Monday, September 3, 2012

How Free is that 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.”

The First Amendment of Constitution of the United States of America, 1791

By: William G. Muir

It is often said that America is a free country, but this is not necessarily correct. We live in a country were we have certain liberties. In a free country these rights would come with no strings attached. But in the United States our rights come with responsibilities. And the rights laid out in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights are no different. What I would like to look at is the freedom of speech that is guaranteed in the founding document of United States.

Many Americans believe they have the right to say whatever they want wherever they want. This is not so. The right to free speech comes with certain restrictions. There are common law limitation to our speech. These restrictions are obscenity, defamation, incitement, incitement to riot or imminent lawless actions, fighting words, fraud, and speech integral to criminal conduct. Under Federal criminal law there are prohibitions covering all the common law exceptions other than defamation, which is prohibited under civil law. These are just some of the ways that the right to free speech are restricted.

Another misconception of Americans is that everyone has to give you a platform to speak. But this is not the case. The only entity that has to guarantee you are right to speak is the government. Nobody else is under any obligation to open up their forum for you to say what you wish. News organizations do not have to report your conspiracy theory, book publishers do not have to print your book, and a website does not have to give you a place to leave your comments. It is only Uncle Sam that can not censor your thoughts.

When Americans say something that is controversial they are often surprised when people speak out against them. They view this as somehow infringing on there right to free speech. This is not the case. Just as you have a right to say something that others may find stupid, they have every right to criticize you for your stupidity. You have the right to say what you want; just as I have the right to protest against you if I do not agree with what you say.

The most important thing the First Amendment does is protect the right of the minority against the might of the majority and the government. The majority needs no law to protect their rights. They are the ones with all the power. It is the minority that needs to be guaranteed that whatever it is they want say cannot be censored or land them in jail. In many parts of the world people do not have such rights. But here in America we can say what it is that we wish (as long as it is not restricted speech) and know that we will not be thrown into prison because we said something unpopular.

Also with the freedom of speech comes the freedom to not say anything at all.

Lastly I would like to touch on hate speech. In many first world countries it is has become a crime to say certain things. In some European countries you can go to jail if you openly deny the Holocaust took place. In America hate speech is protected. The Klu Klux Klan can openly march down any main street in America and spew their racist views all they want. In my opinion this is a good thing. If we were to make such speech illegal we would just force these people underground. We would be sticking a label on them that they are dangerous. This will cause people to be curious to find out why the government is determined to shut them up. People that would not have originally payed attention them when they had the freedom to speak to now hear what they have to say. There would be people that would side with them just because the government has shut them up. Much like prohibition did not work in the 1920's with alcohol it will not work with speech.

Voltaire is quoted to have said, “I don't agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.” In the United States we all have the right to say what we want with out the government locking us up for it. As long as it is protected speech. But we must be vigilant in protecting that right for not only ourselves but for others. Our history is littered with people that both stood up for the rights of others to have their say and those that stood against them. There are still groups struggling to be able to speak freely in this country without fearing the majority will come down on them. Which side will you be on. Will you stand for rights of others, or will you stand against them?     

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