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.

14 COMMENTS

  1. This article was going all right until it became clear that it was an attack on Ben Shapiro and his supporters in the second to last paragraph – then it became clear that the author is not credible in the least. The idea that the supporters of Ben Shapiro would support any sort of violence that followed is a quite prejudiced generalization. Perhaps this author should be limited in their freedom of speech, because now the naive readers of this article might see that someone attended the Ben Shapiro event and assume they are a threat to society, but of course, that can be debated. I also think more than superficial sarcasm in the word “factual” is required to dispute the facts he brings to the table.
    Also, there are plenty of cases of violence coming from the people protesting Ben Shapiro, and slim to none coming from the people who simply want to attend the event. Perhaps the real people promoting hate speech are the leaders of the organizations protesting the event. In Salt Lake City, due to this event, violent Anti-Fa protesters were planning on attending and initiating violence. Jared Monroe infiltrated the organization and the police apprehended them. Don’t believe me? Check this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYlaLp2YKXQ
    I do not support Jared Monroe’s nickname. At all.

  2. Really hope Ms. Barney is not in law school, because the legal analysis is terrible. The examples used are pretty much all examples the courts have upheld as free speech.

  3. It’s no surprise that the author doesn’t mention any citations to case law, because her understanding of what the law says is fatally flawed. She writes, ” 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 is not correct. The law limits incitement to violence only when the violence is “imminent.” As the Supreme Court explained in 1969’s Brandenburg v. Ohio and 1973’s Hess v. Indiana, if the advocacy for the violent action is targeted “at some indefinite future time,” the speech is protected. So someone CAN simply run around saying a certain group of people should die, and that speech is fully legally protected.

    By the way: be careful, Autumn, how much power you argue should be given to the government. The Hess case was about an anti-war protester who was convicted of disorderly conduct for announcing, while police were dispersing the protest, that the protesters would take back the streets again. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction because . . . you guessed it: because he was advocating illegal action that was targeted at some indefinite future time, and that advocacy was protected First Amendment speech.

    You really want to hand the government the power to clamp down on more speech? Really?

  4. > When enforced, this means someone can’t simply run around saying a certain group of people should die

    That is simply not true.

  5. Dear Ms. Barney:
    Clearly, you have absolutely no understanding regarding the First Amendment. The Amendment actually DOES protect hateful and reckless speech. Moreover, it protects fiery rhetoric to the extent that the speech does not incite imminent violence or otherwise directs specifically persons to harm others. Ben Shapiro’s speech is protected, as is Richard Spencer’s.

    What a great many people do not understand is that the First Amendment acts as a buffer against GOVERNMENTAL abuse of free speech, not private actions to constrain speech. So, whatever Harvey Weinstein may have done to harass women, is not a First Amendment issue; i.e., there is no governmental involvement. But, when Richard Spencer wanted to speak at Florida State, the university could not restrain his right to speak. The reason is simple; Florida State receives governmental funds to advance its educational initiatives. Therefore, the government is involved in FSU, and cannot restrain free speech rights. This is true even if persons believe that Mr. Spencer will spew hateful ideas; the First Amendment simply DOES NOT prohibit hate speech. Neither does the Amendment prohibit discriminatory speech.

    Prior to your writing an article that is factually incorrect, ab initio, perhaps you should consult with attorneys that protect the reach of the First Amendment as their profession. Start with the First Amendment Lawyer’s Association. They will be able to assist you with preparing an article that is factually correct and does not pander what you, or others, may WANT the law to prohibit, but which the law, in fact, DOES NOT prohibit.

  6. I wish the student would have consulted with one of the many First Amendment scholars at the university, before publishing this wishy-washy drivel. This makes it seem like our free speech precedent provides absolutely no useful way of limiting or encouraging certain kinds of speech, without any case law support for that proposition. You were right that in order to understand this, you need more than a “superficial understanding” of the First Amendment, but unfortunately, that is all you revealed yourself to have. Prior restraints on political speech are some of the most suspect and are presumed to violate the First Amendment. They must survive strict constitutional scrutiny to be allowed, and that is exceedingly uncommon. Often, while you might not like what the person is saying (and I have nothing good to say about Shapiro) the solution is not to ban the speech, but to allow others to protest and speak out against it. Your news article attempts to justify prior restraints on speech so long as someone thinks that the speech *might* cause violence, but this is not the law.

  7. Claiming that words can be prohibited because they may provoke an unlawful demonstration is dead wrong, and the operational definition of the “heckler’s veto.” Such chilling of the right to Free Speech is most assuredly unconstitutional.

  8. Interesting that most of the calls to limit free speech because the content may upset someone so much he becomes violent, come from women. Women typically care more about a “safe” environment than a free one. In practical terms, this means more women support restrictions on free speech, on campus and – increasingly often – in all public discourse throughout the nation, under the slogan, “Hate speech is not free speech and should not be protected speech.” This plays into the hands of radical Leftists, like antifa, whose goal is to silence the speech of people they oppose – loosely categorized as “right-wing” – whether it’s neocon Ben Shapiro, white nationalist Richard Spencer, or even a social-scientist who writes about racial differences in intelligence, like Charles Murray. More women than men find these disparate people equally frightening, threatening, and deserving of being suppressed. These well-meaning but naive women probably won’t like where such a path eventually leads, to totalitarianism. Totalitarian societies are often safer than free ones, but few people, including women, want to live in them.

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