Posted in Commentary, Lessons Learned, Politics

Free Speech: It’s not what you think it is, and if you were the patriot you claim to be, you’d know that already

So here’s a thing that happens a thousand times every day, and twice as often on the internet (where it’s much harder to backpedal something that’s in print and instantly available to 6 billion people):

Person 1: I express my strong opinion about something possibly controversial (but not always) in conversation, on Facebook, on my blog, in a staff meeting, at Thanksgiving dinner among my family members.

Person 2: I express that Person 1 is kind of an asshole for holding that opinion, for the following enumerated reasons, possibly including that it’s racist, or sexist, or economically elitist, or your privilege is obviously showing, or it’s none of those things specifically, but you sound like a jerk when you say it, and here’s why. Thought you should know, in case you didn’t realize that you were being an asshole.

Person 1: I have a right to my opinion, and you have no right to censor me! I have a right to free speech! And there are 4 other people at this table/60 other readers at my blog/8 million other eaters who love a certain brand of chicken sandwiches who agree with me, so quit whining. There are more of us than there are of you, and besides, I have a right to be an asshole.

Person 2: Well, I guess you do, but you know what? I think you’re wrong, and I don’t like assholes, so I’m not going to see your movies/buy your products/frequent your establishment, and I’m going to tell all my friends to do likewise unless you straighten up according to my lights. How do you like that?

Person 1: Free speech! Free speech! You deleted my comments! You’re oppressing me! You’re censoring me! I am the world’s most persecuted asshole! I don’t know why you have to be so hostile! How dare you?

Person 2: I dare, because I, um, have free speech, too?

Person 1: You shut up right now about it, crybaby; I’m going to say what I want, because I have free speech.

This is usually the point in the argument where I get stabby. Because while you may have a putative right to free speech (and I’ll get to that in a moment), what you never, ever have the right to is free speech without consequences.

First of all, no American has the right to unlimited freedom of speech in all settings and among all auditors. And I’m not even talking about how you’re not allowed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. The freedom of speech everyone is always freely speechifying about is that generally understood to be guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, kicking off the Bill of Rights. Let’s take a look at that for a moment, shall we?

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.

Congress is not allowed to make laws abridging your free speech (or any of the other freedoms mentioned). That’s it. Nobody else is required to let you say whatever the hell you want to say whenever you want to say it; you are not guaranteed that right by any official document anywhere, nor does common sense suggest it’s a good idea.  Your mom doesn’t have to let you sass her due to your sacrosanct freedom of speech. Nobody is required to let you argue with them on their blog. No person is required to let you say rude shit to them on the bus lest they infringe on your freedom. No business is required to let you preach in their parking lot. No one is required to let you have your say from whatever platform they happen to control. If you request access to that platform, and the owner thereof says “Oh hell no,” that’s just tough noogies.  You can build your own platform if no one else wants to aid and abet your message.  That is your one and only option.

This is true of any of the freedoms mentioned in the First Amendment. I don’t have to let every Jehovah’s Witness who comes to my door in and listen politely to their testimony in respect of their freedom of religion. I don’t have to publish insulting comments by random drive-by blog readers on my blog in the name of fairness. I don’t have to cooperate with the press in their coverage of my spectacularly public personal tragedy. I don’t have to let Hare Krishnas gather on my lawn to shake their tambourines. I can censor and abridge at will.

No, really. Because I am not the United States Congress.  (You can tell, because I have integrity and better hair.)

That said, you’re perfectly welcome to speak freely wherever and on whatever topics you wish to. You can scream hate at me on the street. You can enjoy your Confederate flag sticker on your pickup. You can announce to all and sundry that you don’t like people who are gay, and you don’t mind anyone knowing. You can wax vitriolic about the dubious quality of the show Firefly, and how glad you were it was canceled.  What you cannot mandate is that I acknowledge, accept, or like what you have to say.

Plenty of people avail themselves of this freedom. But where they go wrong is when they act so shocked, hurt, and baffled when other people respond to their speech with speech of their own, condemnatory speech, because as any idiot would know, Firefly was an awesome show, with a great cast of actors, brilliant writing, and it died an untimely death still mourned by its fans.

If you’re going to speak your mind, and think of this as your right, then fine. Have at it. But you had better prepare yourself for whatever response you get. Because all those other people responding? They get to speak their minds, too. And if you feel bad about it, feel hurt by their anger, feel “censored” because you don’t feel you can speak your mind without people getting upset about it, feel angry and embarrassed because people tell you that you’ve said a damn fool thing, I’ve got two words for you: too bad.

You may, culturally if not legally, have an expectation of a right to “free speech. ” But what you don’t have a right to is “free speech without repercussions.” You don’t get to say what you want and expect everyone else to suck it up. You don’t get to say what you want and have it never affect your mood, your career, your relationships, your life. That’s not how this free speech thing works. And if you say asshole things, people get to call you on it. You don’t get to shut them down with insults and intimidation; well, you can try, but should have no expectation of success. You don’t have to change what you think or say; but you should have no expectation that it will be accepted by all, or even forgiven by most.  You have the right to free speech, and the concomitant duty to take responsibility for what you say, and the results of that speech.

You can’t use free speech to print an ad that shows a gunsight image on congressional districts and disavow all responsibility when one of those representatives, among others, is shot in the head.  You can’t go over to London and make disparaging comments about Olympic preparedness and expect the Mayor of London to smile and let you get away with it.  You can’t complain on Twitter that women weightlifters aren’t appropriately doing their natural-born duty as ladies to incite your boner and expect them to apologize and set to with the makeup and curling irons, or be surprised when they tell you to fuck off.  You can’t be a bigot, and expect people who believe in human rights to say, “Oh, that’s fine; we don’t mind if you discriminate against us and our friends daily.”  You can’t divorce the right and the responsibility, as so many seem to want to.

That means we may spend a lot of time arguing, loudly, but such is the cost of freedom. If you don’t want people getting upset about what you say, maybe you should think about it really hard before saying it, considering in particular WHY it might be upsetting to people who are not you. If you often find that a lot of folks are getting angry about the things you say, you might have to consider the possibility that it’s not them, it’s you. And if you still believe it, then say it and stand strong as the wave of dissenting opinion rolls over you. It’s entirely possible you might be on the wrong side of an issue; but at least you will demonstrate that you truly understand the concept of freedom of speech.  Which is more than I can say for most.



I've been doing some form of creative writing since 9th grade, and have been a blogger since 2003. Like most bloggers, I've quit blogging multiple times. But the words always come back, asking to be written down, and they pester me if I don't. So here we are. Thanks for reading.

11 thoughts on “Free Speech: It’s not what you think it is, and if you were the patriot you claim to be, you’d know that already

  1. Ah yes the free speech argument, of course we don’t have a constitution (and anyone who says Magna Carta is one is an arsehole!) and yet people do still talk about their right to free speech. Personally I want to hear all the bollocks, the bile, the bigotry, I want to know what is out there and from whom so I can be damn sure to avoid them when I’m drunk, or on a Monday morning, but principally so I know what arguments I need to have with myself to justify my own opinions. If I can’t justify my own opinions or defend them with reason and empirical evidence then it is questionable whether or not I should hold them. This does not rescind my right to free speech just, as you say, makes me look like another ignorant arsehole. What I lament particularly with the right-wing contingent is their seeming lack of coherency to be willing or able to explain things, at least to me. I’d love them to exercise their right.

    Democracy doesn’t flow at the barrel of a gun be that weapon physical or metaphorical.

    1. I agree; I prefer my jerks to be upfront about it, so I know how to deal with them, or more likely, avoid them. Stealth jerkitude is harder to combat.

      I don’t find it difficult to justify my own opinions, because I generally come down on the side of generosity, compassion, and justice; that pretty much covers it for me in most cases. It’s not about empirical evidence, necessarily; it’s not about numbers. It’s about approaching human problems with human decency, bugger the bean counters and smallness of people who don’t know how to share.

  2. This is so true. I also feel that people are a lot less kind or civil than they used to be, so the statements by these “free speechers” are often rude, cruel or show a stunning lack of empathy.

    1. Yes, there’s an inherent selfishness in someone insisting on having their say, and then griping when others want to respond to the contrary. It IS all about them, and they make that abundantly clear.

  3. In a bit of irony, given today’s post, I received a rude comment from someone (on a post from 1/7/10-how he dug that fossil up is beyond me) that was assholish to both myself and one of my commenters. And because (once again) I am not the US Congress, the comment will never see the light of day here, and the commenter’s been blacklisted. Teachable moments for the win! 🙂

  4. The Magna Carta is a constitution (sorry, I just wanted to be an arsehole for a day) also, don’t delete my comment or I’ll sue you in the Supreme Court for violating my First Amendment rights and the jury will take my side. Also, a real President should pass a law to stop all these people who say things I disagree with.

    Sarah Michelle Bachmann-Palin-Bunker

  5. While I’m never surprised by the quality and reason of your writing the fact that you managed to work a Firefly reference into this wonderful post on free speech put a MUCH needed smile on my face.

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