The Complexities of Free Speech

Freedom of speech, I believe, is one of the most complicated and messy issues facing the world today. I would like to look at the United States in particular, where the freedom of speech is “protected by the First Amendment”; however, it should be noted that these arguments can be applied to other countries as well.

On a broad scale, I don’t see freedom of speech being an amendment that means that we should be able to say whatever we want, regardless of its impact on other people. Many times, people use freedom of speech as a defense to be racist, sexist, homophobic, bigoted, and/or intolerant. The first instance that comes to mind is when Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson gave an interview to GQ where he made numerous comments that offended many people, while others chose to support his right to make such comments. The show ended up suspending/firing Phil from the show, and the internet exploded. There were people calling left and right for A&E to retract this decision, claiming that Phil was under attack and his first amendment rights were being violated.

I’m inclined to disagree.

Freedom of speech means that you cannot be prosecuted or arrested for your opinions. (And, if that were the case, most of the people on my Facebook feed would be in jail due to disrespecting the President of the United States.) It means that laws cannot be created that limit freedom of speech, expression, the press, and/or religion. In an opinion piece, CNN Contributor LZ Granderson writes: “You can say some stupid stuff … and the First Amendment will keep you from going to jail. But it is not a get-out-of-jail-free card in the eyes of society.”

Freedom of speech does not mean that there are no negative repercussions for stating your opinion. If you openly denounce a large portion of the public in an interview, on television, in a speech, anywhere, really, you’re opening yourself up to criticism and the negative repercussions that may come.

In this sense, then, the freedom of speech should not be limited in any way. People should be able to say what they want without being prosecuted for it. There should not be laws made that restrict freedom of speech. There have been too many cases in our history of restricting the right to speak of those who were not intending to cause harm to others (see: The Red Scare). If we begin to censor and restrict the right to speak or write, there’s no saying that the power that comes with that would get out of hand. Those who get to decide what is censored and what is not then become those who are in power, and those in power are then able to distribute the knowledge to the rest of the population. But if those who are in power are corrupt, or do not share our particular set of morals, the situation becomes much more complicated.

It would be nice to believe that we could make a blanket statement and say that certain things should be not allowed. And I think it’s fine to make those limits ourselves. For example, I tend to not be friends with people who don’t think women deserve equal rights. This is different, though, from making laws that say people shouldn’t be allowed to say certain things.

I would like to end this post as I began it: by reminding readers that this is an incredibly complicated and messy issue. I am in no way an expert on the First Amendment, nor do I believe that what I wrote here is one hundred percent correct. The 600 words written here do not, and cannot, begin to skim the surface of the in’s and out’s of freedom of speech. But it is my hope that through an open and honest conversation about the different aspects of freedom of speech we will be able to come to a conclusion about how to treat freedom of speech in the digital world.

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