The Limits of Free Speech

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The Limits of Free Speech

by Jayden Johnson, Contributor

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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.

One of the most fundamental principles of the United States is the right to freedom of speech. As an American citizen, one could say the vilest and hateful statements and still be protected under the Constitution.

The concept of freedom of speech on its face seems quite simple, say whatever one would want whenever, and wherever. However, there are lines that can be drawn around what kinds of speech are protected and in what setting.

The First Amendment protects practically everything, “So, I went to Stanford Law School, I took a Constitutional Law class. The lesson I remember the most was when the professor read us a vile, offensive, hateful, racist speech. He then made us understand that in the United States, part of our concept of Democracy is that people have to be allowed to say what they want. If you don’t like it, you have the right to counter with your own speech. The line gets drawn when someone physically or inspires people to take physical action,” Fisher states. When asked where the line is drawn, Fisher responds, “threatening speech, speech that presents a clear and evident danger, obscenity, and slander.”

Hypothetically, if a group such as the KKK, Neo-Nazis, or white supremacists, in general, were to march the streets of a certain town in the name of “peaceful protest,” they have the right to do so. Whether or not it is morally correct is another debate. “You can’t restrict them just because you don’t like what they say. So, if the Ku Klux Klan wants to march, you can require them to get a permit, but you cannot prohibit them from marching,” Fisher continues. These groups have the right to state their opinion, however vile and hateful it may be. However, if this “peaceful protest” were to become violent, if said groups were to begin physically attacking their counter-protesters, their speech is no longer protected.

This draws the question: What happens in the situation where a person’s speech violates the First Amendment?

First, one must evaluate what type of speech has been violated. Were the words used obscene, were they used to threaten someone physically (fighting words), or were these words intended to slander someone else? If said speech fits under any of these categories, one has no right to state that their right to free speech was violated.

With this context, looking at situations such as that of the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, whether or not that rally was protected by Free Speech is debatable.

Needless to say, those of the Alt-Right, as well as their counter-protestors, had the absolute right to state their opinion. However, as the rally became more violent, their protection began to wither away.

What the people who attended the rally failed to realize was that their direct slander of their counter-protesters, their direct threats with weapons, and their physical attacks, all of those means of “protest” were far from protected.

In conclusion, free speech will always an important right for American citizens. Without it, Americans would become more censored which may inevitably lead to a dictatorship. With this in mind, “if you don’t agree with someone’s opinion, you shouldn’t try to shut them down. You should try to engage in a conversation where you truly listen to what they have to say,” Fisher concludes.

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