In the eyes of Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Americans take their freedom for granted. As he spoke to the Chautauquans packed in and around the Hall of Philosophy at 3:30 p.m. Monday, he drew upon history and tradition to illustrate how vital it is that Americans engage in the discussion of freedom.
He admitted that in his younger years, he thought democracy could be given like a gift. He joked that some people think they can introduce democracy to a country, wipe their hands and say goodbye, and then democracy will be magically “installed.”
“Democracy and the idea of freedom are not in your DNA,” Kennedy said. “You don’t take a blood test to see if you believe in freedom. Freedom is taught, and teaching is a conscious act.”
The value of education, knowledge and conscious thought was a running theme in Kennedy’s lecture. He said that the role of current generations is to ensure that future generations inherit a freer future.
“We must know and understand our heritage and our history, its triumphs and its mistakes,” Kennedy said.
The Declaration of Independence should be a source of inspiration for Americans, Kennedy said. It’s an indictment of the monarchy of King George III, and it is a defense of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“You should read the Declaration of Independence,” Kennedy said. “Tell your children. We want our young people to read and to discuss this magnificent Declaration of Independence. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of prose in all of political history.”
But the most important document in American history is the Constitution, Kennedy said. He called it “one of the most brilliant documents in the history of human thought.” Despite the varying interpretations of its spacious wording, the document unites all Americans. He said that to understand the Constitution, one must understand the context in which it was written.
“In order to get through it, I read it backwards,” Kennedy said. “I’ve read it a number of times, but I always see something new.”
By engaging in these documents — researching their writers, discussing them and reinterpreting them in a modern context — Americans can navigate an increasingly polarizing social discourse with civility and respect.
“I see in this nation a discourse that’s hostile, fractious, uncompromising,” Kennedy said. “That’s not the mark of a society that’s rational and probing and thoughtful.”
The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights says that all speech is protected. The Constitution may only control the government, Kennedy said, and the government cannot decide what thoughts or books or movies are “good” or “bad.”
However, Kennedy takes issue with ethical relativism pervading the American public’s political discourse. He called it a philosophy in which “one person cannot insist on the correctness of his or her views.”
“We are reluctant to condemn, we are reluctant to talk about the nature of evil and crime and punishment,” Kennedy said. “A society with a civic consensus must make judgments on what’s good, bad, beautiful, ugly, right, wrong. That’s not just your right as a citizen; it’s my submission that it’s your responsibility.”
Kennedy said his duty as an associate justice of the Supreme Court is ultimately to give reasons for how and why he interprets the law as he does. It is important to not allow the press to infiltrate the courtroom at its highest levels, he said.
“We teach, by keeping the press out, [that] we’re judged by what we write,” Kennedy said.
One of Kennedy’s fears in letting the press bring television cameras into the Supreme Court would be that justices would try to speak in “headlines” and “quotes” rather than engage in the legal matters at hand.
“I don’t want to introduce that insidious dynamic between myself and my colleagues,” he said.
Kennedy told the gathering that above all, he wants them to keep asking the difficult questions — the ones that probe into difficult matters and encourage thoughtful conversation.