Speaking Up - Freely

FREEDOM of speech is one of the messier virtues of democracy. It enables candidates for political office to exaggerate their shining accomplishments while sponsoring negative ads about their opponents until everybody's money and patience run out.

Freedom of speech - at last - empowered Nobel Prize-winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn to return to Russia after 20 years of exile (and a lifetime of Soviet suppression) and castigate his fatherland. Standing before the Russian parliament last week, he accused its members of passing ``shallow'' laws that have driven ``rank-and-file'' Russians into ``despair'' or ``apathy.'' As for the vaunted economic reform, it has, he scolded, ``plundered the country's wealth.''

During the speech, Yegor Gaidar, the architect of free-market policies, paced the corridors outside. Afterward he observed, politely, that he would have preferred to hear Solzhenitsyn talk about literature. That too constituted freedom of speech in its restraint, not to be dreamed of in the punitive days of the gulag.

Freedom of speech is never a particularly efficient operation, and often is hard on the nerves, especially when it forces those who disagree with the message to defend to the death the right of the messenger to speak.

It is those messengers not permitted, on penalty of death, to deliver their message who know the preciousness of the freedom to speak that others take for granted. A group of dissident Iranians -

134 novelists, publishers, and translators - have, courageously, just signed an open letter calling for the abolition of censorship in their country.

``We are writers,'' the letter states. ``That means we write and publish our sentiments, imagination, and thought. It is our natural social and civil right that our books reach readers freely and without any impediment.''

Here is a letter that even the prickly and solitary Solzhenitsyn could sign, along with Salman Rushdie and the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, both in hiding with a price on their heads for offending through their fiction Islamic fundamentalists.

So the most ancient and most basic of struggles goes on, for the right of an individual to be heard by the community. The exercise of freedom of speech may be windy and cynical or profound and idealistic. Whether what is said is worth saying or not, the right to say it freely is of inestimable worth to the whole world - a truth verified by each new exercise of freedom of speech and each new suppression.

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