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The Spirit of Liberty

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

It was a small victory, but in a great cause: freedom of speech. And any victory in such a cause should be noted. And celebrated.

It happened in Little Rock. A group of atheists wanted to advertise on the side of local buses, just as a church might. But the public bus line wanted an unprecedented $36,000 deposit--in addition to $5,200 for the ads--before it would allow this opinion to be voiced on the side of its buses: "Are you good without God? Millions are."

The rationale for putting so high a price on an expression of opinion in America? The signs might be defaced, or the buses even attacked by the less than tolerant in this supposed Land of the Free. And the bus company wanted the money deposited up front. Just in case.

To impose such a burden on Americans for expressing their opinion isn't just constitutionally questionable (there's is that phrase in the First Amendment about freedom of speech) but it's also, well, un-American. The court made the right decision: When a public utility -- like a bus line -- opens a public forum, all comers should be welcome. On the same terms.

The bus line's big mistake? To assume that expressing an opinion in this country is a privilege, not a God-given right. Even and maybe especially for the ungodly. For what kind of faith is it that is so weak it fears letting others express theirs?

Oliver Wendell Holmes expressed much that same thought in a dissenting opinion that still resonates, as well it should. As he put it, "if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought -- not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."

Atheism has its own theology, or rather anti-theology, and it seems to be undergoing a revival or at least a proliferation these days. Nonbelievers can choose from a variety of styles and tones and best-sellers -- the vulgar skepticism of a Sam Harris, the wit of a Christopher Hitchens (who's always a delight to read, however reasonable or un- his views may be), and the more systematic anti-theology of a Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett. You pays your money and expresses your opinion. On radio, television, in a pamphlet or letter to the editor, or just on the side of a bus. It's a free country. Or should be.

Believers come in all styles and denominations, too. And they, too, have every right to express their convictions, yes, even in the public square and in public discourse. (For example, God Bless America!) Their views shouldn't be censored, either. Even in an age of political correctness.

Freedom shouldn't be confined to those whose opinions we approve. That's not freedom but its opposite.

And the more freedom others may exercise under the law, the more secure our own.

The greatest threat to liberty may come not from tyrants who would burn books or gag speakers, but from those who would curtail freedom out of fear that letting others exercise it might invite some theoretical violence. So they find a way to censor displays that might offend one group or another.

That's how good people turn into collaborators with evil. Out of fear they do the censors' work for them. By appeasing the violent, they encourage them.

Look at supposed citadels of academic freedom like Yale University's academic press, which published a book not too long ago about the furor over the publication of cartoons displaying the likeness of Mohammed -- but declined to reproduce the very cartoons that had set off the furor.

So much for academic freedom. So much for academics, period. It was like publishing a medical textbook but tearing out the illustrations. What a betrayal of the very freedom our universities are supposed to exemplify.

The spirit of liberty is more often lost in little ways -- a censored cartoon here, a prohibitive price for an expression of opinion there -- than all at once through some draconian decree. The spirit of liberty slips away a little at a time.

Whether it's a bus line in Arkansas or an Ivy League university, the same craven impulse is behind all such censorship: the fear that exercising our freedom will offend some mob somewhere. So we had better hush.

The spirit of liberty is always in danger, for there will always be fearful souls who don't see that courage is, was, and always will be the first requisite for liberty. When courage is shown in its defense, let all cheer -- believers and non-believers alike, all God's chillen.

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