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A Nation Engaged: What does freedom mean to you in 2016?

A woman holds a US flag before she became US citizen during a special naturalization ceremony in honor of Citizenship Day and Constitution day Ellis Island in New York on September 16, 2016.
A woman holds a US flag before she became US citizen during a special naturalization ceremony in honor of Citizenship Day and Constitution day Ellis Island in New York on September 16, 2016.

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Ask any American what the founding principles of the United States are, and you’ll almost certainly be told that ‘freedom’ is one of the most important, if not the be-all, end-all.

Our national anthem call us “the land of the free” and our country’s founding document is centered around The Bill of Rights, which ensures personal freedoms and protections from government encroachment on them.

Most of us would probably define freedom similarly, as the ability or right to say, do, or think what one wants without fear of punishment. It’s a core concept to the American identity, and one that Americans are taught to value highly, if not above all else, from a young age.

While that definition and the one that the country’s founders had when they were laying the foundation of the U.S. are likely very similar, the way in which freedom manifests itself in 2016 is no doubt in stark contrast to the way it did when the country was in its infancy. Freedom to speak and practice religion freely, to own guns, and to protest peacefully were some of the core ideas upon which the U.S. was created, and they are just as important, if not moreso, today than they were back then.

As part of ‘A Nation Engaged,’ our ongoing collaboration with NPR looking at the critical issues before the 2016 presidential election, we’re asking AirTalk listeners: what does freedom mean to you? How do you express your freedom today? Has your definition of freedom changed over the course of your lifetime? What are some of the core civic duties that you believe come along with our sense of freedom?

Here are some highlights from listeners who weighed in on the subject of freedom:

On the defining freedom:

Victoria in the Fairfax district:

Freedom to me, being African American and Native American, means the right to be human. To exercise the full right to be treated as a human-breathing-being with DNA. Sometimes when you're African American and you walk down the street, especially in Beverly Hills or somewhere like that, you have to be dressed a certain way, look a certain way, to even get into a store. . . and people even move from another table [away from you]. [When that happens] you know that your freedom of being simply human is being denied. That is really powerful to me. 

Theresa in Pasadena:

My freedom shouldn't impose on anyone else's freedom. At the end of the day, I should be able to believe in whatever I believe in. But if my belief effects somebody else, or discriminates against others, that's not right. So I have the freedom to worship how I wish, to sleep with who I want. to speak how I want. But once it starts to impose or inflict harm on other people, then it's not freedom, it's discrimination. 

Karen in Simi Valley:

I don't think most Americans know what freedom is. You can't really understand it until you've been to a country without freedom. I went to the Philippines when I was 19, when the country was under martial law. I came back to the U.S. saluting the flag.

On freedom of speech:

Mitchell in the City of Orange:

Fascist and totalitarian regimes have all shown that controlling the freedom of speech and controlling messages, you have no method of descent and that seems to set up a domino effect for every other loss of freedom.

Ahmed in Sherman Oaks:

I think the greatest freedom is freedom of speech. Coming from Pakistan, a country with Islamic rule of law which practices censorship, [freedom of speech is] something that I really appreciate.

On the right to bear arms:

Amir in Riverside:

One important freedom for me is the right to bear arms. It's so important for me to be able to own a weapon and defend my family from internal, external or domestic terrorism. A very tempered interpretation of the second amendment [is important for me this election].

On LGBT rights:

Matt in Glendale:

Freedom to me means being able to love whoever I want to love. As a gay man in America I feel specifically blessed to have been born in a country where I can openly say that I'm gay and not lose too much sleep over it. I'm lucky so many before me have fought the good fight and have opened the way for people like me and it's just on my mind constantly about how there are people around the world who are so willing to throw me in jail or stone me to death because I am gay. So freedom to me is being able to love whoever I want, hold hands with my partner in public and not really fear retribution, especially here in California.


Douglas Brinkley, Presidential Historian & Professor of History, Rice University; Fellow, James Baker, III Institute for Public Policy

Series: A Nation Engaged

NPR and KPCC's coverage of critical issues facing the nation before November's presidential election. The stories seek to build a nationwide conversation around focusing on a specific question each time.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on Facebook.