It’s not “Groundhog Day” (referring to the movie, not the weather forecasting rodent’s holiday), but I keep finding myself coming across the same conversation in different settings: What is “freedom of speech”?
The topic tends to come up after someone says something rude, cruel or threatening and someone else calls them out. The offenders usually respond with something to the effect of, “I just tell it like it is,” or “I can say whatever I want, whenever I want, because that’s my right to free speech.”
It would appear a number of folks missed the high school class on U.S. government where we learned about it being wrong to shout “fire” in a crowded theater.
Let’s do a quick refresher:
“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 five words there are crucial: “Congress shall make no law…”
The intent of the First Amendment is to prevent the government from limiting your free expression. You can fly a Confederate flag or burn an American one, stand on the street corner and read from the Bible or the Quran, or put bumper stickers on your car that declare your loathing of the opposing political party, without fear of legal reprisal from the government. That’s “protected speech” under the Constitution. Unprotected speech is where that lesson on not yelling “fire” in a crowded theater as a prank comes in. Why can’t you do that? Because in the crush to escape, people could be injured or killed. In a civilized society, the citizens don’t want to cause harm to one another, physical or otherwise.
A glance or two at the comment section on social media may well leave one wondering if we are now just pretending to be a civilized society, all in the name of free speech.
By NIKI TURNER – firstname.lastname@example.org