Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment

Do you agree that freedom should have no limitations? Can you call it freedom if you are limited on what you can say or do? Boundaries, limitations, and violation of rights has been an issue when it comes to freedom of speech for quite some time now. People could be accused of hate speech if they practice their freedom of speech, some would say it’s their ‘freedom’ but some say it is too much and they are crossing the line and being offensive. Freedom of speech can be very vague. Free speech cannot be accepted and rejected at the same time. Either there is absolute free speech, or there is no free speech. Any limits on speech are a violation of the first amendment. All speech ought to be protected under free speech.

Freedom of speech encapsulates the right to speak one’s mind without any inhibitions. Rights that are sometimes tap the sensitivities of other people and come as offensive. Critics of Free Speech however, argue towards limiting this very inalienable right. These critics fall on a spectrum of censorship, from those who would outright do away with any freedom of speech whatsoever, whereas others who would place a limit on what can be said and what cannot. It is this latter category of people who try to present themselves as respectful of one’s right to free speech whilst eating away on its core foundations that present an insidious problem. Free speech cannot simultaneously be embraced and shunned, but yet this dichotomy of a belief persists. These beliefs are now creeping into the American social order, and slowly pervading spaces that used to be considered protected under the First Amendment as laid out in the constitution.

Among the major pillars of free speech is the right to cause offense. Just as people reserve the right to be offended in a free country like the United States, so should there be a right to cause offense without any fall out. Whilst in theory, the First Amendment protects this very foundational pillar of Free Speech; we increasingly witness the reversal of an American principle of giving someone the right to say what they want to say. Not only do we do a disservice to American ideas, we also rob ourselves of the opportunity to hear what others have to say only because we put upon ourselves this blindfold of offense. For example, the trend to de-platform notable speakers in many of the college campuses across the country is a testament of this shift away from valuing the First Amendment (Lucker 60-66).

A speaker may very well be offensive to a given population of listeners, but it is by no means their right to prevent other people from listening who may actually want to listen. It not only draws upon the right to free speech & expression as ascribed under the first amendment, but also exemplifies a basic tenant of a tolerant society that is willing to give everyone their due space to think and speak. In putting barriers to free speech only because it may cause offense is a gross violation of what America has over the years represented. It is a slippery slope of a trajectory that we take as a country, viewing the factor of offense in such high esteem, since ultimately there is no shortage of offense to go around, and as a result it only becomes a matter of the numbers of people who have taken offense to limit free speech and thus undermine the First Amendment.

First Amendment does not place any limit to Free Speech, and thus accommodates even hate speech as free speech. The general perception though is gradually shifting, as people seek to have any speech silenced that may demonstrate signs of hate speech. While Hate Speech may indeed not be palatable, the right to allow it or disallow it ought to by no means be the prerogative of either the state or the people. Europe is one particular example of putting a special legislative clause upon hate speech and outlawing it.

In America, no such law exists, but the public perception among many quarters demonstrates a liking to follow the European model, which would invariably clash with First Amendment. It is a common misconception that hateful ideas could somehow be curbed and eradicated through censorship (Strossen 109-121). History is a vivid exemplar of this flawed thought process. If hateful ideas that may underpin hate speech are to be effectively dealt with, these ideas have to be extended an allowance towards expression. Only then can a setting be created where these ideas are challenged and eventually overcome.

Strossen further uses the example of a neo-Nazi to argue that for instance if one is of the view that perhaps holocaust never happened, the speech does indeed target a certain group of people and can therefore be deemed hateful in nature. The way to counter it however is not to force censorship upon the person making the claim, but a rebuttal through discourse, something that is only possible if all parties have their right to free speech and first amendment protected.

Another contentious segment of the right to free speech and first amendment is the right to desecration and commit sacrilege. While there remains formal inhibition to any of these, many of the realities paint a starkly different picture. Especially in recent times, as the political landscape has radically shifted, many of the previously acceptable practices are under question. President Trumps insinuation to pain the burning of flag has a desecration worth criminal penalty, but it also reflects how free speech is being cornered. Another similar recent debate over the kneeling of NFL players has a sparked a similar debate of disrespecting the flag, and thus meriting harsh penalties (Smith 6-15). All of this goes against to the right of free speech of any individual. It reflects a worrying trend of government seeking to legislate against the right of an American citizen to protest. The pattern resembles the actions of draconian, where small offenses has a heavy punishment, and to silence the population with force. The First Amendment in America was exclusively meant to be a bulwark against such encroachments of the government into the liberties of its citizens. If the freedoms are to therefore be protected, it calls for action, even if it entails desecration.

While the case for absolute free speech and the protection of first amendment rights has been made through varying arguments, it is pertinent to mention that while in most cases there is no rationale to limit any speech, if it actively incites violence however, there can and arguably should be a check upon it. For someone who may perhaps be seeking to provoke a population towards perpetrating violence against a certain group of people, such a case calls for action. Such kinds of a speech violate the threshold of tolerance and can therefore not be made a normative practice. There is though a distinction to be made in what classifies as active incitement of violence. If a person maintains a rhetoric that leads a person in his own independent capacity to perpetrate violent acts, that does not classify as active incitement of violence. If a person however deliberately and openly calls for the aforementioned violence, that is active incitement, and cannot be allowed for the general good of the society.

There cannot be a limitation of free speech and yet a protection of it. First Amendment can therefore not be cited when it is convenient and discarded when it is not. Free Speech is a fundamental right of a person and is protected by the first amendment. It need not be limited by any constraints; and thus the right to cause offense, to desecrate or even perpetrate hate needs to be given its due freedom as was determined by the First Amendment. While in America in its current state of affairs, there is not explicit inhibition to many of the frontiers of speech deemed questionable, there is yet a growing shift towards more censorship from different facets, either the social perceptions in general or the governmental narratives. It is imperative that inalienable right to freedom of speech be safeguarded as was intended by the founded fathers when inked in to the constitution.