The Reality of Free Speech

By: Darius Thornton

The idea of freedom of speech has long been synonymous with the United States and democracy as a whole. The right to express ourselves as we please is something we often take for granted, considering it is something people in some other countries around the world are not able to do. Democracy, as a principle, heavily depends on the voices and actions of its citizens for it to function, as it is quite literally, a government for the people, by the people. We’re allowed to hold our own opinions, vote for who we want in certain positions, agree with each other, disagree with each other, swear, protest things we don’t like and much, much more. Though, as the wheels of society slowly keep churning forward and our once rigid ideals begin to change with the times, the idea of free speech is becoming less and less clear. The line between freedom of speech and hate speech is blurring, so much so that it is possible that the goalposts on what is considered true “free speech” in America could soon shift.

Merriam Webster defines free speech as, “the right to express information, ideas and opinions free of government restrictions based on content and subject only to reasonable limitations (as the power of the government to avoid a clear and present danger) especially as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.” In other words, American citizens have the right to express themselves in any way, as long as it doesn’t endanger or harm anyone else or violate the law in any way. However, there are limitations to the First Amendment, in the sense that there are certain types of speech it doesn’t protect, meaning one could be legally held accountable for saying or expressing them. These include libel, slander, perjury, fighting words, blackmail, true threats, incitement to imminent crime and display of obscenity (such as child pornography or depictions of horrible atrocities). All of these are functional forms of expression that directly violate both state and federal law.

Hate speech is defined as, speech that is intended to insult, offend or intimidate a person because of some trait (as race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin or disability). It is often targeted or deliberately used to express disdain for members that belong to a certain group, or that group as a whole. A well-known example of this is the “n-word”, a  racist term used by slave-owners and later prejudiced people to refer to and mock African-Americans. Similarly, other terms and insults have been attributed to other groups, such as homosexuals, members of certain religions, nationalities, and people with disabilities. In the past, hate speech occurred, before, during, or following a hate crime, which is essentially the same thing as hate speech, just being put into action. As society has evolved and acts of violence, like hate crimes, have been cracked down on by the government and become more socially and morally unacceptable, this is no longer the case, and many prejudiced individuals revert to using speech or other nonviolent ways to express their viewpoints to avoid legal consequences. 

Legally speaking, “hate speech” is not a crime and is protected by the First Amendment as a right, as long as it is not accompanied by a direct threat or violent action. Technically, a person can say whatever they want without legal consequence, unless it falls under one of the aforementioned categories that the Constitution does not protect. So, you can say whatever you want, but should you? Others have the right to be offended by, disagree with, and even argue with what you say, just as much as you have the right to say it. With the political unrest and divide the country is currently facing, it is likely that someone will combat your opinion, if it pertains to that sort of controversial subject matter, increasing the likelihood of a threat that could escalate to violence. Whether it is a direct threat or violent that immediately follows– hate speech it a catalyst for such things. Should it be protected?

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