Free speech, it’s one of the base principles of the modern world. Without it we wouldn’t be able to criticize and challenge ideas, nor would we be able to promote them. Our thoughts and opinions would be limited by those who had the most power, we would be living in an Autocracy and not a Democracy.
Yet for how vital free speech is, few people actually understand it. For the sake of this explanation I will focus on the United States rather than on other first world countries where free speech is further limited due to its ‘obscene and harmful nature.’
Let’s start with the First Amendment:
‘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.’
In order to explain this I’ll break it down piece by piece.
To start, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ This has two points in regard to religion, the first is that Congress can make no law allowing the intertwining of the state and a religion; the second is that Congress can make no law prohibiting people from believing something nor prohibit practicing their religious beliefs as long as they don’t cause harm to others.
For example, a man being interviewed for a position at the town hall can’t be asked a religious question as a criteria for the position, nor can that man be prevented from say, going to church on Sunday, unless it was for the intention of human sacrifice.
For the next section I’ve kept the line Congress shall make no law, as it helps to understand each point. It states, ‘Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’ This means that Congress can make no law that restricts a person’s right to speech, nor can Congress make a law that restricts the press’s ability to produce media as the press is essentially an extension of the people’s’ right to speak.
For example, you can say just about anything in a public location or publish anything except for a few exceptions, speech made to incite actions that would harm others, say by yelling fire in a crowed movie theater when there is no fire; and threats.
The final part states, ‘Congress shall make no law… [prohibiting/abridging] the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’ This means Congress can make no law that prevents people from peaceful protests, marches and the like, nor can Congress make any law that prevents people petitioning Government for change.
For example, anyone is allowed to march down the street with a sign that says ‘Cut Taxes,’ but no one can use said sign to smash the windows of the tax collectors office, no matter how much we all want to.
To put this into context for some people it means this. When someone is speaking at a University with permission from it, and their speech does not incite actions to harm others or threaten others, but you dislike the speech, you have the right to do several things. You have the right to make your own speech, detailing everything you see wrong with theirs, you have the right to peacefully protest outside the location where the speech is being held; that is all perfectly legal, that is all covered by the first amendment just as the speaker is.
But let me make somethings crystal clear:
- You do not have the right to obstruct someone from attending the speech, that is illegal.
- You do not have the right to destroy property as a form of protest, that is illegal.
- You do not have the right to incite violence, that is illegal.
- You do not have the right to threaten someone, that is illegal.
- You do not have the right to assault people for any reason, that is illegal.
Preventing someone from exercising their right to free speech in a public location is not a violation of the first amendment unless you are part of the Government; but it is illegal.