“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 of the United States Constitution
Recent events remind me that many people are misinformed about free speech. As an opinion writer and former newspaper reporter and editor, it pains me that this fundamental constitutional right is so widely misunderstood.
Let’s review: The First Amendment prevents government censorship of most (not all) expression. The First Amendment has nothing to do with societal or individual pressure to restrict speech. The First Amendment also does not exempt anyone from the consequences of exercising their free speech rights, including criticism.
Take, for example, comedian and actor Tracy Morgan. He recently made comments during a stand-up show that were shockingly homophobic. Morgan — who has apologized for his rant and is working hard to atone for it — was immediately denounced and, just as quickly, his defenders played the completely irrelevant “free speech” card.
Once more, with feeling: The First Amendment doesn’t shield anyone from criticism. Anyone who tries to use the First Amendment to deflect criticism is a hypocrite of the highest order, doing to their critics the same thing that they’re complaining that their critics are doing. These First Amendment hypocrites are claiming, essentially, “You can’t criticize me without trampling my free speech rights, but I am free to criticize you for criticizing me.”
Another example of offensive expression comes from Dilbert creator Scott Adams. In a recent blog post, he seemed to excuse rape as a natural male “instinct” and lumped rape with texting and consensual adulterous sex as examples of men “behaving badly.” When I took issue with Adams’ post, a friend defended comedians’ right to free speech. Well, duh, and, by the way, nice straw man.
Adams is allowed to posit whatever misguided hypotheses about male behavior that he wants without government interference. It doesn’t even have to be funny (good thing, because it wasn’t). And the people who disagree with his hypotheses can criticize them as offensive, idiotic, misogynistic or fallacious. No one’s free speech is trampled in that scenario.
Moreover, free speech does not prevent Adams from experiencing consequences for his expressions. Adams might find that criticisms of his blog post appear all over the Internet, or that sales of Dilbert paraphernalia drop. Adams might even find that people tell him that he shouldn’t have written the post and they wish he’d be quiet. None of those things would be violations of Adams’ free speech rights.
That’s because individuals, non-governmental groups, and society in general are free to pressure Adams to curtail speech they find offensive. They’re free to do so by criticizing his speech and by not supporting him financially.
When are free speech rights abridged? If the government were to tell Adams that he couldn’t express his opinions, then we’d have a case of constitutional rights being trampled. Short of that, we’ve simply got a raucous marketplace of ideas. Positing and debating ideas is how a free society tests claims, keeping the good and discarding the bad.
It’s disgraceful when celebrities and everyday citizens don’t understand free speech. It’s dangerous when candidates or elected officials are ignorant about the First Amendment.
Former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin has repeatedly demonstrated First Amendment ignorance. In 2008, Palin responded to criticism of the McCain-Palin campaign’s negative tactics by improperly invoking the First Amendment. In 2010, Palin defended Laura Schlessinger from criticism of the radio show host’s repeated use of the n-word by improperly invoking the First Amendment. Then, apparently eager to be wrong about when First Amendment does apply, earlier this year, Palin criticized the Supreme Court’s First Amendment-based Westboro Baptist Church ruling by implying the court should have curtailed “wacko” speech.
Let’s ensure that whether it’s on the newspaper’s opinion page, in social media forums, around the office water cooler, or in the national media, we’re not abusing the First Amendment by trying to use it to squelch criticism. The best way to prevent that is to call out anyone who tries to get away with that rank hypocrisy.
“Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom from criticism; unfortunately, both many on the left and many of the right often forget that.” ~ Law Professor Eugene Volokh