Guest Perspective: Free Expression Award Honoree Gen. Colin L. Powell Defends the First Amendment

Gen. Colin L. Powell will deliver the following remarks at the Freedom Forum’s 2021 Free Expression Awards celebration tonight, April 15, at 7 p.m. Eastern. Powell, former U.S. secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the recipient of the event’s Global Freedom of Expression Leadership Award. His remarks have been edited for clarity and length.

Good evening everyone. It’s a great pleasure to be with you as you pay tribute to all of these wonderful people who have been involved in the work of your group and who also represent the kind of fantastic things that we have to say about what we are doing with respect to freedom of speech.

I have a deep sense of feeling for what you stand for. I have been an American in public life for going on 50 years. The first 35 of them were to be a soldier. One of the responsibilities I had was to defend the Constitution of the United States, to defend the United States of America.

One of the things I had to defend was not just fighting an enemy but dealing with another enemy that could come about: somebody trying to shut down freedom of speech. I believe the First Amendment, the first element of the Bill of Rights, is one of the most important elements of our Constitution and especially of all the amendments to the Constitution.

What do I mean? I was fighting for freedom of speech. I was serving my country for freedom of religion. I was doing everything I could to protect my country in every single way with respect to what we stand for — not just battles or armies but things, visions, what we’re doing here tonight.

In the military I would occasionally get into little fights with some members of the media. I like working with the media. I trust the media, and I hope the media trusts me.

But you have to understand this: I will help the media in every way to give them all the information I have and they need, with one exception. I also have to protect the soldiers of the United States of America. There’s always a bit of a conflict in how close we can come between these two objectives. My responsibility as a soldier and as a citizen is to tell the public, tell my fellow citizens, all I can as long as I’m not putting soldiers’ lives at risk.

The people I worked with in the Army were putting their lives at risk. I had to defend the rights that they had: the rights to come home safely … and to always believe in and get ready to fight for freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and all the other freedoms that line up in your wonderful organization and in our wonderful country.

So I want to thank all of you for coming together tonight to give awards to these individuals. I am especially honored and pleased that you would see me fit to give me an award of this kind.

But I want to tell you this: Many times people said, “Tell us more.” No. I will tell you what I can, but I will not give away things you should not have.

I’ve tried hard to always be honest with the public, to be honest with the press. The press is the public, the public is the press. That’s what we’re all about. I cannot imagine an America that does not believe in these values.

I cannot imagine that I fought for an America that did not realize what freedom of speech, freedom of religion and all the other freedoms are about. That’s the America I fought for. That’s the America I believe in. That’s the America so many Americans believe in.

We have to stand up against those Americans who see fit not to support us. This is what we do for a living. This is what I’m prepared to give my life for.

My right to speak out, your right to speak out, this is what the foundation’s all about, what you guys are all about. This is what makes your organization so impressive and so important to the nation. I also want to thank you again for what you have done to honor those of us who have received the honor.

I’m not sure I really deserve it compared to those members of the press, members of the media who have also put themselves in danger without being able to defend themselves. … We could not be the country we are if it wasn’t for those of you who … tell us the truth and fight against those who will not tell us the truth.

I’ve always tried to do it. I’ve gotten in trouble a few times in the military or even in civilian life, when I pushed back and said, “No. Won’t do it. Can’t do it.”

“Why can’t you do it?”

“Because I’m violating the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But more importantly, I’m violating the people of the United States, who are expecting me to do it the way I’ve said I will do it, the way I’ve been told to do it by the Constitution, and the way I have been told to do it by every one of my fellow citizens.”

When I see something wrong, I will speak out about it. I’ve done that a number of times — with the flag, several times. Honor the flag. Honor what it stands for. But if you want to burn it, you have the freedom to do that. It is a piece of cloth that has been purchased by a civilian. That piece of cloth is owned by that civilian to use in whatever way that civilian wants. I hope he won’t (burn) it, but he has a right and the freedom to do it. Because he has that right and freedom, I have protected my rights and my freedoms.

It’s a great pleasure to be with you tonight to share this evening with all those who have been given honors, and to give my best wishes to the Freedom Forum. You are making a difference.

Thank you.

Tonight’s virtual Free Expression Awards ceremony is free and open to all. It begins at 7 p.m.

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