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We have a knack for celebrating things in America. It seems that every conceivable pastime, historical event, heritage, medical condition and social cause has its own commemorative day, week or month. Except, ironically, for one of the most cherished: freedom of speech. For our first 229 years, there was no organized commemorative event to celebrate free speech. Some have come close, but free speech pure and simple? No takers. That started to change last year, however, with the introduction of National Freedom of Speech Week. It was pioneered by The Media Institute as a way of raising the public’s appreciation for speech in all its forms. The American Bar Association was an inaugural partner, and is joined this year by ALM, publisher of The National Law Journal. They, and more than 20 other professional societies, trade groups, companies and educational institutions, form a strong nucleus that will, one trusts, continue to grow in numbers and breadth. It would be hard to imagine an event celebrating freedom of speech and of the press that did not include the legal community. Starting in the late 1990s, The Media Institute published an annual report on First Amendment developments that also graded the performance of the three branches of government, based on how strongly they protected free speech rights. It was not a highly scientific grading system, but the results were remarkably consistent from year to year: The judiciary always got the top marks. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the courts should be most sensitive toward free speech rights. Judges can operate without the political pressures that beset lawmakers and regulators, who end up juggling competing values, often at the expense of speech (even though many of them are lawyers and should know better). It’s reassuring to know that the courts get it right, at least most of the time. But what’s disturbing is that so many speech cases end up in court. It’s a sign that free speech is under assault. Moreover, speech is under assault from both sides of the ideological spectrum. Historically, protecting free speech was not at the top of the conservative agenda. One need look no further than the restrictions on political advertising in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Congress, and signed into law by President Bush, to see that things haven’t changed much. Even liberals, the traditional champions of free speech, have been too eager to compromise free expression in pursuit of other policy goals, especially “protecting children.” All manner of speech is fair game-from the content of television programming to billboards near schools to the slogans on T-shirts. The liberal vision of “political correctness” now trumps free speech time and again. But free speech isn’t always “correct” or popular. It’s the unpopular opinion, the offensive or even coarse remark, that needs protecting more than popular speech. And lawyers who defend this constitutional guarantee in the courts are the guardians of this precious right. We can’t, however, rely on the judicial system alone to safeguard speech. The future of free speech in America depends on ordinary citizens-hometown patriots who value free speech as much as this country itself. That kind of appreciation has to start early, at home and in schools, but surveys show that today’s kids barely comprehend the First Amendment and generally favor more restraints on the media. What sort of guardians are we grooming for the next generation? National Freedom of Speech Week aims to be one mechanism for increasing free speech awareness among all citizens. Groups like the American Bar Association and ALM and their constituents are natural supporters, given their appreciation for the pivotal role our legal system plays in protecting speech and the press. To the extent that their support can help spread this understanding beyond the courtrooms, they will help guarantee the sanctity of free speech and press for generations to come. Richard T. Kaplar is vice president of The Media Institute, a nonprofit First Amendment think tank in Arlington, Va.

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