Why the First Amendment is America in a nutshell

Director, Center for Strategic Studies, The Fletcher School, Tufts University
The ability to say whatever we want about whomever we want is a big deal, which is why free speech is the cornerstone of American democracy. But what if that free speech incites hate or violence? Bring it on, says Monica Duffy Toft, Professor of International Politics at Tufts University. After all, you can't throw out the whole idea of free speech just because you don't agree with what someone is saying — that's the whole point of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Even if it's hate speech, the idea that it can happen is more important to uphold than the words themselves. Toft posits to "Let them assemble, let them have their freedom of speech, and redouble your efforts and take measures to ensure that that can happen.” For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.

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TRANSCRIPT

Monica Duffy Toft: So I’ve been asked to choose an amendment that I think is important and valuable, and so I think: the First Amendment. 

And it’s not only because it’s the First Amendment, it’s what it says. 

And it says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” 

And I think from the Constitution this sets up the rest of the Constitution about what it means to be an American citizen and the value of our individual liberties because it sets us apart. As individuals we have the right to speech, we have the right to association, we have the right to religion, we can think, we can act, we can associate freely. 

And as a scholar of international relations, when you poll people around the world and they ask, “What is it that you think is most important about the United States that you think sets the United States apart,” more often than not people point to the First Amendment and to the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of religion as first and foremost what makes the United States special—that we privilege individuals as citizens, and our Constitution protects that. 

We need to keep that in mind as citizens, and I have to tell you around the world people acknowledge that and respect that about the United States. 

I really have a hard time with this this idea of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech regardless of the nature of that speech. 

I mean there are exceptions to that, about whether it promulgates violence or potentially promulgates violence, and I tend to come down on the liberal side, that people should have freedom of speech—and that as defender of the First Amendment of the Constitution that then you need to redouble your efforts to make sure that, if you fear that this is going to lead to violence, conflict, that you redouble your efforts and have police and you make arrests and you say “you’ve overstepped your boundaries.” 

So I tend to be somebody who says, “Let them assemble, let them have their freedom of speech, and redouble your efforts and take measures to ensure that that can happen.”