Freedom of Speech Doesn’t Protect you From Everything

November 7th, 2007
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I hear a lot about respecting someone’s freedom of speech every time a group like the 9/11 Troofers or some fringe radical religious or racist group comes forward and claims that they’re being oppressed or disrespected and “Hey, this is a free country and you have to respect my opinion and my right to speak my mind.”

Well, that’s not entirely true.   Yes, I have to accept that you are free to speak your mind, but I don’t have to respect what you say or respect *you* for saying it.

In reality, I think freedom of speech is just about the most important thing in a free society and I’ll stand up to the end for the right of people to express their views, whether or not I agree with them.  BUT, I also understand that freedom of speech does not give someone immunity from the consequences of what that speech is.   This makes sense if you think about it, but there are a few things that one needs to understand.


1.   Freedom of Speech protects the message, but not necessarily the manner of expressing it - If you’re a member of the Communist party you have every right to put up a banner or have a rally for your party in any place the Republican Party or the Democratic Party can.   But that doesn’t mean that a city or town cannot impose an ordnance which says something like “No events with more than 600 people in a single building without at least eight unobstructed fire exits.”   In that case, if you had your rally in such a building, you could face legal consequences.   Now this example seems simple, but people sometimes get confused on this one.   If protesters want to picket a funeral they cannot be stopped by a law which says “No anti-war protests within 300 yards of a funeral.”   However they can be stopped by a law which states “No organized, loud or obstructing demonstrations within 300 feet of a funeral.”     Similarly, you can be prosecuted for screaming out your message in a public place, not because of the message but because screaming is illegal under noise laws.   You can’t broadcast without an FCC license either.

Ultimately this can reach the point where there is something of a “blurred line” between what is fair and what is not.  Because freedom of speech could be controlled if the government were to simply start restricting venues with the goal of repressing the message.   So the test is whether the law is enacted to control speech or if it has a legitimate reason beyond this.    This is a judgment call.   Hence, the people who ultimately have to make this decision are called judges.

2.   It doesn’t mean that anyone has to provide you with a venue or platform -  You can say whatever you want on the internet IF you own the website or server.  However, if you post something on a board or a forum or anything else that is not in your control, they can take it down if they want because they don’t like the message.  Frustrating?  Sometimes, but if it matters that much just get your own site.  If you own a TV station or a theater or any other sort of platform, you can deny people the use of it because you don’t like their message.   In actuality *you* are protected by freedom of speech by saying what your property can and can’t be used for.

Tis came up recently in a college where a speaker who had offended many victims of 9/11 was canceled after many students students complained.  The university decided that although they support having different perspectives, this one did not deserve their time and they canceled the speaker.   The university was not a government agency, so it was in a position where it was not bound by neutrality.   Some students protested that it violated freedom of speech.   Of course, it didn’t violate that right.   If they felt that University was making a bad decision by canceling it, they certainly had the right to say so and if they felt strongly enough, they could even transfer to a school which they felt was more tolerant of their views.   But it wasn’t an issue of a protected right.

3.  MOST IMPORTANTLY!!!! – Freedom of speech does not in any way shape or form protect you from any sort of disrespect, general opposition, discrimination or community-based sentiments.   Actually, this is a critical aspect of what is *protected.*   Because the whole point of free speech is that if everyone is protected, then everyone can decide what to accept and reject and this should lead to unacceptable points of view being rejected.   So if some group of KKK members move into your town, theres nothing protecting them from you going up to them and saying “You know what, I think you’re a dochebag.  I don’t respect your views and I don’t respect you and you should know that everyone I’ve talked to says you’re just plain not welcome here.   Get the hell out.  I hope you die a horrible death you scumbag.”

You similarly can deny them coming over to borrow ice cubes.   If you see them on the street, you can give them a dirty look.   If you have a BBQ you can invite everyone and not them.   And if they hand out pamphlets or start making speeches, you can ignore them.   You are not obligated to listen or give them the time of day.

So if a 9/11 troofer shows up at ground zero, does the crowed have the right to beat them up?  No.   Do they have the right to yell “Get the hell out of here you bastard.”  Oh hell yeah.

And you can even get fired, denied service or discriminated for your opinion.  That’s fine too.  However, there are some protections for this, such as not being allowed to be discriminated on based on religion and also since the government is bound to protect freedom of speech, if your dealing with a government body, there may be protection.   Of course this comes down to a judgment call of how far these protections go.  Hence, the people who ultimately have to make this decision are called judges.

4.  Finally, one most people are familiar with: speech which directly instigates violence or causes harm is not protected.   Viewpoints are protected but calls to action or any sort of words which are directly effective in causing harm beyond viewpoints are not.   So you can say “I hope president Bush drops dead,”  that’s fine, but you cannot offer money to kill him, because that’s a call to action.   Nor can you make a direct threat.    And yelling fire in a crowded movie house is not protected either, because that’s less of an opinion than it is an instrument of causing panic, injury and death.

You also cannot misrepresent something and thereby causes harm, because that’s fraud.  In the US, courts hold this to a high burden of proof, as they should, but if you come out and say that you’re going to sell a computer to someone and they buy a box that turns out to have a few bricks in it, then that’s not protected.   Similarly, you can’t falsely advertise and you can’t make untrue statements which are designed to cause harm to another, as that is libel and slander, a civil offense.

On slander - In the US, slander is a very difficult case to make.   Very few of such cases are ever won in court (sure many are brought as threats, but very few actually stand the burden of proof).   This is because in order for something to be slander it has to meet some criteria.   For one thing it has to be a refutable and disprovable fact.   So if I say “John is ugly and he’s a bad person and I hate him and everyone should hate him,” that sort of statement would be entirely protected.  But if I say something like “John was convicted of child molestation,”  then that could be empirically proven and thus if it’s wrong, I could be in trouble.   There are some other criteria which make this very difficult to win:   Not only must it be untrue, but the person who brought it must know it’s untrue and knowingly lie.   Ignorance rarely offers protection under the law, but here it does.  If they had every reason to think it was true or got false info that they had reasonable assurance of, they’re off.   They must also prove that it was done with the intent of malice and that damage has been done as such.   This is why these rarely make it to a full blown trial, though they’re a common “scare tactic.”

In conclusion, I’d like to reiterate the point of this post.   If you find an opinion unacceptable, then don’t accept it.  That’s totally valid.  In fact, it’s what you should do.   And if you think someone is repugnant, offensive or just plain wrong then by all means call them on it.   Say what you think of them.   Boo them off the stage.   That’s the whole point!

What I like to say:  “I respect your right to an opinion.  But I don’t respect that opinion and I don’t respect you.”

And if you don’t like my opinion?  Fine.   Go f*** yourself!  :-D


This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 7th, 2007 at 11:23 am and is filed under Misc, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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One Response to “Freedom of Speech Doesn’t Protect you From Everything”

  1. 1
    Jared Says:

    Great Stuff!


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