As a child and a teenager, freedom meant one thing: being able to do what I wanted to do instead of what I was told to do. That meant staying up late, going out on dates and coming home late, choosing my own clothes, not having to check in every five minutes and being responsible for no one but myself. It was all about me. That's the problem with the idea of freedom; people think it's all about them.
I mouthed the right catch phrases and gave a quick nod to the Constitution and the idea of America and freedom. Freedom was a word, a nebulous idea, a feel-good invocation that had no meaning. Then I interviewed Benson Wolman and everything changed.
Benson Wolman was an attorney for the Ohio ACLU and his office was based in Columbus, Ohio. He came to the law late in life as a second career, piling up awards and honors almost as an afterthought. What he really wanted was to make a difference. In 1995, Benson came to the forefront of the state and national scene because of a case he would argue in the Federal Supreme Court. He defended the members of the Ku Klux Klan for their right to put a cross on the Ohio State House lawn along with other religious symbols during the Christmas season, and he won the case. The most surprising thing about the case wasn't the law, but the people involved. Benson Wolman was a Jew defending the freedoms of members of the Ku Klux Klan who would have been more than happy to burn a cross on his lawn and eradicate him and his people from the face of the earth.
I asked Benson a lot of questions the day we met, but the one question I needed an answer to was, "Why?" Benson smiled and looked back over his shoulder at the poster of the American flag behind him that covered nearly the entire wall.
"Because of that and because of something my rabbi told me." Benson folded his manicured hands on the table and bowed his head for a moment. When he raised his head he smiled at me. "The rabbi told me that freedom is hard. In order to make sure I have my freedom, I have to make sure everyone has theirs."
"Even when their views and beliefs conflict with yours?"
As I looked into his eyes, I realized he meant what he said. Freedom isn't just about what I want and think I need, but about defending what everyone wants. Freedom is listening respectfully to someone spout ideas and beliefs that are in direct conflict with my own, beliefs I find stupid or dangerous. Freeedom is defending that person's right to speak even and especially when they disagree with me so that I can speak out freely and openly when it's my turn.
Freedom is a hard concept and it's radical and dangerous, and every time someone gets in my face to shout me down and call me names because I disagree with them, I think of Benson Wolman's eyes filled with fire and unshakable belief in the Constitution and the Freedom of Speech. It makes it easier to smile and walk away. It isn't always easy and it has taken me a long time to get here, but the view from this spot is as breathtaking as the sun rising on the Washington Monument as it strikes sparks and fire from the aluminum capstone.
Benson is gone, but his legacy remains. He fought for the freedom and rights of people who hated him and he did it without a second thought because freedom for one means freedom for all -- even when they disagree.