Seventy years ago, Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith stood up on the floor of the United States Senate to deliver the speech of her career.

You’re likely familiar with that speech, known as her “Declaration of Conscience,” in which she very clearly denounced one of her colleagues, Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy, without even deigning to mention him by name. You might not be familiar with her exact words, though, and with the odd circumstances facing us this Independence Day, they’re worth re-examining.

Sen. Smith eloquently pointed out that “whether it be a criminal prosecution in court or a character prosecution in the Senate, there is little practical distinction when the life of a person has been ruined.”

She then laid out the principles of Americanism, which include: “The right to criticize; The right to hold unpopular beliefs; The right to protest; The right of independent thought.” She may have been speaking about abuse of senatorial privilege by one of her colleagues, but her words resonate even today in the often-toxic culture we now see online.

We saw it a few years ago, when “Star Wars” fans who didn’t like actress Kelly Marie Tran’s character in “The Last Jedi” so viciously attacked Tran that she ended up quitting Instagram.

Of course, plenty of people always have strong opinions about “Star Wars,” and there’s always been lots of debate among fans every time a new film has been released. That’s perfectly fair, as is legitimate criticism of the direction of a series. Heck, it’s completely understandable to give up on a series as a whole if you don’t like it anymore. That’s what reasonable adults do, rather than personally attacking an actress online in racist terms. (Then again, reasonable adults don’t get upset about non-white characters being in films.)


It’s also perfectly valid to pick and choose which products you use and entertainment you consume based purely on politics, if you wish. It’s extremely limiting, but if that’s how you want to live your life, you can do that. What you shouldn’t do is try to destroy someone’s reputation or livelihood based solely on political differences. That’s simple nastiness, and it’s not productive to anyone.

If you don’t like what someone has to say, it’s easy enough to avoid them and their products yourself; there’s no reason to try to destroy them completely. This “cancel culture” that has become so prevalent on social media of late, on both the right and the left, would be intimately familiar to Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, as it has direct echoes of McCarthyism and the Red Scare.

Now, it’s important to understand that there’s a rather large difference between the legal restrictions spelled out in the First Amendment and the general principle of freedom of speech. The First Amendment just stops government – at any level – from repressing your speech. That doesn’t mean that the newspaper has to run your letter to the editor, nor does it mean that your Facebook friends have to tolerate every rant you post to their page. It does mean that a city has to be neutral when it decides when to issue permits for rallies, or which churches qualify for nonprofit status. That’s the purpose of the First Amendment.

It also means that it’s perfectly legal for anyone to gin up an online mob against someone for daring to have a different opinion. Indeed, by doing so, they’re exercising their First Amendment rights. There are no ways for government to interfere and stop these sorts of online campaigns without undermining the First Amendment themselves. Instead, it’s up to all of us to ignore these sorts of efforts, and refuse to engage in these attacks.

As Sen. Smith said, “Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.” That was true 70 years ago, and it remains sadly true today.

So, this Independence Day weekend, let’s celebrate our freedom not just from the British, but also from fear.

If you have a different opinion than someone else, try to express yours civilly, rather than trying to shame or terrorize them into silence. If you can’t disagree with someone civilly, it’s perfectly fine to just walk away.

That’s how we can all come closer every day to living Margaret Chase Smith’s values rather than Joe McCarthy’s. If we do that, we’ll be helping to build a better country for everyone – and that’s what Americanism should be all about.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins.
He can be contacted at: 
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