While many national constitutions come and go every few decades, the U.S. Constitution has served the purpose for which it was intended for more than two centuries. The United States is proud of its tradition of freedom of speech that was established in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
It allows for public criticism of the government. Without it, such behavior could land you in prison – just ask Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Still, there were many times in American history when this principle was traduced.
For example, some of the same people who ratified the Bill of Rights voted in Congress in 1798, during the presidency of John Adams, to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts that made it a crime to utter “false, scandalous, or malicious” speech against the government or the president.
The first 10 amendments to the constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. They were proposed by Congress in September 1789 and ratified by the states in December 1791.
Freedom of speech isn’t the only freedom protected by the First Amendment. It reads: “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 peaceable to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Freedom of speech is considered a fundamental bedrock of liberty, allowing citizens to express their ideas and bring about changes that reflect the needs of its people. It gives voice to conflicting or dissenting opinions that promote healthy debate that moves society closer to realizing America’s founding ideals.
The Civil Rights Movement is a perfect example of free speech in action. During the 1950s and 1960s, activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used free speech as a tool to force change in society. Exercising their voice, these activists were able to outlaw racial discrimination that plagued the country.
But freedom of speech is not an unlimited right. The First Amendment only protects individuals’ speech from U.S. governmental oppression, control, and censorship; it does not extend to private entities. Companies have significant leeway to set their own standards and policies regarding employee conduct.
There is nothing illegal about a private firm censoring people on its platform. For example, Facebook banning former President Trump indefinitely from its platform and Twitter permanently banning him were within the companies’ legal rights in the aftermath of the Capital incursion on January 6.
The nation has long grappled with which types of speech should be protected and which should not. Interpreting the broad guarantees of free speech in the First Amendment has not been an easy task. Over time, the Supreme Court has spilled barrels of ink defining the freedom of speech. It has upheld people’s right to critique the government and hold political protests, but hasn’t extended protection to those who incite action that might cause harm.
But what constitutes harm is still a matter of debate. For some, it is limited to physical harm as in the case of falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater. For others, harm encompassed a compromise to the dignity of others, as in the case of hate speech. Another recent argument is that free speech should be curtailed if it causes offense and the speaker makes you feel disrespected. This argument may be setting a lower bar for limiting free speech. But that is a story for another day.
In today’s politically charged climate, some people believe government should restrict certain speech. But thankfully, the First Amendment protects everything from car commercials to fiery protests.
While it may be unfashionable to quote America’s first President, it merits recalling what he said about free speech: “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
Naturally, everyone has their own interpretation of those comments.