First Amendment – Free Speech

I have heard many people talk about that is a violation of the First Amendment or that violates the right of free speech, but they are not using the reference correctly.

“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.” (From the National Archives)

When most people talk about free speech and someone else violating that right, or a company violating that right what they do not understand is that this is not an absolute right. Additionally, this amendment means that an individual can express themselves without worrying about government interference.  However, there are exceptions when the government can interfere (ex. slander, defamation, fighting words, commercial speech, etc.)

Cornell Law School has a great resource that lists landmark cases that helped define when the government can interfere with free speech.

Recently, free speech has gotten media attention, because the media was reporting how an employee of a private company may have gotten in trouble by voicing or demonstrating his opinion or views.  Here is where several reporters and commentators were not 100% accurate, it was not a free speech violation, because the government was not telling the athlete that he could not say what he wanted to or protest the way he wanted to.  What was happening is that a private company can impose penalties or limit what you say when a person represents that company.

Look at your own employment contract, there is probably a clause in your contract that indicates if you do something or say something that embarrasses your employer they have the right to terminate you.  Teachers have gotten in trouble for what they post on social media or say to a local newspaper if it is deemed detrimental to the school or the profession.  Some companies make it clear in employment contracts or policies that if there is an event that happens and the media want statements from the company only certain staff members can speak to the press, and if you are not one of those people and you speak tot he press you could be fired. This is legal, because the government is not preventing you from how you express yourself.

Next time you hear someone say that is a violation of my right to free speech, I ask you to stop and think – who is preventing that person from expressing himself or herself? If it is not the government,  tell them why it is not a violation.



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