You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution offers some powerful protections: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom to create petitions about anything under the sun on change.org. I value each of those rights, and enjoy their exercise on a regular basis.

(It’s pretty much the most exercise I get.)

There seems to be a bit of public misunderstanding on the “freedom of speech” front, so I thought we’d take a short quiz. In which of the following scenarios was someone’s freedom of speech actually violated?

  1. A stand-up comedian makes a victim-blaming rape joke in his routine, and a feminist on Twitter calls him out.
  2. A stand-up comedian makes a victim-blaming rape joke in his routine, and is not re-hired by the club for any future gigs.
  3. A stand-up comedian makes a victim-blaming rape joke in his routine, and unhappy fans start a campaign mailing pig hearts to his home address.
  4. A woman who is a painful caricature of “traditional” southern values is revealed to be an unapologetic racist, and is fired from her (non-government) job.

Correct answers: NONE OF THE ABOVE. To be sure, there may be other issues here — perhaps misuse of the mails if the hearts are not properly packaged — but not freedom of speech.

To clarify: freedom of speech is about stopping the government from making laws that infringe on your desire to say whatever stupid shit you want, NOT about other people or private entities being unhappy about what you say. Last I checked, feminists were not a government agency*, and neither is the Food Network. You can get back on stage and make your rape “joke,” and you will not be forcibly removed from the club by armed thugs from the Federal Commission of Women on Twitter. Jezebel will not freeze your assets, or impinge on your right to vote.

Just wanted to clear that up.

*Unfortunately. 

14 Comments

  1. Bang on. A1 does not scope to private actions between individuals. Just to balance the argument, though, it doesn’t give you the right to make a dick of yourself without consequence. But, if that comedian had of stood up on stage and incited that audience to go out and rape women, or men, or whatever, then the government could bust the comedian’s ass and then they’d be checking out their rights under the 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th Amendments, amongst others.

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  2. Great post. When it comes to freedom of speech, “tricky” barely begins to describe most peoples’ understanding of how this works. I remember a little while back when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church’s petition to have a lower court’s judgment overturned based on a violation of their 1st Amendment rights to assemble and speak freely. At first I was a bit shocked, but after actually reading the transcripts I found myself agreeing unequivocally with the court’s decision regardless of my absolute disgust at the Church’s (sic) message. The reason for the reversal, if I remember correctly, had to do with 1) the fact that the Church members were on public property adjacent to the graveyard and not on the graveyard property itself, and 2) the Church members were not specifically directing their comments (sic) towards any of the people involved in the soldier’s funeral.

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  3. Correct. The sub-clause of the First Amendment is often “Freedom to be an asshole, an idiot and/or an ignorant bigot.” Unfortunately there is not an Amendment to protect against assholes. Or bigots. That is making light of a heavy topic, but I agree with you.

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    1. Yeah. I mean, if you’re in Texas, maybe you could spin the “stand your ground” law to justify shooting an asshole, but you’d need a really imaginative judge.

      *Note: I do not actually advocate shooting anyone, even assholes.

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  4. First Amendment issues have always angered, frustrated, enlightened me. I am glad that the ACLU protects this, I don’t always personally agree with who they fight for (ie Skin Head parade through a predominantly Jewish community) but they are fighting to keep free speech free. I think that what happened to Paula Dean was ok, she crossed a line her network did not like, they did not renew her contract. If you don’t like what Chick-fil-A stands for, don’t eat there. Speak out against the injustices around you but know that EVERYONE has that right.

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