The freedom of speech aspect is something that we as Americans cherish, but often we forget that freedom is not without limitations.
As the First Amendment to our Constitution reads:
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.
Despite arguments by some, our constitution is not a stagnant document but one that is flowing as to how it is understood and applied. For example, the First Amendment only protected the right of freedom of speech from Congress until the year 1925 with the decision in Gitlow v. New York which expanded the interpretation to provide protection from state governments as well.
Whether we agree or not, our freedom of speech today includes among others:
- Not to speak (specifically, the right not to salute the flag) West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)
- To use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages. Cohen v. California (1971)
- To engage in symbolic speech, (e.g., burning the flag in protest). Texas v. Johnson (1989) and United States v. Eichman (1990)
Our freedom of speech DOES NOT include rights:
- To incite actions that would harm others Schenck v. United States (1919)
- To burn draft cards as an anti-war protest. United States v. O’Brien (1968)
- Of students to make an obscene speech at a school-sponsored event. Bethel School District #403 v. Fraser (1986)
We cannot commit libel, slander, or defamation with freedom of speech.
We also cannot use “fighting words” within the protections of free speech. “Fighting words” are those that would likely result in the person to whom those words are directed to commit an act of violence. Chaplinsky v New Hampshire (1942).
How the distinctions are made isn’t that simple. For example, the Brandenburg Test is used to determine when inflammatory speech intending to advocate illegal action can be restricted. The standard developed determined that speech advocating the use of force or crime could only be proscribed where two conditions were satisfied:
- the advocacy is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,”
- the advocacy is also “likely to incite or produce such action.”
The above is slim pickings on the legal and historical verbiage which some want while others desire more plain talk.
How many of you have heard some version of
“if you don’t have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything,” or as I often heard “if you ain’t gonna say something helpful, keep your trap shut?”
While we often neglect to adhere to that rule and admittedly it is often not prudent to fail to speak out, in general terms it is often good advice.
Why hurt someone unnecessarily or cause trouble which isn’t already present?
Have you given up your right or exercising sound judgment?
Biblically I’m reminded of 1 Peter 3: 8-11 (KJV):
“Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing. For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile: Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it.”
Even if I have the rights to ridicule another, would I have the desire?
Seriously what does that type of action say about me?
- I’m insecure?
- I’m a bully?
- I’m no good?
- I’m lower than a snake’s belly at the bottom of the Grand Canyon?
I’m not condoning the violence in Garland, TX. I’m not excusing the scum who picks on another to a degree that the person harms himself or herself. I’m not condoning the actions in Valdosta, GA, even if that was constitutionally protected free speech.
How far can “fighting words” be expanded?
If any person believes that free speech means that they have the right to belittle what others do and believe does that individual really have free speech.
I would say that they have given up their own freedom by willingly confining themselves to a closed world of hate, envy, and jealousy. That’s not freedom in my opinion but a severe limitation.