What Does It Mean to Have Free Speech?

My husband and I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago about free speech. In the aftermath of the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, the hubs said that while we may not like what some people have to say, you can’t have your free speech cake and eat it too. Meaning just because I don’t like what Nazis have to say, doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to say it.

Just to clarify, my husband is absolutely against anything the Nazis stand for, but his comment got me to thinking about how I feel about free speech in this country. Do people have the right to say things I find distasteful? Yes. I mean, Ann Coulter is out there doing it every dang day.

And then there’s the recent NFL kerfuffle, where players took a knee during the National Anthem in protest. My Facebook feed exploded and I thought to myself “You people need to slow your roll – they have the constitutional right to do that!” But I think an honest question is if players in the NFL have the right to protest, then what about people advocating for things I find abhorrent? Basically, I just need to know more so I can argue with people on Facebook.

I’m not a constitutional scholar by any stretch of the imagination, so temper your expectations. I thought I’d educate you as I educated myself about free speech with this little guide. Who knows? We may find out that free speech doesn’t mean what we think it means (I’m talking to you, bigots).

Freedom of Speech Defined

The first amendment of the United States Constitution says, “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.”

OK – but what does that mean?

Basically, as a citizen of this country, you have the right to say what you want to say without being punished by the government – and that’s true no matter what 45 tweets.

You cannot incite violence, commit a crime, or make true threats(sorry, punching a Nazi isn’t protected). But hate speech is protected in this country thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision Whitney v. California. That doesn’t mean if you decide to go out on the street and proclaim you’re a Nazi (spewing hateful rhetoric along the way) that you’re protected from being criticized for it, shamed for it, or be mocked. Basically, actions have consequences.

The Big Difference

OK – so I can admit that everyone has the right to say what they want to say in this country within reason, but football players taking a knee in protest is not the same as a Nazi rally to protest a statue. What is the purpose of showing up to a Nazi rally armed to the teeth? Clearly, it’s to agitate and incite. Engaging in violence, no matter who you are, is not a protected expression. As the ACLU said, “The First Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.”

In my mind, not all types of speech are morally comparable, either. But, getting ideas out in the open and starting a conversation about it is something good that can come from thespeech you find distasteful. If you want to fight against the words someone is using in exercising their free speech, then you have to fight back with your own speech – it’s really that simple.

So, as much as it pains me to admit it, my husband is right. While I still don’t think the Nazis were out that day just to have their voices heard, I also understand they have the right to peacefully assemble and express themselves. And I say that NFL players have every right to protest peacefully and bring more attention to racial inequality in this country – but that’s another blog!