Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Freedom of Speech

"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."

I am not a constitutional law professional, just a citizen who has been a writer and a journalist for decades.

You'd think I would be all for "freedom of speech," and I am - with limitations.

I do not believe it is okay to say (or write) everything you think. This "right" was written into the law of the land in the United States at a time when people had morals and manners. We no longer have either, and the free-for-all that overlays all of the many cultures that make up the USA has made conversation an intangible and given way to ignorance and emotional sound bytes that overpower the language of reason. It's been a growing problem and one that the Internet has fostered.

We already have laws on the books that belie the "freedom of speech" rallying cry, anyway. Every government places limits on speech, even the US government.

For example, you can't slander someone without the risk of a lawsuit, for example. Slander means telling an untruth about someone that harms him or her. We have laws against defamation (false statements that harm an individual, corporation, religion, etc.) and legal action can be taken against those.

Companies are taking people to court over bad things written about them online. I've seen that happen here in my area.

Laws exist against hate speech, which is any use of words, gestures, or writings that incite violence. Our government also controls speech with obscenity and pornography laws, copyright and trademark, sedition (causing an insurrection), and other ways.
So there really is no "freedom of speech" as people proclaim it nowadays. The right to say what you want exists and generally one can say what one wishes without government indictment. You can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater (although these days maybe we should change that to "you can't yell "shooter" in a crowded area.").

In yesterday's paper, I read an article about a free speech limits test going before the Supreme Court. A woman obtained a protective order against her estranged husband, and on his Facebook page, he wrote that she should fold up the order and put it in her pocket and hope it stopped a bullet.

The issue is whether this exercise of free speech constituted a "true threat" to the woman at which it was directed.

The problem for me is that Facebook is not private. Friends of friends can see what you wrote. So this message was essentially shouted out into the public square. If this guy had said this privately to his best friend, venting his frustration and getting it off his chest, that's one thing, though it still wouldn't be a very nice thing to say. But he said this essentially to the world.

We no longer live in a society where we have distinction between private and public. With the loss of manners and morals, mentioned above, and the annihilation of public/private lines, we have a total breakdown in the civic discourse. People feel they have the right to say whatever they want, regardless of how hurtful and coarse it may be. The high-mindedness of mankind has reached a pinnacle not seen before in history, and it will ultimately decay our civilization. Unbridled speech and actions can only lead to chaos. That is why we have laws, to keep chaos from taking over.

Let me be clear - if this man had written his words in a private yahoo group, I doubt it would be going before the Supreme Court. But he chose a public forum.

This issue will become more and more germane as technology continues its inevitable creeping into our lives. I do not believe in censuring printed books - books just sit there, and one must take an action to pick up the book, open it, and read it, to be offended. Those actions need not be taken and a book can sit in a corner forever, completely ignored. But in a public forum - say out in the shopping mall where you can't yell "fire" - one cannot dismiss the words. One can't unhear hate speech. The same goes for public outlets such as Facebook. The hundreds or thousands can't "unsee" whatever was written. It's there and then one must deal with it.

If I were this woman's friend and I saw her estranged husband post something like what is mentioned above, I would feel like I would have to warn her. To me, in the context of the news article, that looks like a threat. And then it's possible the threat would revert to me. It becomes a scary place to be.

As our reading habits change and more and more of what we read and see is online, and available not by choice but instead forced upon us through social media outlets or in the guise of advertising, I think we would be wise to try to sort this out now, before it gets even more out of control.

Freedom of speech isn't just spouting off whatever comes to mind. It's wrapped up in many issues and concerns, and it doesn't stand alone.


  1. Your ending is exactly on. People need to think before they post or say something in a public forum, because once it's out there, there's no undoing it, no denying it; it's out there FOREVER.

    People also need to pay attention to the part of the first amendment that says people have the right to peaceful assembly. The situation in Ferguson and other communities across the country over night is deplorable. They're only hurting their friends and neighbors, people just like them, and who did no harm to them. I blame the media in part for blowing this situation out of proportion and making it a race issue, instead of a criminal situation. I may have disagreed with the Trayvon Martin verdict, but I think the grand jury in Ferguson got it right. Only they saw/heard all of the evidence that was presented. I hope the situation there calms down before there are more arrests, more looting and destruction, or before innocent people are injured or killed. They need to take this week's holiday to heart and be THANKFUL for their families, friends, and what they have. And, above all, they should be grateful they live in a country where they can speak their opinion -- so long as it is done in a peaceful and appropriate manner.

    (Stepping off the soap box . . . )


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