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posted: 10/24/2013 5:00 AM

Free speech: For good, ill or in between, it's to die for

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In honor of National Free Speech Week, I'd really like to wax loquacious on this important fundamental right, but I know I can't improve on the eloquent simplicity of the famous phrase generally attributed in some form to the French poet, playwright and philosopher Voltaire:

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

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So, I will let that statement stand there by itself as your source of inspiration, otherwise offering only these few random thoughts in hopes of engaging your attention on a notion that is so fundamental to everything we are as Americans and everything we at the Daily Herald do as a newspaper:

• First, this one important addendum to Voltaire's vow: If we are so committed to the right of free speech that we would die for those with whom we disagree, why are we so prone to bile and vitriol when our philosophical adversaries exercise it?

• Most of us quickly recognize free speech as a First Amendment right. Can you name the other four rights that amendment guarantees? (Without jumping on the Internet?)

• We rightly revere the right of free speech, but we don't acknowledge often enough some of its attendant corollaries, notably the responsibility to tolerate others' speech and the right not to listen. That latter right being too often ignored when those swollen with the self-righteousness of free speech just won't learn when to shut up.

• The promoters of National Free Speech Week are encouraging people to talk about the right on Twitter using the hashtag #FreeSpeechWeek. Do a hashtag search and the responses compose an interesting amalgam of what constitutes free speech in today's social media world. It's about 90 percent self-congratulation and promotion, with the remainder containing declarations -- some vulgar, some clever, some inspiring, some just plain inscrutable, like these unedited tweets:

"I really despise all levels of calculus #FreeSpeechWeek"

"Happy #FreeSpeechWeek guys! I don't like our president and I do love God! Woooo""

"i see some of the NUT BARS are trying to use a form of Mccartyism to censure people who disagree with them #topoli #freespeechweek "

"It's #FreeSpeechWeek but I think the right should be revoked for people who talk a lot but say nothing -- like every member of Congress. #fb"

"Silence may be golden, but free speech is priceless! Let's give a shout out to #freespeechweek because #freedomspeaks"

"#freespeechweek. Does this mean I get to run off at the mouth, then back it up with a "FIRST AMENDMENT!" battle cry? #IKNOWMYRAGHTS #NRA"

Phew. That's enough to give one -- perhaps even Voltaire himself -- second thoughts about what he's willing to die for. Thank goodness there's so much more to free speech than just self-absorbed babbling. But do take some time this week, won't you, to reflect on how often, simply in the reading of the daily newspaper and certainly as you speak throughout the day, this right is exercised every day and how critical it is to the functioning of our democracy.

You can celebrate the week and participate in a range of suggested activities at www.freespeechweek.org.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. He exercises his free speech rights and respects those of others on Facebook and Twitter.

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