"The first is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world." President Roosevelt's speech to Congress about the “four essential human freedoms” so inspired the illustrator Norman Rockwell that he decided to use these concepts for a series of paintings about why the United States was entering World War II. He wanted his art to suggest what the potential downfall of other democratic nations would mean for America.

In his memoirs Rockwell describes how he struggled to come up with ideas for simple, everyday scenes to convey the president's high-minded ideals.1 Tossing and turning one night over the problem, he woke up remembering a town meeting he had attended where a manual laborer, Jim Edgerton, stood up and said something that everyone else disagreed with. Rockwell recalled being impressed that no one had shouted him down; on the contrary, he was permitted to voice his objections to a proposed policy.

Thus Edgerton became Rockwell's model for Freedom of Speech. Of the four pictures in the series, it was the only one that portrayed a public scene, showing ordinary people engaged in the participatory democratic process. At a time when Hitler and Mussolini seemed bent on destroying free speech, Americans must have appreciated the reminder that this freedom was alive and well in their local communities. (Freedom of Speech was reputedly Rockwell's favorite painting in the series as well as the favorite of much of his audience.)

Little did that audience suspect that a year later, Roosevelt would authorize incarcerating more than 110,000 people of Japanese origin, most of whom were American citizens, in what he called “concentration camps,” on the grounds that they could pose a risk to national security. Justifying it as a “military necessity,” the government forced these people to leave their homes and live in camps under armed guard. This policy was not to be repudiated until 1983, when a U.S. congressional commission uncovered evidence to prove that there had been no military necessity for the unequal, unjust treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The commission reported that the causes of the incarceration were rooted in “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” 2

A Threat to Terrorists—or to Liberty?

If deciding where to draw the line between freedom of expression and freedom from fear was a challenge in Roosevelt's time, it is equally challenging, if not more so, today. Shortly after September 11, 2001, Congress overwhelmingly passed the USA PATRIOT Act, enhancing the authority of law enforcers to investigate and preempt potential acts of terrorism. The U.S. government now enjoys far-ranging powers including the ability to conduct so-called “sneak-and-peek” searches, obtain access to private records, and use secret proceedings in immigration cases. More recently, the act was expanded to permit the FBI to obtain a person's medical, financial, and other records in terrorism cases without seeking a judge's approval.

While some Americans believe that this expansion of government powers is justified given the threat of further acts of terrorism on their own soil, others fear the consequences of allowing intelligence and law enforcement agencies to monitor and sometimes confront individuals who are exercising their First Amendment rights. Many have also expressed concern about the costs and perils of stifling political dissent, a requisite for a functioning democracy. At the March Eckerd meeting, scholar Michael Smith found it troubling that American citizens do not feel free to debate the problem of terrorism openly, without questioning one another's patriotism. The clampdown on political protest was particularly apparent in the period leading up to the Iraq War, when according to the ACLU, some dissenters were branded as un-American and became the subject of media attacks, hate Web sites, death threats, and in some cases, even job loss.3

While positive images of America as a beacon of human rights and liberation still persist, favorable opinions of U.S. actions have been declining worldwide, particularly since the invasion of Iraq. According to recent Pew Center polls, majorities in a number of countries felt that the United States was “not sincere” in its efforts to curb international terrorism. Harsh actions against Muslims not only in the United States but also in Afghanistan, Guantánamo, and Iraq; stiffer obstacles for foreigners seeking entry to the United States; support for crackdowns on human rights abroad by governments friendly to the goals of the “war on terror”—such factors have contributed to the broadening and deepening of anti-American sentiment, to the point where many now regard the United States as a threat to world peace.

Democracy Everywhere

Curiously, while the “war on terror” has restricted freedoms at home, it appears to have accelerated the campaign to introduce such freedoms abroad. Promoting democracy (particularly in the Middle East) is now the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. As President Bush put it in his second inaugural address, the hope is that successful elections in Iraq will inspire democratic reformers “from Damascus to Tehran.” This echoed a remark he had made on the occasion of the National Endowment for Democracy's twentieth anniversary: “The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.”

So what criteria can be used to measure the successful implementation of democracy in countries outside the United States? Natan Sharansky has proposed “the town square test” for free societies—a definition endorsed by Condoleezza Rice when, during her Senate confirmation hearings for Secretary of State, she asked: “Can a person walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm?”

The Rockwell painting Freedom of Speech could almost be an emblem for this concept. That said, had Rockwell lived today, he might have thought twice before choosing a New England town meeting as his subject. As noted by Smith, American citizens are no longer able to get into a town meeting with the president without being prescreened for their views.This seems a bitter irony.

Smith said he would be more comfortable with the American policy of democracy promotion if the government behaved consistently at home. He would also feel better “if we took it seriously in countries where we get along, more or less, with the government, like Saudi Arabia.” Finally, he would be “happier if the administration were more thoughtful about the means they use for achieving democracy.” “Building democracy is a long-term political process, and that’s not how things happen after an invasion,” he explained.

Freedom of Speech versus Freedom from Fear

Addressing America's growing credibility gap, Eckerd College speaker William Schulz of Amnesty International said: “What the world most admires about America is not our military might, not our economic power; it is the vision this nation seeks to embody of a society that respects immigrants, that protects minorities, and that guarantees due process even to the most heinous and evil among us.”

In Schulz's view, America now risks being seen as a nation that has lost its moral compass as the result of the fears aroused by 9/11. While he finds these fears understandable—terrorism is, after all, “the antithesis of respect for human rights”—he argues that American society has yet to strike a reasonable balance between freedom of speech and freedom from fear. After an attack of the proportions of 9/11, rights may be limited “to secure the public order, to protect us against things like terrorism,” Schulz said. But he also believes that these limitations should be modest, short term, and not based on racial or ethnic discrimination.

Schulz noted that historically, the United States has been inclined to clamp down too broadly when faced with security threats—the incarceration of Japanese Americans being a prime example. Yet Schulz believes that human rights advocates concerned about government abuse tend to downplay the importance of the right to security. When al-Qaeda commits what are essentially crimes against humanity, the human rights community should actively work with the government to thwart their activities. “Human rights advocates like myself have an obligation not just to stubbornly resist every effort of the government to protect the people. We have an obligation to work with the government, not just always to criticize it—to find the right balance between security and liberty,” he said.

Advocating an end to absolutes, he believes, is central to making progress. Only with the government and human rights advocates working together will the fight against terrorism succeed. In Schulz’s view, the best way to defeat terrorists is to offer those who are inclined to support them a better vision—which includes the highest respect for human rights.


1) If Norman Rockwell were alive today, what model might he have chosen for his “freedom of speech” painting?

2) Should democracy promotion be an integral part of U.S. foreign policy? If so, what are the most ethical means for pursuing this goal? Can the use of force be justified? What standards of accountability apply?

3) Has the U.S. clamped down too broadly on civil liberties in response to recent security threats? By the same token, are human rights advocates guilty of playing down the importance of security concerns because of their preoccupation with abuse of detainees and prisoners? How can advocates of security and human rights work together more effectively?



“The Cost of Freedom—Civil Liberties, Security and the USA PATRIOT Act.” PBS documentary, aired September 2004. See in particular the interview with Ruth Wedgwood—transcript of which is available at http://www.duncanentertainment.com/wedgewood.php.

Diamond, Larry. “Universal Democracy?” Policy Review 119 (June 2003). Available online at http://www.policyreview.org/jun03/diamond.html.

Leone, Richard C., Greg Anrig, Jr., and Greg Anrig, eds. The War on Our Freedoms: Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism. PublicAffairs, 2003. Full text of Alan Brinkley's chapter, “A Familiar Story: Lessons from Past Assaults on Freedoms,” is available at http://www.amazon.com.

Pew Survey Report: “A Year After Iraq War: Mistrust of America in Europe Ever Higher, Muslim Anger Persists.” The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, released March 16, 2004. Available at http://people-press.org.

Schulz, William. Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights. Nation Books, 2003. Full text of Chapter 1 available at http://www.amazon.com.

Edited Speech transcripts on CarnegieCouncil.org

Diamond, Larry. “Universal Democracy? Prospects for a World Transformed.” Merrill House Programs, 2004.

Rieff, David. “At the Point of a Gun: Democracy and Armed Intervention.” Merrill House Programs, 2005. See also a related CarnegieCouncil.org interview with Rieff.

Roth, Kenneth. “Three Challenges for the Human Rights Movement: Darfur, Abu Ghraib, and the Role of the United Nations.” Merrill House Programs, 2005.

Sharansky, Natan. “The Case for Democracy: The Power to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.” Merrill House Programs, 2004.

Sunstein, Cass. “Why Societies Need Dissent.” Merrill House Programs, 2003.

Other Carnegie Council resources (full text on CarnegieCouncil.org)

Empire and Democracy Project Report: “Multilateral Strategies to Promote Democracy.” Carnegie Council Series, 2004.

Empire and Democracy Project Report: “Promoting Democracy Through International Law.” Carnegie Council Series, 2004.

“Public Security and Human Rights.” Human Rights Dialogue 2.8 (Fall 2002).
1. See historian Robert Westbrook’s discussion of the inspiration behind Rockwell's Freedom of Speech in The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History (1993).
2. For more information, go to http://www.densho.org. Densho, or the Japanese American Legacy Project, uses digital technology to preserve and make accessible primary source materials on the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans.
3. For instance, the ACLU documented more than 300 allegations of wrongful arrest and police brutality from demonstrators at anti-war rallies in Washington and New York.