“A Peculiar Evil: A History of Silencing Expression in America”
a Readers Theater Script by Dinah Zeiger
with Travis Wilson
Newspapers played a crucial role in the construction of America’s identity as a self-governing society, free to debate issues, dissent and disagree. Today, as traditional print gives way to new media, it is worthwhile to reflect on the centrality of the press in defending Americans’ right to self-expression.
The American colonies came of age with Enlightenment philosophers and scholars whose ideas formed the philosophical principles of the nascent nation’s leaders. Men like George Washington and James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson believed that society could not progress nor democracy flourish if speech and press were not free. John Stuart Mill articulated what he believed was the “peculiar evil of silencing expression of an opinion:” It robbed “the human race” of the possibility of finding the truth. Only healthy, open debate would prove an idea right or wrong.
This play dramatizes key moments in American history when the right to speak and publish freely came into conflict with competing political and social values. The script, composed of five scenes, includes excerpts from significant cases articulating the fundamental values of free speech and free press in a democracy. Each scene traces the cultural, legal and moral arguments at a pivotal moment in the nation’s history in which the limits of government interference in citizens’ lives were tested.