The First Amendment protects Americans’ rights of freedom of religion, press, speech, assembly and petition. It’s one of our nation’s most unique and important laws. Many countries don’t have the same freedoms, yet many of our people don’t realize what the actual amendment entails.
Yes, we have the right to say whatever we want, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for reckless and hateful speech. There have been many instances where people have spewed dangerous rhetoric and used the excuse of the first amendment to back them up. In reality, there are rules, and too few people understand the legal limitations enforced by our justice system to protect others’ safety. At the end of the day, the laws aren’t always as straightforward as they should be, meaning we, as a society, need to understand and maintain fair boundaries in instances where the law doesn’t have jurisdiction.
The freedom of speech is at times limited by law. For example, judges have ruled that a person may not use speech that will incite violence. When enforced, this means someone can’t simply run around saying a certain group of people should die, or attempt to start a violent riot against a population. This isn’t legal. Unfortunately, in many recent instances, people have gathered together to do just this: incite riots with the intention of hurting other people. This is not what the First Amendment protects.
Additionally, the First Amendment does not protect against obscenity. A prime example of this is sexual harassment. A person can’t go around harassing other people and saying sexually explicit words only to use the amendment as an excuse. Nor does the First Amendment protect discrimination; laws prohibit discrimination against other people.
Finally, an individual can’t use words to incite another person to cause harm. For example, in one sporting match, a soccer player said something horrible about the other player’s mother, and in reaction, the other player attacked him. Attacking someone is never okay, but the person who insulted the mother wasn’t protected under the First Amendment the way he thought he was. There were consequences for both players.
The law is fairly simple in the three situations cited above. But here’s where we have the biggest problem — there are rules surrounding freedom of speech that aren’t explicitly covered in the Constitution. Often the limitations appear so vague that a person could argue both sides. Such disagreement is how hate is spread. It’s how discrimination is spread. While we have court systems, they aren’t always perfect. The biggest thing people need to understand is that someone can’t say whatever he or she wants and claim to be protected by the First Amendment. Maybe that’s how they interpret the amendment, and maybe sometimes the law will back them up, but even if that’s the case, it isn’t how humanity should work.
An example of the ambiguity of the law is when people used their First Amendment right to protest or support Ben Shapiro when he visited campus. Shapiro’s opponents believed his words would promote violence against others, while his proponents supported him, his free speech, or even the violence that could ensue from his words. More than a superficial understanding of the First Amendment is needed to determine what his “factual” rhetoric was doing in that instance. Shapiro may have had the right to repeat the rhetoric that many other people were saying, but their effect, in the specific circumstances, extended beyond the words themselves. Anyone can say Shapiro’s words and be protected. But his words, in the situation, elevated hostility in listeners, inviting violence and degradation that shouldn’t be tolerated. This and similar situations beg the expansion of the laws surrounding the First Amendment
Words do hurt people and can be extremely powerful. Whether you are a “rightist” or “leftist,” words have the power to change the world. Our country is privileged to have many protected freedoms, but that doesn’t mean anyone can say whatever they want without reprimand. People should be protected, but there should be consequences for harmful expressions. The First Amendment was made to protect Americans, not to be used as a weapon to hurt others.