would not become too concentrated and revert to tyranny. So concerned were these patriots that the individual liberties of Americans be clearly delineated that James Madison drafted the Bill of Rights.
One of the most valued of these rights has truly set the United States apart from every other nation in the world. Throughout the course of history, few countries have been able to boast that their citizens have complete freedom to voice their ideas, whether in public speeches, private conversation, or, in more recent years, online forums. Freedom of speech, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, is indeed a distinguishing factor of American government, but has not always been upheld in the most praiseworthy manner. Well-intended, but inappropriate, legislation in early American history, such as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 or the Gag Resolution of 1836, have attempted to silence Americans and keep them from speaking their minds. This pattern of the subjugation of free speech has lately taken a darker turn, manifesting itself in the country's most crucial center for learning-the university.
As colleges were becoming more diverse in the 1970s and 1980s, "speech codes" were enacted with the intent to prevent any offensive language from being used in the classroom. What has evolved out of such restrictions on speech in the college environment is truly cause for concern. Now, students on many campuses are forbidden from wearing or endorsing certain messages on clothing, speaking their minds outside of tiny "speech zones," or even reading specific literature in public. The latter was seen at a university in 2008 when a student was convicted of "racial harassment" because he was publicly reading a book cont