Monday, July 15, 2019

Speaking Your Mind

We have many cherished rights in the United States, and one of them is the "freedom of speech."

This is derived from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states:

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.


But what does this mean, particularly the "freedom of speech" part? Does it mean you can say anything you want, have any opinion you want, be as racist, bigoted, idiotic, stupid or whatever as you want, and not suffer consequences?

No. It does not mean that.

If you grew up when I did, if you said "shit" or "fuck" in front of your mom, your ass was red for quite a long time afterwards, or maybe you ate soap. I don't know what parents do these days about such language. Maybe nothing.

I bring this up because so many people seem confused and think that "freedom of speech" means they have the right to say whatever they want to and suffer no consequences.

Maybe they want to leave me ill-thought comments on my blog. Do they have that right? No. This is my blog and if I want to delete a comment, I will delete it. There is no law that says I have to leave it. There is no law that says anyone has to read my blog, either.

Same goes with Facebook or any other social media (unless you're the President of the United States, according to a recently SCOTUS ruling) - if you're writing stuff on your wall and I find it offensive, I can block you. If you write things on my wall, and I find it offensive, I can delete it. There's no "freedom of speech" where individuals are concerned (unless you're POTUS), nor is there freedom from the consequences of said speech.

(Every POTUS has suffered consequences from speech, by the way. Just look at the way the press went after Bill Clinton for saying "it depends on what the meaning of "is" is," or George W. Bush for his comments about the government's clean-up of Katrin, or Barack Obama's comments about "you didn't do it own your own," said right here at a rally in Roanoke, or the weird stuff that comes out of #45's twitter feed. Covfefe, anyone? However, the POTUS is the government and thus should be critiqued and reviewed.).

If you post on your Facebook page things that are racist and your employer finds out and fires you for it, the employer is within its right to do that.

You're not free from the consequences of the things you say or write.

The  First Amendment is about the government and what it can and cannot do, not about your friends, family, readers, or whomever.

Basically, the First Amendment means that the government may not jail, fine, or impose civil liability on people or organizations based on what they say or write, except in exceptional circumstances. The Supreme Court has broadly interpreted "government" to mean any elected official, all the way down to your town council representative.

The First Amendment does not protect writers, speakers, or demonstrators from private individuals or organizations, such as non-governmental employers, private colleges, or private landowners. The First Amendment restrains only the government.

Yesterday I was reading someone's blog and she wrote a diatribe against another blogger, and then felt upset about the pushback from that blogger's friends, but she let everything stand, because, "free speech, you know." Well, no. She could say what she wanted and the blogger's friends could say what they wanted, but she did not have to let any of it stand. She could delete the entire post if she wanted, including the comments.

Actions have consequences, as do spoken words and writing. I have long been keenly aware of this as a former news writer. I did not write articles for 35 years and not occasionally have issues with readers or people I quoted. Actually, I frequently had issues with readers or people I quoted. People do not remember what they say, particularly if they say things in the heat of the moment, as sometimes happens at Board of Supervisors meetings. People also often misread things, seeing what they want to see in a news article and not what is actually there.

So they came after me. The stuff was under my byline, after all. I learned early on that a tape recorder was my best friend - if I could play back to someone exactly what they said, they shut up because they couldn't deny it.

Generally I wrote articles using my notes but I taped things "just in case." I have an entire shed full of "just in case" tapes out back. I think I have 20 years worth of meetings and interviews rotting there. I don't need them anymore, as the statute of limitations for libel or defamation or anything else someone might have wanted to do to me is over for most things, but I also don't go into the shed because I suspect it is full of snakes and bees, so there they sit - my "gotcha" tapes for the folks who couldn't keep their mouths shut and then had fits when their words showed up in print.

Freedom of speech has been broadly interpreted by the high court to include talking, writing, and printing, of course. However, they also apply it to broadcasting, the Internet, and many other forms of expression. The court considers symbolic expression to be a freedom of speech issue, including displaying flags, burning flags, wearing armbands, burning crosses, etc. (I assume "taking a knee" during The Pledge of Allegiance falls under this, as does not saluting, the middle finger, and saying "fuck the White House" if you're a soccer player, although private entities can still take action against such expressions.) Read more about this here if you want.

The Supreme Court also has ruled that "freedom of speech" is limited. One cannot use action, speech, or writing to:

  • To incite actions that would harm others (e.g., “[S]hout[ing] ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”). Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919).
  • To make or distribute obscene materials. Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957).
  • To burn draft cards as an anti-war protest. United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968).
  • To permit students to print articles in a school newspaper over the objections of the school administration. Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988).
  • Of students to make an obscene speech at a school-sponsored event. Bethel School District #43 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986).
  • Of students to advocate illegal drug use at a school-sponsored event. Morse v. Frederick, __ U.S. __ (2007). 

  • Link to that is here if it is wanted.

    So, to wrap this up - as a member of the press, if someone said something stupid in a government meeting, I had the right to print it. Generally, in private interviews if people said really stupid things, I refrained from printing those words (and sometimes I was chastised for that if it didn't go into the article, because people didn't know how stupid they sounded, but oh well). My job was not to make people look bad, after all, unless the things they said needed to be "out there" to make some specific point or teach a specific lesson.

    If someone wants to disagree with my blog post, said person can do so, but I also can delete the comment if I want. If someone wants to rant and rave on Facebook, they should not be upset and cry "freedom of speech" when they're fired for it, or their friends distance themselves, or whatever.

    Say what you want. Express yourself, sure. But remember, as when you were 10 and your mom forced soap down your throat, there are consequences in the real world where government is not involved.

    Sometimes a secret notebook (made of paper), tucked in a corner where no one else will ever see it, is the best place to put down some of those really nasty thoughts.

    Some people might want to give that a go instead of posting or tweeting everything that crosses their mind.

    8 comments:

    1. Thank you for this great point! I too ate soap as a child GROSS I SAY however I learned respect and very quickly (it wasn't for swear words) for back talking my mom. If I would have talked to my parents the way I hear kids now a days I would be 6ft under the ground. I agree that its my blog, my facebook page, like it or move on you are NOT being forced to read. However I also determine what comments will be kept and which ones deleted. love the SECRET NOTEBOOK idea

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    2. I hope that if someone has a problem with anything i’ve written or any opinion i’ve expressed that they would tell me directly by private message or call me. I think sometimes people post stuff that has nothing to do with a person but said person gets angry because they think it is taking swipes at them. Posting is a lot like texting sometimes you can’t tell if the content is a swipe or where it is actually aimed unless the writer actually says who or to what they are referring to. Sometimes it is that someone is hurting or had a really hard, bad day. I do like your slam book idea but that too can cause a problem if it gets into the wrong hands or seen by the wrong eyes..... I think it is just better if you have a problem with someone tell them and give them a chance to explain, debate whatever then you can settle or apologize for said commentary or agree to disagree. Still be friends ..., I’ve not blocked anyone, I tend to forgive everyone.. life is too short to hold grudges or bad feelings. I haven’t the time or energy.

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    3. If this was a history test, I'd have said freedom of speech was in response to Americans being imprisoned for criticizing the taxes imposed by King George or suggesting the colonies become independent.

      Tuesday 4, Wednesday Medley, Friday 5. Saturday 9, Sunday Stealing. Quiz surveys in which I participate. Sometimes Sad Sleepy Survey Rambles.

      The people who write these quizzes are not getting paid. They're writing these surveys week after week. Which can become a drag. Out of the kindness of their hearts. A pretty much thankless job.

      So. If you ask me, they are doing everyone a great big favor. I appreciate it.

      Thank you!

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    4. I wish everyone understood that the First Amendment protects us from the government. That might make a few people think before they publish and the world might have a lot less drama. I could live with that.

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    5. I would love to use this post with my students when we study the First Amendment. Would you mind?

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    6. This is great. I shared it too. So important for people to speak up these days!

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    I enjoy your comments and always appreciate the opportunity to visit the blogs of my readers. I hope you have a great day!