Freedom Of Speech, Freedom To Take Offense

16 09 2010

Several incidents in the news lately have caused me to reflect on the First Amendment and what it means for US citizens.  First, there was the incident with Dr. Laura repeatedly using the word ‘nigger’ on her radio show.  There is the Ground Zero mosque and the criticisms it has received.  Then there was Pastor Jones and his ludicrous koran burning.  And today I heard about a cartoonist that called for a ‘Draw Mohammed Day’ earlier this year that has now gone into hiding to protect herself from the backlash.

With all these issues, and many others, the First Amendment is often brought up.  Whether to justify someone’s actions or to complain about their rights being infringed upon or whatever.  There are two points I want to make in this post.  To make the first one I will first ask you to read the text of 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.”

The first point I want to make is that people invoke First Amendments rights without really understanding what it means and they wrongfully cry foul about their rights being violated.  The text of the amendment says that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…”  So, for example, when Dr Laura receives criticism for using the ‘N’ word on her show and she feels she needs to step down to regain her First Amendment rights, she is misinterpreting the First Amendment.  There is no law requiring her to resign because of what she said.  Indeed, there is no law requiring her not to use the ‘N’ word.  No First Amendment rights were violated in this case.

This brings me to my next point.  We may have freedom of speech in this country but we do not have freedom from the consequences of our speech or actions.  Everyone else in the country has the freedom to take offense to whatever you say or do.  Who is right and who is wrong is irrelevant.  If you say or do something that some people think is stupid be prepared for the consequences.  What the First Amendment guarantees is that the government will never pass a law that forbids you from saying stupid things.

Another important point to make is that even when you misinterpret the First Amendment, it does not apply outside the US.  This is particularly relevant in the islam-related incidents in the news.  If you disrespect the religion of Islam, expect its members to be offended and don’t expect them to abide by US law if they choose to retaliate in some way.

To conclude, let me quote Michael Shermer from his blog post on this same topic, “The government is not—and never should be—in the business of regulating stupidity or making laws respecting the free exercise thereof.”  People in the US are free to say what they want – and that is what makes America a great country – but you have to be willing to face the consequences.




One response

16 09 2010

I’m always surprised by how many people don’t understand the First Amendment. Didn’t we all have to learn about it in, like, sixth grade?

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