“A Prized American Privilege”

“For it is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions.” So wrote Justice Hugo Black in Bridges v. State of California (1941), reversing contempt citations for a labor leader and newspaper for commenting on pending litigation.

Black ruled that contempt citations against labor leader Harry Bridges and the Times Mirror Company, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, for sharply written editorial pieces about different pending cases could not stand in a free society. The government sought to justify the measures, in part, on protecting the dignity of the judicial branch.

Justice Black responded with his famous “prized American privilege” phrase and the following sentence: “And an enforced silence, however limited, solely in the name of preserving the dignity of the bench, would probably engender resentment, suspicion and contempt much more than it would enhance respect.”

Individuals must have the ability to criticize government policies and officials. That is the very meaning of self-government.

Black’s memorable language resonates even more deeply today than it did in 1941. In today’s polarized world, people often engage in hyperbolic, exaggerated, sharp, mean and contentious expression. People are passionate about politics, religion and other pressing events of the day. For example, people must have the ability to debate all sides of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a free society, we must have the ability to let our voices be heard. After all, the words of the Preamble to the Constitution begin with the words, “We the people.”

And we must forever protect and preserve our “prized American privilege.”

David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled, “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).

Read two related pieces by David Hudson on this topic: “More Speech, Not Enforced Silence” and “The ‘Bedrock Principle of the First Amendment” 

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