The Importance Of Free Speech: A Memory & Words Worth Repeating

William Allen White was called “The Sage of Emporia” because he spoke for the common man in middle America.

(9-3-18) Nearly all of my blogs are about our broken mental health care system, but this one is not. It is about free speech and journalism.

In 1973, I began my first full-time job as a reporter at The Emporia Gazette, a Kansas newspaper made famous in the late 1800s and early 1900s by its editor, William Allen White.  His son, William Lindsay White, hired me while he was in a hospital dying of cancer. At the time, the newspaper gave all potential employees a writing test.  W. L. White declared, “This boy doesn’t need to take any tests. You can tell from his (college) editorials that he knows how to write.”

I worked at The Gazette for less than two years, but it was the best of the four newspapers where I worked during my reporting career, partly because of its managing editor, Raymond Call, a wonderful mentor.

So why am I writing about William Allen White and The Emporia Gazette on Labor Day?

During the Great Railroad Strike of 1922 , the governor of Kansas threatened to arrest anyone who supported striking rail workers. White defied that order by putting a poster in the newspaper’s front window supporting them and the governor ordered him arrested.  White won his second Pulitzer Prize for his editorial “To an Anxious Friend” about the importance of free speech.

I was so taken by William Allen White’s editorial that I kept a copy hanging in my office for many years.  Labor Day is a fitting time to honor reporters, especially those in small communities such as Emporia. Because of my background, I believe in a free press and I am grateful that newspapers continue to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

To An Anxious Friend by William Allen White, winner of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize

You tell me that law is above freedom of utterance. And I reply that you can have no wise laws nor free entertainment of wise laws unless there is free expression of the wisdom of the people – and, alas, their folly with it. But if there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison, and the wisdom will survive. That is the history of the race. It is proof of man’s kinship with God. You say that freedom of utterance is not for time of stress, and I reply with the sad truth that only in time of stress is freedom of utterance in danger. No one questions it in calm days, because it is not needed. And the reverse is true also; only when free utterance is suppressed is it needed, and when it is needed, it is most vital to justice.

Peace is good. But if you are interested in peace through force and without free discussion – that is to say, free utterance decently and in order-your interest in justice is slight. And peace without justice is tyranny, no matter how you may sugarcoat it with expedience. This state today is in more danger from suppression than from violence, because, in the end, suppression leads to violence. Violence, indeed, is the child of suppression. Whoever pleads for justice helps to keep the peace; and whoever tramples on the plea for justice temperately made in the name of peace only outrages peace and kills something fine in the heart of man which God put there when we got our manhood. When that is killed, brute meets brute on each side of the line.

So, dear friend, put fear out of your heart. This nation will survive, this state will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold – by voice, by posted card, by letter, or by press. Reason has never failed men. Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.