What Is Free Speech?

Despite being one of the most talked about topics in the news today, free speech is only being used as a buzzword

by Isabella Franklin

“You also had some very fine people on both sides,” said President Trump on August 15.

Though it may sound like he’s discussing the results of a close football game, he’s discussing Charlottesville protesters who chanted Neo-Nazi phrases such as “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” while carrying torches. Why wouldn’t joining a group of Neo-Nazis disqualify you as a very fine person, or even an acceptable American? How is Neo-Nazi speech okay in the United States?

Free speech is an incessantly discussed topic in the news, but the discussion never progresses. The phrase “free speech” has been thrown around so much that it’s become a useless buzzword to raise attention and alarm. In reality, the definition of free speech is fairly convoluted.

The first amendment was created to allow citizens to speak against the government with no punishment. This is called political speech, and it’s the only fully protected type of speech. The congressional definition of speech includes symbolic speech, such as physical actions and displaying symbols.

The amendment doesn’t protect all forms of speech, however. Speech is prohibited and can be regulated if it’s considered defamation, fighting words, threats, or similar. Anything that isn’t unprotected speech or political speech is a gray area. Generally, as long as it isn’t unprotected speech, anything goes.

Now, that doesn’t always apply. Students are legally subject to their school’s rules. If school policy bans a type of speech and it disrupts school, then the school can shut it down. The same goes for platforms such as radio stations or ads, and private organizations; the government or organization may shut down what it deems offensive.

DHS’s code of conduct says that students cannot disrespect the civil rights of others, cause a disruption, display things intended to be offensive, be discriminatory, and must obey the law at all times. For an example of how this applies, if you were here last year the day after Trump was elected president, you might remember kids chanting “repeal the 19th amendment” (women’s voting rights) in the halls, along with making otherwise stupid comments. While they may have been joking, it heavily violates DHS policy. Free speech doesn’t protect being an asshole.

So, what does the Constitution have to say about arguments involving free speech?

One dead horse that the media continues to beat is NFL players kneeling for the anthem. Kaepernick’s choice to kneel is the embodiment of symbolic political speech. He couldn’t be in a more respectful position, especially considering that army veteran Nate Boyer originally suggested that position to respect fallen soldiers. The flag code doesn’t say you have to stand, and it wouldn’t override freedom of speech even if it did. People need to either focus on the significance of kneeling or stop talking about it, because nothing is being accomplished.

Something that doesn’t fall so neatly into protected speech is Trump’s constant flow of insults. One of many cases of this defamation is him accusing women suing him for assault of lying. His attorney is defending him by saying that calling them liars is political speech. If “political speech” means “any comment on anything that involves the law,” then sure. Otherwise, this was just a characteristically ineloquent and non-political ad hominem attack.

This brings us back to the idea that Neo-Nazis have fine people among them. They went on a liberal campus, shouting inflammatory phrases to cause tension, anger, fear, and, ultimately, violence: the exact definition of fighting words. Their actions shouldn’t be supported by any American who believes in the Constitution’s establishment of our rights. Yet, people still choose to focus on some NFL players rather than real issues.

America is, at least in concept, founded on respect and liberty. Freedom of expression was established so that anyone could safely practice whichever religion they wanted, fight for whichever causes they believed in, and more; it wasn’t established so that people could denigrate others for their own gain. Americans have yet to live up to the potential for equality and unity that our government set up for us.

How can Americans call people exercising their right to free speech to peacefully protest un-American while arguing in favor for giving people as disgusting and un-American as Neo-Nazis a platform?

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