"Free speech doesn't mean perfect speech," Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan told a Media Institute crowd Wednesday night. "or harmless speech. "It doesn't even mean accurate speech." Paradoxically, she said, the speech most in need of protection is the speech that is wrong, that is distasteful, that we don't like.
"Even when it offends," she said, "it is priceless."
Noonan was receiving the Freedom of Speech award at the institute's annual banquet.
She said not a week goes by that she does not think about Thomas Jefferson's observation that given the choice between government without a free press and a free press without the government "he would not hesitate to choose the latter. Period. Full stop."
Noonan is the author of nine books, but in introducing her, iconic Washington Post newsman Bob Woodward joked she was working on a 10th, a multivolume biography of Bill Clinton--Noonan is a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan.
"The first volume is going to only cover the first 10 years," he said, "and the title is going to be, "The Virgin."
Turning serious, Woodward said that what he thinks we need to worry about the most is secret government. "If the government ever gets so secretive and it moves increasingly in that direction then I believe that we're finished," he said. "The judge who said it I think got it right. Democracies die in darkness, and we are never going to be the victim of darkness as long as this wonderful young woman is practicing her trade."