Free Speech Censored? You’re Probably Wrong. Here’s Why.

It is time to break out your courseware, because this is Freedom of Speech 101. In the context of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, we are going to examine what “freedom of speech” means, and what it doesn’t mean.

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.

– First Amendment, United States Constitution

The First Amendment, and later Supreme Court rulings, have legally defined the meaning of freedom of speech, but citizens often have very different ideas. From a legal perspective, in simplest terms, freedom of speech means one is free to express themselves with verbal or written word, with art, with religion, or with any other communicative expression, and do so without government censorship or punishment.

But it is also important to understand what freedom of speech is not, and this is what trips up many. The First Amendment does not protect you from retaliation from private entities, such as your place of employment, a place of business, or even fellow citizens. If you say the wrong thing at work, your boss can fire you. If a store doesn’t like your speech, you can take your business elsewhere. And if a fellow citizen has a problem with something you said, they are free to exercise their free speech in kind.

When someone calls out your bullshit, you might believe you are being censored, and you might be tempted to say this person is trying to suppress your right to free speech. But sorry, that’s not how it works. When someone corrects something you said, or calls you out, or in any way disagrees with you, they are exercising their right to speak their mind, same as you.

Presuming your speech is more important, while also believing you should be protected from the speech of others, is a logical inconsistency known as the Free Speech Fallacy. If people think what you are saying is wrong or bigoted, they are not obligated to listen to you, and in fact they can say that to your face. The important takeaway here is that you are always free to say whatever you want, but that freedom does not protect you from how others will respond.

If today’s free speech lesson is still not quite adhering to the recesses of your mind, here’s a list of perfectly legal consequences of exercising your right to free speech.

  • People can disagree with you.
  • People can recruit others to try to change your mind.
  • People can unfriend you on Facebook.
  • People can try to get others to unfriend you on Facebook or otherwise boycott you or your place of business.
  • People can embarrass you by picking apart your ideology piece by piece using logic and reason.
  • You can be censored by social media.
  • You can be called names.
  • You can be fired.

Some may point out that when people talk about freedom of speech, they are not really talking about the legal definition. For example, if Facebook arbitrarily removes content they consider offensive, people might say that is a free speech violation. In a legal sense this is not true because Facebook is a private entity, but they might have a point from an ethical sense. But most of the time people are invoking the allure and power of the constitution when they wrongly believe their free speech is censored.

Freedom of speech means citizens are free to express themselves without government interference, but freedom of speech does not guarantee expression without consequence.

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