Off the Bench | Law Day 2019: 'Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society'

Off the Bench | Law Day 2019: 'Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society'

Most secular holidays and observances are tied to a birthday or anniversary of an important event. Lincoln's birthday and Independence Day are two prominent examples.

At least one upcoming holiday celebrates an important part of our way of life that is not tied to a specific event.

May 1 is Law Day. President Dwight D. Eisenhower came up with the idea, and Congress officially designated the date for the annual observance.

While we do not typically exchange cards or gifts, get a day off from work or school, or attend parades, it is a day worth noting. It gives us a reminder of the role of law in our society. In addition, it provides an opportunity to cultivate a better understanding of our system of justice and the legal profession itself.

Each year, a theme is chosen for Law Day. Last year's theme was "Separation of powers: Framework for Freedom."

Given the seemingly endless conflict between the executive branch and the legislative branch, it would be worth revisiting that again this year.

Perhaps, rather than losing confidence in and respect for our system of government and the institutions that comprise it, we should remember that the framers of the Constitution accepted a certain amount of friction as a consequence of avoiding the consolidation of all government power in a single person or group.

While we continue to reflect on that thought, we should also turn to the 2019 theme, "Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society."

In my mind, this theme calls us to celebrate the fact that, thanks to the courage and sacrifice of generations, we live in a land of freedom. It further points out two significant aspects of our free society while also suggesting that they are essential to maintaining it.

While some complain about too much government regulation or perceived interference in our lives, most would agree that we enjoy significant freedom.

I suspect that the number of people renouncing their U.S. citizenship to relocate to a land controlled by a totalitarian regime is very small.

Our Constitution, laws and the enforcement of same protect that freedom. The Law Day theme focuses on two fundamental rights. We all know the two that are specified are not the only ones we enjoy. I might have picked different ones, but I suspect these two were chosen on the basis of timeliness.

Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the United States Constitution. That document prohibits, with certain exceptions, the government from restricting what we say or punishing us for our expressions, even when they are unpopular. Individuals can openly criticize the president of the United States. As we have witnessed with our current commander in chief and his immediate predecessors, the commentary can be quite harsh. Imagine how that would go over in North Korea.

Most of the time, we do not stop to think about this right. We might well chose our words carefully around our spouse, but we do not have to look over our shoulder in fear of a government agent ready to pounce if we say something critical. The latter is protected, while the former can have negative consequences.

When I was young, the notion of free press seemed simple. I even remember reading a newspaper when visiting family in Detroit. It was the Detroit Free Press. People kept informed and reached their own conclusions and opinions. The government could not control what was reported and could not dictate what the people concluded.

Things are more complicated now. Press encompasses so much more in the days of the internet, social media and the 24-hour news cycle. The core concept holds true. Fox News and MSNBC are free to see and report as they determine. The viewing public, not the government, will decide.

Use of the internet poses a whole new set of challenges. It is clear that foreign agents have planted disinformation using social media and websites. There may be calls to regulate or restrict the ability to access these. Debate will focus on the lengths we can go in the effort to protect ourselves from foreign interference without eroding the important rights of free press and free speech.

I remember the expression "Freedom is not Free." That means many things. The service and sacrifice of our military immediately come to mind. A vigilant and informed public is also key. I firmly believe that those who operate our legal system, lawyers, judges, court staff and jurors, likewise faithfully serve to protect our free society.

Happy Law Day.

David Bernthal of Mahomet is a retired 21-year federal magistrate. He is a counsel with the Webber & Thies PC law firm and serves as senior mediator and arbitrator with ADR Systems. His email is

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