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Liberty, Justice, and Freedom of Information for All

Every individual has an inherent right to freedom of speech but governments have an inherent motivation to stifle dissent; to deny the very right it is mandated to protect.
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As I've stayed glued to the unfolding election crisis in Iran, I became curious if young people in this country would be interested as well. And I have to say that what I've seen challenges the image of vapid teens obsessed with celebrity sightings on TMZ or Perez Hilton or laughing at the latest sexting drama in their school.

In the last week, here are some examples of what I've been following on Twitter and Facebook:

  • Iranian teens asking their non-Iranian friends to, "Pray for the people in Iran."
  • Teens and others turning their Twitter avatars green to show solidarity.
  • Iranian and non-Iranian teens' twitter accounts changed from talking about the Lakers and wishing each other Happy Birthday to telling each other how they could support the protestors in Iran.
  • A group of students in Boston ended their school year wearing green.
  • A Nevada girl responded to her friends' twittering about not being able to find a parking space by writing, "I honestly can't stand to read mundane tweets after seeing how Twitter's been put to for, sorry, more important things."
  • Countless Facebook groups connecting young people from all over the world in discussion of the events.

These actions may seem small and easily said far away from the actual place of conflict but they aren't insignificant. Social media has created the ability for young people -- or anyone -- to take part in political activism in a way that can be truly effective. Communicating a passionate response to world events is no longer limited to protests and rallies. Advancements in technology have become so commonplace that sometimes we forget to stop and think about how incredible it is that a girl on her laptop in Texas can see photos and cell phone video in real time that a young college student has posted of a rally he's at in Iran. Young people feel a true sense of camaraderie as they blog, forward emails, donate their Facebook status, and re-tweet links to the latest updates. The visibility of their activism is contagious and should not be underestimated. They are able to make their political voice spread as rapidly as a their favorite YouTube video of someone vomiting after a milk chugging contest.

I asked a Tristan, 15, why so many kids cared about what was going on in Iran. This was his response:

Every American kid can relate to people not being allowed to look online at what they want to or say what they want. Every American kid can feel what it would be like to have someone shut off all your phones so you can't talk to each other. Not being allowed to post videos, to show photos, to say to the world what is going on. That's why I think people care in the first place and then they see people getting beat up over just wanting to get together and protest something that is wrong or being arrested for doing those things online. Its not about, like, horrible things you should be caring about but would rather go watch The Hills or, in my case, play Grand Theft Auto. Those horrible things are happening and I do care about them. We wear green as a signal even if no one sees it that we have heard and we have seen and we are watching.

Tristan's comments are right in line with some of the most famous political thinkers:

"If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter." George Washington

"Wherever the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes man a political being." Hannah Arendt

"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." John Milton

As Milton, Washington and Arendt knew, freedom of speech is required for any other freedom to exist. But just as an individual has that inherent right, governments have an inherent motivation to stifle dissent; to deny the very right it is mandated to protect.

But as Tristan demonstrates, today's young people not only believe in everyone's inalienable right to be heard but have the capacity, more than any other generation that has preceded it, to withstand a government's efforts to silence them. Because one thing I know working with teens, is that it is a point of pride and proof of autonomy if they know how to get around the technology security protocols of the governing institutions in their lives (i.e. their parents and schools). So we shouldn't be surprised when we see the same adaptations when governments try to block technology in times of political unrest. If cell phones can't be used than dissenters will take videos with their digital cameras, download it onto someone's computer and send out the images for the world to see.

As I write these words, it is probable that the conflict in Iran will increase in intensity and young people will see these rights they hold so dear stripped away from their peers. I don't know how they will respond but I do know that I have faith that they will show us the way to proceed.

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