One of the most profound outcomes of the 1776 Declaration of Independence was the eventual protection of freedom of speech institutionalized in the 1789 Constitution. Speaking out against the King was considered treason punished by prison or hanging. In spite of that, our founding fathers took the risk, even signing their “John Hancock’s” to the Declaration. Later the Constitution’s First Amendment made sure that “Congress shall pass no law ….abridging the freedom of speech.”
My husband, a refugee from Communism, who often speaks his mind, complained that he was not free to say everything he thought because someone might take offense. I even heard a politician on TV be angry at his ability to do likewise. “Whatever happened to freedom of speech?” he groused.
Do not confuse being politically correct with your First Amendment rights granted by the Constitution. The operative words are ”Congress shall pass no law…”. That phrase protects your rights to be even politically incorrect. It does not mean that your friends, relatives, co-workers, or potential political supporters have to like what you say, or cannot argue against you, or cannot vote against you and for the other guy if you are a candidate. It just means that there will be no laws passed that will restrict you from expressing your opinions.
That concept of freedom to speak has been both limited and expanded since 1789 and the arbiter is the U.S. Supreme Court. Campaign contributions are considered free speech, even if made by a corporation per a recent decision, and now the Supreme Court has agreed to rule on whether threats made on Facebook to kill a spouse is protected by the Constitution. Usually libelous claims about an individual or a celebrity by a newspaper has not been Constitutionally protected, but the wrong can still be addressed by a lawsuit in civil court. Antiabortion demonstrators standing on public sidewalks are protected and not restricted by a buffer zone (per a Supreme Court ruling last month).
The Supreme Court has been asked time and time again where limits should be set. After all, some speech may hurt others, and the Supreme Court has most famously drawn the line with a 1919 decision written of Oliver Wendell Holmes: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic … . The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.”
New internet tools are being used to slander, threaten, and cyberbully. This will keep the Supreme Court for years to come deciding whether examples of such kind of speech cross Constitutionally protected lines.
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