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Freedom to speak, freedom to hear

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Al Swegle, guest columnist

Freedom of speech is really a freedom to hear. We have freedom of speech because of Louis Brandeis, the Supreme Court nominee who waited the longest time to be confirmed by the Senate until today’s Merrick Garland.

Oliver Wendell Holmes was a Supreme Court justice who espoused the “clear and present danger” test to free speech. Holmes famously said we didn’t have the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. But Brandeis, considered a radical some hundred years ago, said all speech should be allowed unless it leads to criminal action.

This is an important concept today, because many fired-up Trump delegates to the Republican National Convention were shouting in unison about Hillary Clinton, “Lock Her Up.” I at first condemned the speech, but the more I thought about it, I acknowledged that the protesters in Cleveland needed to be heard.

I was a panelist interviewing eight candidates for the Democratic nomination for president in 1984 in Ames, and some bankrupt farmers were rowdy. An Associated Press reporter stopped me as I left, and she asked me what I thought of the rude behavior. The old Sunday school teacher in me instantly led me to condemn the lack of courtesy.

“Don’t you think they were only registering their frustration about farm loans?” the reporter asked. Of course, she was right. The Democratic candidates needed to hear farmers’ frustration. The right to hear is just as important as the right to speak.

If we don’t hear contrary opinions, we don’t know that we have a problem in our democracy. We need to hear hateful speech so that we can do something about it. When the opposition is silenced, our wounds fester.

Republicans who vigorously opposed Brandeis’ nomination were pleasantly surprised that Brandeis voted against Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s National Relief Administration in the New Deal era. Brandeis wasn’t biased, his Republican contemporaries had been. Brandeis was an independent thinker.

We have a tendency to view politics from our narrow political prism. We say we are Democrats or we are Republicans. We don’t hear what our opponents are saying. Folks naturally want to be right, and they want to impose their personal views on others. That’s wrong. We need to have the freedom to express our own views.

Our good Sen. Chuck Grassley doesn’t want to hear the views of a Democrat today. Sure, the situation is pure politics, but the root of the problem is censorship. Grassley thinks he knows more about governing than the enlightened public. Since he has the power, he is authoritarian.

I’ve talked to countless people who pride themselves in not having listened to the television coverage of the two major parties’ national conventions. They are extremely proud that they are ill informed.

We have so many communication platforms today that we don’t actually hear. I’m concerned about our freedom to hear. Life is so much richer than your political party affiliation. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump say the game is rigged, but the problem is really that when we speak, no one hears.

• Al Swegle of Cedar Rapids was The Gazette farm editor from 1968 to 1987.

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