In Defense of Freedom
DO YOU live in a country where there is a bill of rights? If you do you may believe that your freedoms are secure. But how secure are they in actual fact? Can you be certain that you can always exercise them?
Suppose you felt obligated to speak out publicly about corrupt activities carried on by men holding political power in your town. Would you be able to exercise your right of free speech or would you find yourself harassed by the police? Suppose you lived in a town where most of the people belonged to labor unions, but you had strong objections to labor unions. Would you be able to express your views publicly for very long? What if you went to a town where there were racial tensions and began speaking out in favor of racial integration? How long would you be able to exercise your freedom of speech?
A real test of how secure guarantees of freedom are is to try to exercise them where your viewpoint is in conflict with that of the majority or of those in power. People are subject to self-interest, prejudices and other human weaknesses that influence their attitudes toward outspoken individuals and disliked minorities. It is not uncommon for local politicians and police to ignore Constitutional rights when confronted with such persons.
What would you do if you were illegally denied your Constitutionally guaranteed rights? Would you defend them peacefully by going to the courts? But what about people who do not have the money for long court battles? More than likely they would grit their teeth in bitter anger, concluding that violent demonstrations or armed revolt against the “Establishment” is their only recourse.
But will resorting to violence bring them greater freedom? Not likely. Violence breeds more violence that can lead to a suspending of Constitutional freedoms. If a revolutionary government gains power, freedoms are not likely to be extended to opposers. Even those who helped to put the new government into power may find that they have fewer freedoms than before. Thus the quest for human freedoms can become frustrating.
However, many bloodless battles have been fought in defense of freedom in the courts. Some of these have been victorious and have become historical precedents. One of these helped to strengthen Canadian freedoms.
Jailed for Speaking the Truth
On December 7, 1946, Louise Lamb, one of Jehovah’s witnesses in Canada, was visiting the homes of people in Verdun, Quebec, and speaking with them about the hope-inspiring things in the Bible. At the time Premier Maurice Duplessis was enjoying a sixteen-year rule as the political boss of the province. It displeased him to see people not of his religion talking with Quebec people on religious matters. So he used the police to deny Jehovah’s witnesses their freedoms of speech and religion. Miss Lamb was one of the many who were arrested for exercising these freedoms.
She was held in jail over the weekend without a charge against her, without being permitted to call her friends or legal counsel. She was photographed, fingerprinted and treated as a common criminal for having exercised freedoms that have long been cherished in Canada.
After spending the weekend in jail she was told that she could go free, but she must sign a release agreeing not to take action against the provincial police officer for jailing her. If she refused to sign, a criminal charge would be brought against her. She refused, and the charge was filed. A court later dismissed it.
Miss Lamb then took civil action against the police officer in defense of her right of free speech and of religion. This proved to be a long and difficult battle that finally ended in the Supreme Court of Canada. The court’s opinion vindicated her by saying: “The arrest and prosecution were quite without justification or excuse and the detention of the appellant over the weekend was carried out in a manner and in conditions little short of disgraceful.”
The victory she won in a long legal battle was acknowledged by Professor Frank Scott in his 1959 book Civil Liberty and Canadian Federalism as a victory in the defense of freedom, a victory that helped to make democratic freedoms more secure for all Canadians. He said:
“The Lamb case is merely another example of police illegality, but it is part of the dismal picture that has too often been exposed in Quebec in recent years. . . . When reading such a story one wonders how many other innocent victims have been similarly treated by the police but have not had the courage and the backing to pursue the matter through to final victory—in this instance 12-1/2 years after the arrest had taken place. We should be grateful that we have in this country some victims of state oppression who stand up for their rights. Their victory is the victory of all of us.”
As observed by Professor Scott, not everyone who has been denied the fundamental freedoms has had the determination, the financial means and the legal backing to push a court fight clear to the Supreme Court. Thus this case that was pushed there to victory is of historical significance in Canada.
Bill of Rights
It is generally believed that a bill of rights will ensure justice for minorities. This was the view expressed by John Diefenbaker in 1960, when he was the Canadian Prime Minister and when a bill of rights was enacted in Canada. He stated: “This Bill is a major step forward. It will set up an altar of freedom that will ensure that the minority will not be unjustly treated by the majority, which is of the essence of freedom.”
There can be no doubt that by having a bill of rights the Canadian people are better off, as it gives them a legal basis for the freedoms they cherish. But does its existence in itself mean that these freedoms will be respected automatically, that everyone will be granted them? Does it mean that no minority will be unjustly treated by the authorities in some town? Not necessarily. There are always self-seeking public officials and emotional groups among the public who are not willing to grant the freedoms of a bill of rights to persons with unpopular viewpoints. That means such persons have to defend their freedoms legally or suffer the loss of them.
Fight for Freedom in the U.S.
The United States has had a bill of rights for 180 years, but Jehovah’s witnesses have had to resort to the courts repeatedly in order to enjoy the freedoms it guarantees. Its existence has given legal basis for pressing many cases to the Supreme Court of the United States that became landmark cases in legal history. Commenting on this, Leon Friedman, in his book The Wise Minority, wrote:
“In the twenty-odd cases won, this small, weak, and unpopular minority made fundamental changes in American law. They firmly established the right of all minorities to use the streets and public parks to deliver their messages. And they made clear that the government could not compel any overt expression of obedience or loyalty from its citizens. These precedents advanced political freedom in this country by several degrees.”
Concurring with this view, Professor Milton R. Konvitz observes in his book Fundamental Liberties of a Free People:
“Jehovah’s Witnesses became perfect guinea pigs for the testing of the limits of the First Amendment freedoms. They were charged with ‘excesses and abuses.’ Beginning with 1938, they provided the Supreme Court with a long series of cases in which various phases of these freedoms were subject to careful examination. The result, on the whole, has been the establishment of precedents which have strengthened the foundations and reaches of freedom of religion and, no less, of freedom of speech, press, and assembly.”
Although these legal battles by Jehovah’s witnesses accomplished much in the defense of Constitutional freedoms in the United States, there are still situations in which those freedoms are threatened. A recent example is a bill passed in 1971 by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. It made the saluting of the flag by public schoolchildren compulsory and did not provide for the exempting of students who view the saluting of any flag as against their religious conscience. This bill threatens the right of schoolchildren to enjoy freedom of religion.
Since the saluting of the flag is associated with patriotism, many people become emotionally upset when they hear of anyone declining to salute it. Even though the majority have a different viewpoint, should they not grant this minority the freedom to refrain from doing something that is against their religious conscience? Would not respect for the religious conscience of a minority be showing appreciation for the freedoms represented by the flag?
Commenting on the Pennsylvania bill, the Philadelphia Inquirer of June 16, 1971, said editorially:
“The bill is unconstitutional on its face. Similar compulsory flag salutes have been struck down time after time by the U.S. Supreme Court, most notably in the 1943 case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, when the late Justice Robert Jackson delivered an opinion in which he eloquently declared:
“‘If there is any fixed star in our Constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.’”a
The legislators in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives are unquestionably sincere in their desire to instill patriotism in schoolchildren, but the fact remains that they ignored the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Continuing its comments, this newspaper editorial said:
“And patriotism certainly cannot be promoted when legislative bodies themselves flout the Constitution. The issue, declared Rep. Ray Hovis, is simple: ‘It is whether this legislature wishes to commit what is virtually an act of civil disobedience because it does not like the present constitutional law on saluting the flag.’”
The freedoms of the Bill of Rights give a person the right to express his beliefs, but they also give him the right to refrain from expressing beliefs that he does not hold. Commenting on this, Professor Konvitz states in his book Fundamental Liberties of a Free People:
“The freedom not to speak, not to profess beliefs, may be more important than the freedom to speak, since the profession of beliefs that one does not maintain may do more violence to the conscience than the failure to express the beliefs that one does maintain.”
Where there is a strong spirit of nationalism it is often the tendency to expect everyone to speak and act in the same manner as the majority, with no allowances being made for religious conscience. This is a form of thought control that is carried to extremes under certain types of governments. But where a government prides itself in the freedoms it grants its people, why should people in power try to force a minority to do something that is against their religious conscience? Is this not inconsistent with patriotic expressions about liberty for all?
It is exceedingly difficult for freedom to be enjoyed by all people impartially even in democratic lands. Usually a person who is out of step with the majority on certain things will have to defend his Constitutional rights. While a peaceable defense can be made in the courts, this does not necessarily mean that he will be victorious. Judges are imperfect humans as everyone else is and are swayed by personal interests and emotions and are subject to making errors in judgment. Even the Supreme Court of the United States has had to reverse itself at times because of perceiving that it had erred in previous decisions, a classic example being when it reversed its former Pennsylvania flag salute decision in the case of Minersville School District v. Gobitis, of June 3, 1940 (310 U.S. 586), which had become the signal for a general upsurge of violence throughout the country, against Jehovah’s witnesses.
Although Jehovah’s witnesses in years past established many legal precedents by their legal fights in defense of freedom, the freedoms of minorities are still not absolutely secure. Injustices can be expected as long as imperfect humans are exercising authority over other humans. So while the people in Canada and the United States have benefited from the decisions that Jehovah’s witnesses have obtained in legal fights, the defense of freedom continues.
Freedom for All
Circumstances will change for the better, but this will require a general change in thinking and a change in moral values. There must be a basic love for one’s fellowman and fellow feeling for him among peoples all over the earth. This is concisely expressed in the Bible when it says: “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 22:39) But how can such a change come?
The only hope for the change that is needed is in the Scriptural promise that a government of God’s making will soon rule the earth in justice and righteousness. Only under this divine government will freedoms no longer be threatened by prejudices, unrestrained emotions, hatreds, misunderstandings, injustices and human errors in judgment. This divinely established government will not be subject to the many flaws, personal mistakes and selfish interests that are inherent in man-made governments. With all mankind under the righteous rule of God’s kingdom, no one will ever again have to fight in defense of the freedoms due him.
a Reported in Volume 319 of official United States reports, at pages 624, 642.