What does it really mean to have freedom of speech?

Published 6:08 am Thursday, August 23, 2018


The Advocate-Messenger

Free speech is a guaranteed right in this country, and the First Amendment that guarantees that freedom is very popular. But what does the First Amendment really mean? What does it mean to have free speech?

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The right to free speech is often thought of incorrectly as the right to never be censored by anyone or any organization. But the First Amendment is actually very specific: It prohibits restrictions on free speech imposed by our government.

Here is our great First Amendment in its entirety:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment Center’s annual State of the First Amendment survey found that more than three in four U.S. residents support the First Amendment, but unfortunately, 40 percent can’t name the freedoms they have because of the First Amendment.

For the record, your First Amendment freedoms are:

• freedom of religion;

• freedom of speech;

• freedom of press;

• freedom of assembly; and

• freedom of petition.

You can worship how you choose in America and the government can’t stop you. Likewise, you can say what you want, print what you want, gather how you want and tell the government what you want and you shouldn’t suffer any repercussions from the government.

(Obviously, there are some caveats and restrictions on these freedoms — you can’t assemble if you’re rioting and destroying property, for example.)

But nothing in the First Amendment says others have to be happy with what you say or do; nor do they have to help you say or do what you want. Everyone else has freedoms, too. Put another way: You have the freedom to act, but not freedom from consequences of your actions.

One example where misconceptions arise about the First Amendment is when a movement is started to boycott a company because of a real or perceived offense. Those who still support the company will often cry foul and claim the boycotters are trampling on free speech.

In reality, the boycotters are using their own free speech rights. They can do as they wish and speak as they wish. For there to be an actual First Amendment violation, the government would have to be the entity pursuing the boycott.

Another common misconception has to do with the freedom of social media and publishing companies to allow or disallow speech. If, for example, Facebook blocks Nazis from posting abhorrent things, that’s not a violation of the Nazis’ free speech rights. The Nazis can still say what they want, but Facebook is under no obligation to give them a platform for their hate. The same goes if a Nazi were to submit a letter to the editor to a newspaper.

The First Amendment exists to ensure we do not wind up living in a nanny state where those in the government get to decide what we do or say or think. It does not exist to insulate anyone from the consequences of what they decide to do with their freedom.