We are guaranteed the right of free speech, including the right to criticize private individuals and public figures, by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, 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.”
The U. S. Supreme Court recognized this principle in 1941 in the case of Bridges v. California – 314 U.S. 252(1941).
This case involved the conviction of a labor leader for publishing a telegram in the newspaper. He had sent this telegram to the Secretary of Labor, in which he criticized a court’s decision in a labor dispute and stated that if the court’s decision was upheld there would be a strike.
Justice Black stated the importance of free speech and our right to criticize public officials in the Courts opinion, which in part stated:
“The assumption that respect for the judiciary can be won by shielding judges from published criticism wrongly appraises the character of American public opinion. For it is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions. And an enforced silence, however limited, solely in the name of preserving the dignity of the bench, would probably engender resentment, suspicion, and contempt much more than it would enhance respect.”
Theodore Roosevelt wrote about free speech and our right to criticize the President in his editorial for the “Kansas City Star” newspaper during World War I, which reads in part:
“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.”
The right of free speech, including the right to criticize, must be tempered with common sense and decency and we must understand there are limits to our protection under the Constitution. We do not have the Constitutional right to say just anything that comes to our mind. Justice Murphy made this quite clear when he wrote the Court’s opinion in the case of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 US 568 – Supreme Court 1942, which reads in part:
“There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words — those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”
Speech and criticism that is not protected under the First Amendment to our Constitution can also include; obscenity, blackmail, true threats, incitement to imminent lawless action and defamation (includes libel and slander).
Defamation law was designed to protect people from having their lives ruined by the lies of others, while at the same time, realizing that people should have the right to speak freely without fear of litigation.
Disagreement, whether political or social, is important in a free society and we must fully understand that we don’t all share the same beliefs or opinions, but our Constitution does have limits on the type of criticisms protected as free speech under the First Amendment.