Editor’s note: This is the first-place winner of the Law Day Essay contest, sponsored by the Washington County Bar Association and the Observer-Reporter. This year’s theme explores how the freedom of speech and the press are among the most important foundations for a free society. All winners will be honored at the public Law Day celebration May 1 at the courthouse.

“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.” This statement, taken from the First Amendment, is one of the greatest statements in the history of human rights. It means that the government cannot punish Americans for their thoughts, words, or views, even if they’re unpopular save for very narrow limits.

“Freedom of expression is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo. Having the freedom of expression, or speech, is a vital human right. Without the ability to express thoughts, there would be no ability to bring about change in society. Freedom of speech reinforces all other rights, allowing society to develop and progress. Editor, Rachel Jolley, believes that free speech is crucial for change. “Free speech has always been important throughout history because it has been used to fight for change. When we talk about rights today they wouldn’t have been achieved without free speech. Think about a time from the past – women not being allowed the vote, or terrible working conditions in the mines – free speech is important as it helped change these things.” Having freedom of speech is not only about having the ability to speak, it is about having the ability to listen to others and allow other views to be heard. Jolley added “We are going through a time where people don’t want to be on a panel with people they disagree with. But we should feel comfortable being in a room with people who disagree with us as otherwise nothing will change.”

The freedom of the press, protected by the First Amendment, is critical to a democracy in which the government is accountable to the people. George Washington once referred testily to the “infamous scribblers” who covered his administration. But, our revolutionary forefathers knew that when the press examines the actions of the government the nation benefits. The freedom of press is important because it plays a vital role in informing citizens about public affairs and monitoring the actions of government at all levels. News organizations expose corruption and cover-ups and they hold our leaders and our institutions accountable, whether it’s a rural county in Wyoming or the state government in Pennsylvania. Press allows ordinary citizens to express themselves and gain exposure to a wide range of information and opinions, while also allowing them to investigate and report the government in wrongdoing.

Therefore, having the freedom of speech and press gives us a free society. We the people have the right to say what we think and the press has the right to perform their essential role: To agitate, investigate, and scrutinize our leaders and institutions. That freedom is the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship.

Ellen McIlvaine is an eighth-grade student at Trinity Middle School.

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