Freedom of Speech in Art (Rockwell)

Cher’s Famous Art

12 April 2021

Freedom of Speech

Norman Rockwell, American Illustrator, 1943

Freedom of Speech. We shout it from our rooftops. Freedom of Speech. We parade it in our streets with protest marches. Freedom of Speech. We are witness to it in the sit-ins in our town squares. Freedom of Speech. We give testimony to it on the pages of our newspapers and magazines. Freedom of Speech. Our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts are constant reminders of it. Freedom of Speech. Our response to others is to cheer them on, maybe join them – or ask them to stop. Freedom of Speech. In the end, it is a blessing and a treasure that we Americans all enjoy; it is our constitutional right. Let’s respect and appreciate it for it’s true worth.

“Freedom of Speech” by Norman Rockwell, 1943

Freedom of Speech: the Painting

Freedom of Speech was the first in a series of four paintings by Norman Rockwell which depict examples of the four basic freedoms of Americans. It first appeared on the cover of February 20th, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The original is oil on canvas, 45 3/4″ x 35 1/2″.

The main character and focal point of Rockwell’s painting is a young American working class man. The setting is a public meeting important to the community where he most likely lives and/or works. A folded document, appearing to bear importance to the matter of discussion, protrudes from a front pocket of the jacket. In stark comparison to the older gentlemen surrounding him who are dressed in traditional suits and ties, he is in plain clothing over which he wears a plain, worn, brown jacket. He is poised, confident and intently focused on the subject matter at hand, unfazed by how his modest attire might be perceived in the midst of formality of his neighbors. His oratory seems to be received by those around him with the appearance of curiosity as well as respect. (Side note: Rockwell included the faces of people he knew in his work; I am curious as to how they felt about their notoriety! )

Democratic Discourse is one of the things that is apparent to me in this painting. There is the evidence of the historic heritage of democratic discourse of respectfulness as we share ideas, despite our apparent differences. Unfortunately, in our polarized society today, democratic discourse seems to have gone by the wayside.

Freedom of Speech: the Inspiration

The inspiration for Rockwell’s painting Freedom of Speech came from the State of the Union address, delivered in January of 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in which the president set forth the four basic freedoms that Americans have the right to enjoy: freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom to worship and freedom of speech.

Freedom of Speech: the First Amendment

Freedom of Speech is set forth in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which protects the freedom of speech, religion and the press. It also protects the right to peaceful protest and to petition the government. Over the years, the meaning of the First Amendment has been the subject of continuing interpretation and discussion. It includes protecting the right to express any opinions freely without censorship or restraint. Freedom of Speech can be exercised both verbally and non-verbally.

Freedom of Speech: our Fundamental Right

Freedom of speech is one of our fundamental rights, but there are limitations. As a general rule, limitations on free speech preclude speech that is harmful to others (i.e. yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded theater), threatening, or generally repulsive and reviled. Freedom of speech doesn’t always include the spoken word. In fact, freedom of speech and expression can take a number of non-verbal forms that express specific ideas. This is known as symbolic speech. Symbolic speech can be loosely defined to include things such as public protests such as sit-ins and marches, demonstrations, burning crosses, displaying flags, burning flags, as well as wearing buttons, armbands or other clothing items, etc.

Freedom of Speech: the Interpretation

The Supreme Court has interpreted “speech” and “press” broadly as covering not only talking, writing, and printing, but also broadcasting, using the Internet, and other forms of expression.

Courts have not always been protective of free expression. For example, some 19th century courts allowed punishment for blasphemy. Also, after World War I, the Supreme Court held that speech tending to promote crime (i.e. speech condemning military draft or anarchism) could be punished. Starting in the 1920s, the Supreme Court began to read the First Amendment more broadly and this trend accelerated in the 1960s. Today, the legal protection offered by the First Amendment is stronger than ever before in our history.

Freedom of Speech: the Press

The Freedom of the Press Clause guarantees that people can publish any lawful material without fear of punishment by the government, even if that material is critical of the government. Today there is much discussion and disagreement on how the right to freedom of speech impacts the freedom of the press.

Above information gained from

The Four Freedoms: Blog Discussions

Click on the link to read my previous blogs on The Four Freedom works of art by Norman Rockwell: Freedom from Fear and Freedom from Want. Freedom to Worship is coming soon!

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