Right Side: First Amendment Rights

Americans Have The Right To Say What They Want, Free From Government Intrusion, But Rights Don't Extend To The Consequences Of Those Words



There's one phrase that's often in the beginning of every class, be it about firearms, childbirth or cranial tattoos: "Let's start with the basics." I will follow tradition.

As we opine on this issue's topic of free speech, let's start with those basics. Free speech, as defined in the First Amendment, stems from the wording, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ... " That means the government cannot create a law that will keep you from saying what's on your mind (consequences and laws are different things, which we'll get to later). So, free speech really means something that can't be curtailed by the government. It doesn't pertain in most cases to private businesses. If you decide to let fly with your thoughts on an elected or government official, you're in the safe zone, as long as you're not inciting actions that would harm others. This is basic, "Schoolhouse Rock" stuff.

Where the citizenry seems to have become confused is among all the entities out there not mentioned in the First Amendment. That would be everyone but the government. Social media platforms are not your personal, unfettered soapbox. They are private companies. When you create an account on Facebook, you're agreeing to the terms of service, which are theirs, not the Constitution's. Case in point: you wake up one morning and decide to wax poetic on how awesome your skin color is and that everyone else's is a shade called "inferior." Bye bye, David Duke! Yet, there is the reflexive, expected histrionics from those who have had their posts pulled, claiming their "rights have been violated!" Nothing of the sort is true.

The same could be said for the bastion of modern whining, the college campus. Whenever a controversial, champion chain-puller speaker is invited, often from the right, students amass in protest. That's fine. What isn't is when they stand up during said speech to try to intimidate or shut down the speaker. This begs the question, if the cherubs find it so offensive, why did they attend? When they are hauled out of the venue, they claim their rights have been blah blah blah. To reiterate, the audience cannot claim abridgment of rights in this instance because school policy on disruption will take precedent. Likewise, if a speaker is invited, then uninvited, even if done on the expected content (e.g., Milo Yiannopoulos), their rights also aren't being violated.

While Supreme Court cases in 1986 and 1988 firmly established the primacy of school policy over the latitude students think they have in voicing their opinion, a case in 1969 also plainly stated that students' First Amendment rights don't end the moment they step on school property. This is where we get in to school policies on decency, disruption and public versus private schools. Suffice it to say, when students claim freedom of speech violations, they usually have no idea what they're talking about.

Quick digression: how is it beneficial to try to shout down an opposing viewpoint? I would think the most effective tactic would be to simply prove the other person wrong. Students should organize, pick the best orator, finetune their talking points and ensure that one person gets the microphone during Q&A. The same could be said for these human megaphones who show up at Republican congressional town halls shouting over the representatives. The most eviscerating debate is not one that stems from volume, but from fact.

The other issue with free speech that truly baffles the mind is the complaint of those who receive blowback from their words. This is where we get into the differences between consequences and rights. Yes, you have the right to say all kinds of dumb, hurtful, uninformed things. If you didn't, there would be a lot more bandwidth on the Internet. You have a right to say what you want (again, barring inciting harm) free from government intrusion, but those rights don't extend to the consequences of your words. Meaning, you're well within your rights to take a swing, but so are others to swing back. Therefore, when the Dixie Chicks (full disclosure: I think they're an incredibly talented group who made country music better) criticized President Bush, there were some who claimed the Chicks had their rights violated by those who stopped buying or playing their records. Or ran over those records with a front-end roller. Freedom of speech, like it or not, comes with consequences. Since actions have consequences, and speaking is an action, the free market will rain down upon those it finds offensive.

Finally, given my column in this magazine and my previous stint in talk radio, I love a good debate. I have found that disagreements often flow from an honest, well-intentioned place, and therefore should be given respect. There are also arguments that were sucked up from the deep end of the ignorance pool. Regardless of agreement, reason or fact, we as Americans should be willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with those with whom we disagree if a local, state or federal government tries to stifle that speech. While fact is the ultimate arbiter, we should never let that burden be carried by the government. Part of this incredible system we have is to let the people decide what is right and what is in their best interest. For instance, I think the website Infowars is plied with excrement. It's a net negative for society, and the sooner it's gone, the better. But, the moment the FCC, or whatever other government agency might have purview, tries to shut it down, I will be the first to donate to help keep it afloat.

So, go forth with your open, active pie hole and spew what trivial nonsense you like! But be warned there will be those who will, and should, point out your errant ways, stop visiting your websites, buying your products, inviting you to speaking engagements and, most importantly, stop listening.

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