Published August 2009 — Download PDF of the original newspaper column
Byrd's-Eye View By U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd FREEDOM OF SPEECH REQUIRES TOLERANCE OF OTHERS VIEWS In September 1787 in Philadelphia, some of the brightest and bravest men came together to forge the document that to this day guides our great nation: the Constitution of the United States.
The Constitution's preamble established our government's purpose in one short paragraph, followed by a few pages which gave this nation direction and structure. And for almost 222 years, the Constitution has remained a living, breathing document - the foundation of our freedoms and the bedrock of our rights and liberties - that we all cherish.
One of the most sacred of the freedoms contained in our Constitution is the guarantee of freedom of speech. As I have said repeatedly over the years, no citizen should be a mere spectator in our government. We should express our opinions, petition our elected representatives, and engage in an open and civilized debate on the important issues that confront our country.
However, as I have watched the health care debate unfold in many areas and venues across this country during the past month, I have become increasingly concerned with the tone and tenor of a "civilized discourse" that I believe the Framers of the Constitution had in mind when they established the right to free speech. In many town hall meetings logical and open discussion has been supplanted by disruptive shouting matches where no one is heard and no debate ensues. Members of Congress have been rudely interrupted during their responses and various attendees have engaged in physical confrontation with one another requiring law enforcement officials to remove them from the town meetings.
As a strong defender of our Constitution, I am in no way suggesting that free and open discussion on any topic should be limited. I am heartened by the amount of discussion that is taking place all across this country on the issue of health care and the desire by tens of millions of Americans to become fully informed on the many proposals under consideration in Congress.
But as we go into what will be a critical debate on the future of our nation's health care system, I encourage all of us to take a deep breath, exhale, and be tolerant of others views. Shrillness and violence will not move the debate forward - it will only attempt to undermine the type of freedom of speech that our Founding Fathers envisioned back in 1787 when they rose to that dramatic challenge of establishing what has become the greatest Republic in the world.
August 26, 2009