Free speech is a little complicated in America

Everyone has an opinion these days.

That is especially apparent on Facebook and other social media sites where people can easily post their thoughts on anything and everything. However, do you really think before you post? Just because you can post, say or write something doesn’t mean you should.

Some people cite their First Amendment right of free speech as a reason for saying whatever they want, regardless of any implications those words could have.

After all, free speech means we can say or post whatever we want to, even if it’s untrue or harmful, right?

Wrong.

Since this week (Oct. 16-22) is Free Speech Week, an annual designation to raise awareness about the importance of free speech to our democracy, we thought it was a good time to shed some light on the issue.

According to part of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law...abridging freedom of speech.”

This does not give us free reign to say whatever we want, although not everyone truly understands that premise. There are limitations.

Free speech is among the cherished values of our country, but it’s also complicated. Since it was ratified as part of the Bill of Rights in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in 1791, the term “free speech” has been interpreted differently. It’s a topic that the United States Supreme Court has often struggled with in determining exactly what constitutes protected speech.

According to www.uscourts.gov, freedom of speech includes the right:

• Not to speak (specifically, the right not to salute the flag).

West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).

• Of students to wear black armbands to school to protest a war (“Students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.”).

Tinker v. Des Moines, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).

• To use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages.

Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971).

• To contribute money (under certain circumstances) to political campaigns.

Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976).

• To advertise commercial products and professional services (with some restrictions).

Virginia Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Consumer Council, 425 U.S. 748 (1976); Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350 (1977).

• To engage in symbolic speech, (e.g., burning the flag in protest).

Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989); United States v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990).

However, freedom of speech does not include the right:

• To incite actions that would harm others (e.g., “[S]hout[ing] ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”).

Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919).

• To make or distribute obscene materials.

Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957).

• To burn draft cards as an anti-war protest.

United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968).

• To permit students to print articles in a school newspaper over the objections of the school administration.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988).

• Of students to make an obscene speech at a school-sponsored event.

Bethel School District #43 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986).

• Of students to advocate illegal drug use at a school-sponsored event.

Morse v. Frederick, __ U.S. __ (2007).

Free speech is the language of America. However, we think you should always think before you speak – or post.

Free speech not only means talking or commuicating - it means taking responsiblity for what you say and how you say it.

Like all our precious freedoms, our rights are complicated and continually being interpreted.

Free speech is an extremely valuable facet of our democracy. We need to protect it but also to respect it.

What is the value of freedom of speech to you?