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BellaOnline's Civil Rights Editor

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Freedom Of Speech, Gag Rules, Gag Orders, And Gagged Critics

Guest Author - Sylvia Cochran

This is the 2nd article in our Civil Rights And The Freedom Of Speech series. The first installment was entitled Civil Rights And The Freedom Of Speech.


The Gag Rule And The Slavery Debate

During the heat of the slavery debate, the United States Congress of 1835 decided to “gag” petitioners who wanted to see the crime of slavery ended. This “gagging” was accomplished by decreeing that no petitions to end slavery would be received, much less read, debated, or voted upon. The assault on the Constitution’s first amendment protection of free speech continued in 1840, when Congress enacted the twenty-first standing rule, which served as an attempt to purge any and all debate about ending slavery in the United States.

Briefly, this action allowed the pro-slavery Southern legislators to quash the petitions of the Northern anti-slavery congressmen. Naturally, such a blatant violation of the first amendment did not last long, and in 1844 this gag rule was rescinded.


Mexico City Policy...A Global Gag Rule?

Even though the term “gag rule” is synonymous with slavery, in modern times it is being used to signify the restrictions imposed in 2001 by the United States on foreign, non-governmental entities which receive international family planning assistance. While the policy is properly entitled “Mexico City Policy”, critics are referring to it as the “Global Gag Rule.”

The policy stipulates that those foreign entities who receive United States family planning assistance, may not accept funding from other sources if this funding is used to

“perform abortions in cases other than a threat to the life of the woman, rape, or incest; provide counseling and referral for abortion; or lobby to make abortion legal or more available in their country.” (1)
While one may or may not agree with the use of the term “gag rule”
with respect to the pro-life/pro-choice debate, the use of the term has since entered our societal awareness as a description of an attempt to block open discussion or debate on any given subject.


From Gag Rule To Gag Order

Congress is not the only entity seeking to restrict free speech. More and more often, the courts decide to bar attorneys, jurors, and any other participants in a lawsuit from speaking out in public about the goings on of the case. Many times a legal settlement will contain a clause barring the parties thereto from disclosing the terms of the settlement in public. This restriction is referred to as a gag order.

It is interesting to note that not only the court-system is seeking to silence individuals; employers, too, make use of the gag order to prevent employees or contractors from going public with unwanted information.


From Gag Order To ... What?

Naturally, any first amendment aficionado should respond to all this gagging with raised hair in the back of the neck. Those not affected by slavery or the Mexico City Policy should take note that free speech is still abridged today. Granted, it is not the United States Government who seeks to squash the debate of any given issue; however, it is a representative of the government, Attorney General John Ashcroft, who just recently is quoted as stating:

"We need honest, reasoned debate, and not fear-mongering. To those who pit Americans against immigrants and citizens against noncitizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil." (2)

Age Of The Gagged Critic?

Granted, Mr. Ashcroft’s statement is neither a gag rule nor a gag order. One may feel about his politics however one may wish, yet the question at hand must deal with the treatment of dissenting voices. His statement speaks of “honest, reasoned debate” in opposite to “fear-mongering.” Should one take this statement to mean that any critical voice in opposition of Mr. Ashcroft’s politics is neither honest nor reasoned? Is he correct in stating that such dissenters are indeed eroding “our national unity”? Worse, is he correct in labeling dissenters as disloyal Americans?

Please share your feelings about this subject on the forum. You may wish to start a new thread, or visit the article specific thread entitled Attorney General John Ashcroft on the Erosion of our National Unity.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment of the Freedom Of Speech series!


  1. http://64.224.182.238/globalgagrule/
  2. http://www.ncac.org/issues/freeex911.html


Please take a look at your host’s book recommendation. This book makes a great gift for the student in your house or the politically minded friend or family member. Additionally, it will assist the interested reader in examining the texts and backgrounds of the rights that make this country great:

Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and Stifling of Democracy
Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and Stifling of Democracy

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Content copyright © 2014 by Sylvia Cochran. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Sylvia Cochran. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact BellaOnline Administration for details.

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