The right to free speech is the political right of an individual to express and communicate his or her opinions or views without fear of persecution. The First Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights, grants individuals this right. It is considered one of the natural rights of human beings; the right to free speech is intrinsic to our nature, and not simply granted to us by the government or state. Many have argued that the government has no right to determine what does or does not constitute free speech, and that the state should not have the power to limit free speech.
While the law affords an individual the freedom to express their opinions and ideas, in practice, free speech is not that simple. In some instances, individuals who exercised their right to free speech face consequences for their actions, not just from the State, but from other individuals and fellow citizens. In recent years, many laws have been passed that, in the eyes of some infringe upon the right to free speech.
For example, the First Amendment states that:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
The second part of the statement, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” may be applied to prayer in schools. Public schools are not allowed to conduct school prayer sessions, ironically, on the basis of the first part of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” While the main intent of the First Amendment seems to be pretty clear, differing interpretations of it have generated political conflict.
The right to freedom of speech does not cover all communication; certain types of speech or communication are deemed unlawful or unacceptable, and may not be defended by citing the right to free speech. Examples of these include:
- Publication of classified information: While the disclosure of classified information in general may not be illegal, some laws may criminalize the disclosure of certain categories of classified information; other laws may criminalize the disclosure of classified information under specific circumstances or conditions.
- Copyright infringement: the act of infringing on a copyright holder’s exclusive rights to display, reproduce, or distribute a copyrighted work.
- Defamation or slander: the act of communicating an oral statement to a third party that attributes negative qualities to an individual, product, or organization.
- Libel: similar to defamation or slander, but applies to written statements.
- Obscenity: covers topics and subjects considered taboo by society, such as pornography.
- Sedition: refers to actions and speech that encourage insurrection and rebellion.
Some people have argued that true, pure free speech is not possible within the confines of human society. There will always be a certain boundary society will want to preserve, for the purpose of preserving order, or to quell elements that it deems unwanted from the fold.
However, it is important, every now and then, for revolutionaries to speak up, and cross the borders that have been drawn outlining free speech. Without individuals willing to such risks, society runs the risk of devolving into a mindless mass of drones, unable to speak up for fear of reprisal.
So, is speech really free?