Limits of the First Amendment
Every so often, a celebrity’s brain explodes smack in the middle of a media interview, and expels some sort of vile comment. They usually apologize later, but that generates the usual rumblings of free speech and censorship. Their behavior is often wrong, but such criticism does not violate their first amendment rights. Objecting to someone’s words is not a first amendment issue unless the government tells us not to say it.
Free speech is probably one of the most misunderstood of our rights. We do not have the absolute right to say whatever we want, whenever we want, to whomever we want, on any topic. The first amendment says that the GOVERNMENT can’t interfere with our speech. Courts have held that it applies to political speech, not to all speech.
For example, Helium can restrict our speech on their website. The government cannot restrict our speech on Helium. Our employers can tell us not to wear T-shirts with political messages to work. The government cannot tell us such a thing. Parents can tell their minor children not to read certain books or magazines, or not to use certain words. The government cannot tell them such a thing.
We can’t libel or slander someone, incite a riot, risk a catastrophe (shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre), or disclose classified national security information. These are all legitimate and necessary restrictions.
At the moment, the American Civil Liberties Union is involved in about two dozen cases of free speech rights nationwide. The ACLU often defends people who use horrid forms of hate speech. They do so because their only client is our Bill of Rights. As they say,
“It is easy to defend freedom of speech when the message is something many people find at least reasonable. But the defense of freedom of speech is most critical when the message is one most people find repulsive. That was true when the Nazis marched in Skokie. It remains true today.”
And just for the record, this is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, effective December 15, 1791:
“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.”
See. It says Congress shall make no law. . . . And that means all of government in the US. It doesn’t mention your employer, your friends, your parents, or the public.